On the evening of Palm Sunday, Fox aired “The Passion,” a semi-live Tyler-Perry-hosted-and-narrated depiction of Jesus’ journey to the cross. Unlike Mel Gibson’s cinematic take on the story, notable for its Aramaic-dialogue authenticity, Fox’s took a far different approach, plopping the New Testament figures onto the streets of twenty-first-century New Orleans, clothing them in modern garb, and curiously filling their mouths with songs written by the likes of Tears for Fears and Hoobastank.
Likewise, while Gibson’s “The Passion” was unique in its R-rated brutality, the Fox production chose to have the host describe the crucifixion instead of visually depicting it, a decision that would have easily been chalked up to cowardice had Perry not offered up a very faithful and direct confession of Christ’s forgiving, atoning sacrifice—a rather shocking thing to witness being broadcast on national television.
While Holy Week was certainly a wise time to pique the interest of viewers, especially Christian ones, the ratings of the program were rather lackluster, at least in comparison to other live musical events that have become all the rage with networks lately. Although this could have been due to competition from programs like “The Walking Dead,” it appears that your average Christian wasn’t terribly interested in Fox’s take on the last couple chapters of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
While I don’t think that there’s one universal reason for this, here are two suggestions that might help explain the rather tepid response.
It’s Too Late for TV Networks to Win Christians’ Trust
Imagine that, a few months ago, you walked into the fellowship hall of your average salt-of-the-earth, Bible-believing American congregation and told people that the Fox network was going to put on a production of the Passion narrative with its own unique spin, then you asked them to guess what that unique spin would be.
I’d imagine that 99 percent of those parishioners would assume that Fox would depict Jesus as an out-and-proud, Republican-bashing social justice warrior. I doubt anyone would have guessed that the unique spin would be “Well, Jesus is still divine and wins salvation for the world and says the stuff he said in the Bible, but he’s going to wear skinny jeans and sing a couple secular songs that kind of seem like they’re religious.”
In other words, the level of trust Christians have for Hollywood and TV networks is quite low. After several decades of depicting Christians as stupid, judgmental, paranoid lunatics, and after repeatedly running the beloved characters of the Bible through Hollywood’s ever-so-original “what if these guys really weren’t so righteous after all” cynicism machine, Christians now view anything TV networks or movie studios have to offer the way Charlie Brown views Lucy inviting him to come kick the football—except that, instead of yanking the pigskin away at the last second, in this example, Lucy keeps tackling you to the ground and making another “Law and Order: SVU” episode depicting you as a Bible-thumping child molester.
So even though Fox offered up a production of a biblical story in good faith (no pun intended), I imagine that, for many of the faithful, it was simply too little, too late. The trust is gone. We’re always going to assume that anything produced by the people who never seem to tire of mocking our Savior is not going to honor him.
In response to the invitation to watch a program that promised to put the words of pop-rock songs into the mouths of our Lord and his saints, I’d also imagine that many Christians essentially responded with the words of legendary pop-rock lyricist Bernie Taupin: “Baby, you’re crazy if you think that you can fool me, because I’ve seen that movie too.”
Many Christians Don’t Want to Watch Praise Band Piety
What does church look like? If you were to describe Christian worship in a few words, what words would you use? I would imagine that, for most people a decade or two ago, their answers would be things like “Church looks like a room with pews and an organ, candles and artwork depicting Jesus, and worship looks like pastors in robes inviting people to bow their heads, fold their hands, and pray.”
Even as churches began, a generation or so ago, to trade their hymnals for projection screens and their organs for praise bands, “church” and “worship” have been concepts steeped in ancient and historical dress in American Christendom’s collective consciousness.
But after viewing “The Passion,” I question whether this is still the case. While Jencarlos Canela may not have looked like the traditional tunic-and-sandals-wearing Jesus, he looked, and emoted, exactly like the average ripped-jeans-wearing, pompadour-sporting pastor who saunters around the stage at GraceVision: The Gathering, or whatever the hip nondenominational church in your town is called.
Likewise, as I watched audience members closing their eyes and lifting that one testifying arm as the lights from the stage pulsed and glimmered and as the soaring score of the modern orchestra wafted through the air, something that happens on a weekly basis in many “contemporary” churches throughout the nation, I realized “The Passion” wasn’t really airing a revolutionary take on the biblical account. Rather, it was just broadcasting a more theatrical version of a modern evangelical service, which indicated to me that, in the mind of the public, this is now the default example of Christian piety and worship.
The reason Fox wasn’t broadcasting a semi-theatrical performance of Bach’s “St Matthew Passion” from St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans was because that’s not what church looks or sounds like to the average American anymore.
Perhaps this impression is more driven by paranoia than proof, but that’s more or less my point. Many in Christendom are concerned about the utter lack of substance in modern Christian music and the churches that employ it.
We’re concerned that vague “I feel the power of an awesome something” praise songs don’t speak clearly of Jesus or his saving work and therefore aren’t as good at preserving and strengthening our faith as is the church music that has stood the test of time. We’re worried that Christians are set up to fail when they become convinced that the work of the Holy Spirit is not so much to take what is Christ’s and declare it to you by speaking his words of forgiveness, but to make you feel a sense of euphoria through a deftly executed light show and a song that might as well be Katy Perry singing a love ballad to her boyfriend.
So when Fox’s promotion of “The Passion” featured Jesus singing a song that was quite literally a Katy Perry love ballad written for her boyfriend, it shouldn’t be terribly surprising that the same Christians who deliberately drive past churches of this nature every week to find something more faithful did the same thing whilst holding the Comcast remote. When Fox’s production looked and sounded to us like evidence that this grievous, substance-free praise band piety was now being cemented as the dictionary definition of Christian worship, it shouldn’t come as a shock that we didn’t want to watch the coronation.
As critical as this sounds, though, I don’t mean to disparage Tyler Perry, anyone else associated with the production, or anyone who enjoyed it. I’m glad they had the courage to do it. In fact, I’m happy if anyone wants to mount a relatively faithful rendition of the Passion narrative, and I certainly don’t begrudge those who might not share my artistic or ecclesial sensibilities just because they had the pull with Fox to mount a production of their vision and I didn’t.
But if Fox or any other networks want to lure in the kind of Christian viewers who skipped this incarnation of the Passion, I’d recommend two things for another biblical broadcast in the future. First, instead of running promos with 30-second excerpts from the show, networks should run 3- to 5-minute minute ads apologizing for how they’ve treated Christ and his Christians in the past and signing a legally binding contract requiring them to donate $200 million to the Little Sisters of the Poor if they can’t resist their temptation to “improve” the Word of God this time.
Second, networks should at least explore the possibility of getting Faith Hill to sing “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” in front of a live audience. If there’s simply not enough demand for actual Passiontide hymns, however, maybe they can convince U2 to write the show’s soundtrack. After all, Bono has spent several decades building up goodwill in the Christian community and the band has already written Judas’ big solo number.
Plus, that could kill two birds with one stone—both fixing TV’s biblical adaptation ratings problem and also convincing the Episcopalians that they can go back to regular church now and quit it with those awful U2charists already.