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The Trouble with Jesus

Dramaturgy vs. The Prince of Peace

Warning: this essay contains atheism - devout believers should proceed at their own risk.

I have nothing against writing plays about Jesus, I'm just saying they won't work, unless the play is all about Jesus. It can't be about human stuff. Unless your Jesus is the non-god version. But that leads to other problems.

If you have a play with a god in it, it changes thing. Just ask the Greeks - they used to have their plays end with the old deus ex machina (God in a machine) - they actually had an actor in a contraption to make them look more god-like. The god would make everything come out alright in the end. Nowadays deus ex machina is not considered a satisfying method of ending a play. Although even Shakespeare pulled that one, in As You Like It. But Shakespeare always gets some slack that contemporary writers are not cut.

Lately my writers group has been plagued by plays about prostitutes and plays containing Jesus. I have problems with the prostitute plays too but that's another essay.

The authors of the Jesus plays insist on writing what they consider realistic stories about humans, which just happen to have Jesus in it. This flat out does not work, because even though many of the writers are not devout Christians, their view of Jesus comes directly from the Bible. And the Bible considers Jesus a god. That throws everything off. That's like writing a kitchen-sink drama and one of the characters reveals that the wise teacher in her school is in fact Superman. There is no way that the play cannot become about Superman. Ain't nobody care about yo kitchen sink when Kal-El from Krypton is in town. (Kal and Jesus were both sent to Earth by their fathers - did you ever notice that? For an even better connection between God and superheroes, see Tom the Dancing Bug's God-Man series.)

In spite of the deus ex machina problem, the Greeks did manage to get their gods into their plays often with no harm to the focus of the story. And the reason for that is because although they had superpowers, the Greek gods behaved like human beings. They were horny, jealous, vengeful, petty - all those things that make the most popular drama. Jesus, on the other hand, is inscrutable. He has superpowers but lets himself be killed by a rabble. Jesus advised people to pay their Roman taxes. The Greco-Roman gods didn't care about accountancy much.

The reason for the difference? Because as far as we know, none of the Greco-Roman deities were based on a real person. Jesus the Christ is. Although the Bible considers Jesus a god, there are traces of Jesus the guy left in Bible accounts which makes Jesus schizophrenic. Because the real Jesus, Hebrew name Joshua bar Joseph, was not going for a kingdom of heaven - he was a military "messiah" working for a Jewish state on Earth.

I'll let anthropologist Marvin Harris, in his book Cannibals and Kings, from the chapter "The Secret of the Prince of Peace" take it from here:

Although the gospels clearly intend to deny Jesus the capacity to carry out violent political acts, they preserve what seems to be an undercurrent of contradictory events and sayings which link John the Baptist and Jesus to the military-messianic tradition and implicate them in the guerilla warfare. The reason for this is that by the time the first gospel was written, nonpeaceful events and sayings which had been attributed to Jesus by eyewitnesses and unimpeachable apostolic sources were widely known among the faithful. The writers of the gospels shifted the balance of the Jesus cult's lifestyle consciousness in the direction of a peaceful messiah, but they could not entirely expunge the traces of continuity with the military-messianic tradition. The ambiguity of the gospels in this regard is best demonstrated by arranging some of Jesus' most peaceful statements in one column and the unexpected negations in another:
Blessed are the peacemakers. (Matthew 5:9) Think not that I am come to send peace on earth, I come not to send peace but a sword. (Matthie 10:34)
Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:39) Suppose ye that I come to give peace on earth? I will tell you nay, but rather division. (Luke 12:51)
All that take the sword shall perish with the sword. (Matthew 26:52) He that hath no sword, let him sell his garments and buy one. (Luke 22:36)
Love thine enemies; do good to them that hate you. (Luke 6:27) And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them out of the temple ...and poured out the changer's money and overthrew the tables. (John 2:15)
I should also note at this point the obviously false construction traditionally given to what Jesus said when he was asked if Jews ought to pay taxes to the Romans: "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's." This could mean only one thing to the Galileans who had participated in Judas of Galilee's tax revolt - namely, "Don't pay." For Judas of Galilee had said that everything in Palestine belonged to God. But the authors of the Gospels and their readers probably knew nothing about Judas of Galilee, so they preserved Jesus' highly provocative response on the mistaken assumption that it showed a generally conciliatory attitude toward the Roman government...
As I indicated at the beginning of this chapter, the image of Jesus as a peaceful messiah was probably not perfected until after the fall of Jerusalem. During the interval between Jesus' death and the writing of the first gospel, the groundwork for a cult of peace messianism was laid by Paul. But those for whom Jesus was primarily a Jewish military-messianic redeemer dominated the movement throughout the period of expanding guerilla activity leading up to the confrontation of 68 AD. The practical setting in which the gospels were written - gospels which depict a purely peaceful messiah - was the aftermath of the unsuccessful Jewish war against Rome. A purely peaceful messiah became a practical necessity when the generals who had just defeated the Jewish messianic revolutionaries - Vespasian and Titus - became the rules of the Roman Empire... it quickly became a practical necessity for Christians to deny that their cult had arisen out of the Jewish belief in a messiah who was going to topple the Roman Empire...
...I shall refrain from following out the chain of worldly events that eventually led to the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire. But this much should be said: When the Emperor Constantine took that momentous initiative, Christianity was no longer the cult of the peaceful messiah. Constantine's conversion took place in 311 AD as he led a small army across the Alps. Wearily approaching Rome he saw a vision of the cross standing above the sun, and on the cross he saw the words HOC SIGNO VINCES - "By this sign you will conquer." Jesus appeared to Constantine and directed him to emblazon his military standard with the cross. Under this strange new banner, Constantine's soldiers went on to win a decisive victory. They regained the empire and thereby guaranteed that the cross of the peaceful messiah would preside over the deaths of untold millions of Christian soldiers and their enemies down to the present day.

Now most people have never heard of Marvin Harris or this simple, well-researched approach to the Jesus cult and the Roman-Palestinian conflict at that time. Even those who don't believe that Jesus was a god think he was a nice, groovy peaceful guy. But as Harris points out, the only way you could think that about Jesus is to throw out all those parts of the Bible that reveal otherwise.

So if you present Jesus as just some guy, you have to account for why he said and did such inscrutable things. In which case, do you really need to burden yourself with an inscrutable character? What's the point of that? If you want to do a story about a political revolutionary, there are plenty of candidates - ones who haven't been the subject of posthumous god cults.

Then of course, there is the problem with presenting Jesus as a god, but with personal habits that vary from what many of the devout believe. A fatwah was issued by an Islamic group in England against Terrence McNally for his gay Jesus play Corpus Christi, and he also received death threats in the US.

The non-devout tend to forget that the devout think that Jesus still literally exists, up in Heaven, and if you piss him off on Earth you will pay for it after death - anything from a stern lecture to an eternity of torment, depending on which Christian denomination you belong to. This tends to make them nervous of anything, like Corpus Christi, they think might make Jesus angry.

However, the only successful theatre pieces about Jesus have been ones that have presented Jesus as a god: Godspell and especially Jesus Christ, Superstar. Although there was plenty of grumbling even about those works, (although Jesus is not portrayed as having a sex life, he was a bit too sexy for many believers' comfort) they both stick to the basic Gospel storylines. And they are pretty exciting stories - but the focus is on Jesus, always Jesus.

Maybe I will be proven wrong - maybe someone will write a successful theatre piece that has Jesus in a supporting-player role, and yet still a god. But if they do it seems unlikely that the devout would be happy with it - and then where's your audience?