Sending Jesus to high school

Sending Jesus to high school November 17, 2011

The TV show I would like to see — on MTV, or the N, or the CW — is simply this: Jesus Goes to High School. I wouldn’t call it that, of course, but that’s the whole idea, no more and no less.

The story would work due to the same dynamic that allows those contemporary reworkings of Shakespeare or Jane Austen to work in a high-school setting when they otherwise defy contemporary adaptation. High school is one place where hierarchical manners and strictly regimented behavioral codes like those of Shakespeare’s or Austen’s time still hold force.

A high-school setting also provides a good contemporary analog to the strict, hierarchical purity codes of first-century religion. High school is a place where clear rules govern one’s social standing, clean or unclean, acceptable or abominable. It is thus an ideal setting for portraying Jesus’ agenda of embracing the unclean, the outcast and the unrighteous and thus for retelling the old, old story in a way that would help us to see it with fresh eyes.

But that’s really only a secondary consideration. Denys Arcand’s beautiful film Jesus of Montreal took the story of Jesus and placed it in the context of the world of art and theater. In doing so, Arcand helped us to see that story in a new light, but I think that was only a side effect of his main theme, which was to allow Jesus’ story to help us to see the world of art and theater in a new light. Similarly, a TV show that told the story of Jesus in high school wouldn’t mainly be about helping us to better see Jesus’ story, but to better see high school.

This heart-breaking anti-bullying PSA gets at what I mean and why I want to see this story told (be warned — this includes harsh, hurtful language):

I want to see a story in which the last become first, the humble are exalted and the meek inherit something better. I want to see a story in which the outcasts and the despised hear some good news. I want to see a story with a preferential option for losers.

It would be best for this TV show to avoid a rigid, chapter-by-chapter rehashing of the Gospels. But take that story arc, borrow from that cast of characters — Peter, James, John, Judas, Thomas, Mary, Mary, Mary and Martha — and just follow where it leads.

What happens when you place that character in that setting? Take high school, and toss in someone like this:

He walks through social barriers and taboos as if they were cobwebs. People and practices other men were required to shun he embraces with an equanimity that infuriates the proper and observant in his culture. … His followers are not to aspire to the social register, but to seek out the forsaken. … No outcasts were cast out far enough to make him shun them — not Roman collaborators, not lepers, not prostitutes, not the crazed, not the possessed. …

That’s from Garry Wills’ What Jesus Meant, which I’d recommend as a resource for the writers of this hypothetical TV show and for anyone else interested in understanding or emulating this character.

I’d only insist on a few aspects of the original story that I think would need to be included for the show in one form or another:

1. She should do something amazing, possibly involving loaves, fishes and hungry people;

2. Near the end of the story, she has to die, alone, in disgraceful circumstances; and

3. The story doesn’t end there.

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