Before saying anything else, let’s just appreciate this fact: last night, in a time slot usually reserved for Will Forte pooping in a margarita pool, Fox spent two hours observing the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
If nothing else, the network’s much-hyped, Tyler Perry-hosted musical event “The Passion Live” presented the story with sincerity, reverence and creativity. It didn’t attempt to water down or re-invent the story; near the end, Perry talked openly about Christ’s death, salvation from sin and the hope of the resurrection. Was it gaudy, cheesy and messy in places? Absolutely. But the gospel was preached on live network television, and that’s a rare thing.
I don’t really know how to describe what “The Passion Live” was. There were vignettes of Christ’s life, set in modern day New Orleans, that went through the standard passion play stuff. Jencarlos Canela played Jesus, Chris Daughtry was Judas, Prince Royce was Peter, Seal was Pontius Pilate and if you squinted hard enough you could see Michael W. Smith as one of the disciples. The action would cut away from the story to a brightly lit set surrounded by gospel singers. Here, Perry would come out and narrate the story and Trisha Yearwood, as Mary, Jesus’ mother, would come out and sing. The event would also cut to a street reporter, who was following a giant illuminated cross carried by displaced Hurricane Katrina victims through the streets of New Orleans.
That’s a lot to cram into two hours, and it was admittedly a mess. Part parade, part musical, part megachurch, I don’t think it ever totally worked. Certain elements — interviewing suffering people on Bourbon Street as the cross passed, for instance — were powerful, but they were followed by other moments, such as Daughtry singing an Imagine Dragons song in an abandoned warehouse. I half-expected that scene to morph into the punch-dancing scene from “Footloose.” Perry’s narration was fine, even moving. But Yearwood’s songs fell flat; her distance from the rest of the action made it feel like special music in church, and I never really could identify her as a mourning Mary.
The vignettes of Christ’s final week were probably the strongest element. The passion narrative is inherently dramatic, and I thought the cast did a fine job treating the characters with sincerity and reverence. The choice of preceding the Last Supper with the Last Coffee or having Jesus buy loaves and fish from a food truck was odd, but it worked. And the trial in front of Pilate had undeniable power (even if the live crowd could have ended the show early by shouting “Jesus” instead of “Barabas”).
Probably the most controversial element was the decision to use modern songs to tell the Christ story. Sometimes that was an odd fit, as with singing Creed’s “Arms Wide Open” during the Last Supper, and other times — I’m thinking Seal singing “Mad World” — it was very affecting. And say what you will about using a Katy Perry song in a passion play; the resurrected Christ singing “Unconditional” from atop a 20-story building has undeniable power. At times, the production felt like it was written by that youth group friend who is convinced every band is secretly Christian. But at others, I was impressed at the way they used modern songs as a way to interpret the gospel story. The songs took on meanings I hadn’t thought of before.
It might sound like this review is all over the place, and that probably gives a good indication of the feelings of watching it. Sometimes I was so shocked by a choice that I made a snarky comment on Twitter. Other times, I was genuinely moved and impressed by the program’s creativity and sincerity. Whatever it was, it was never boring. And I never felt pandered to; there was always the feeling that they were trying something new and approaching the gospel story with creativity and respect. As commercial breaks blared the trailer for the abysmal-looking “God’s Not Dead 2,” I realized it could be much worse.
And yes, theologians can parse and complain that there wasn’t an explanation of the nuances of the atonement, that the film lacked a sufficient explanation of sin, or that the need to confess with our mouths and believe with our souls wasn’t preached. But I’d argue this production wasn’t made for theologians who are thinking too hard about this. Sometimes it’s okay to just present the narrative as told, to remember that this was also a historical event. In our attempts to fit everything into a doctrinal box and proof check evert fact and reference, we turn the gospel into a cold, intellectual doctrinal exercise and we lose sight of its power, emotion and reality.
For two hours on Palm Sunday, Fox allowed the gospel to be proclaimed. It was proclaimed messily, gaudily and bizarrely at times, but it was preached. For some, this is the first time they’ve heard the story. For others, it might have been a return to a story they cherished from their youth and were hearing again for the first time in ages. Maybe someone will have questions about its message of hope or why we’re spending the week celebrating one man’s death. Maybe this will bring searchers into church. I can’t fault it for that. Nor can I fault it for taking chances with its staging and creativity; maybe they didn’t all work, but sometimes that kind of bold creative failure is more intriguing than a calculated success. I’m glad to have seen this.
For those who missed it, “The Passion Live” will be available on Netflix Friday, March 25.