I have long been drawn to the idea of presenting the Gospels in drama. The Gospel is a story: the life, death and resurrection of a particular man, Jesus of Nazareth. When this man taught, he more often than not used stories. Too often, however, Jesus is presented to the world as an idea, as in “the son of God who died for our sins.” Even those of us who are within the church tend to encounter Jesus’ story in bits and pieces; rarely, if ever, getting the whole flow of his story. Every good story contains a conflict, and the conflict that underlies Jesus’ story — his struggle with the entrenched religious and political powers — is rarely grasped as we hear the bits and pieces.
A couple of years ago we did what I thought was a wonderful version of the Gospel of Mark. I took the actual text of Mark which, of the four Gospels uniquely lends itself to dram since it is so very action oriented. Mark presents the story as a rapid sequence of events with little time spent with Jesus’ teachings. I edited out perhaps a sixth of the text for the sake of enchancing the dramatic flow (for instance, recording only one of the two descriptions Mark gives of the multiplication of the loaves and the fish), and the whole production took place in just over an hour. In theater-in-the-round style 25 actors from our church came together as though we were the early Christian community gathering in secret by candlelight to tell and act out the sacred story. A small group of drummers played softly in the background to heighten the emotions of the scenes.
To me, one of the challenges of presenting the Gospels is the problem of how to present Jesus himself. Inevitably the audience will chafe against the portrayal of an actor. The way I solved this problem in my mind was to have the role of Jesus continually shift from actor to actor. Through the device of a single, white stole (a simple strip of fabric) which was passed from actor to actor every couple of minutes, each actor in the company, whether male and female, young and old, took a turn portraying Jesus in the narrative. By doing so, we quickly got past the distraction of “this actor doesn’t fit my image of Jesus”, while at the same time conveying the concept that all of us within the Christian community are all called to embody Jesus in our own distinctive manner.
The production required a great deal of work, but it seemed successful on a number of levels. The audience and especially the actors engaged the stories on a very deep level, grappling with the mystery of Jesus. The company of actors shared in the communal experience of creating something beautiful and much larger than our little selves.
So I’ve been thinking about the possibility of doing something similar again. I rarely like to do the same thing twice, so the challenge for me is how to similarly achieve the sense of encountering the Gospel story in a shared theatrical production without feeling like we’re simple repeating what we did before.
I am drawn to the Gospel of Luke, which is a good deal longer than Mark, and includes some of the most powerful stories Jesus told himself (including, the Good Samaritan, the prodigal son and elder brother). I thought I could focus on material not included in Mark’s Gospel. Luke’s Gospel, unlike the other three, begins with Jesus preaching in his hometown of Nazareth, proclaiming release to the captives, and nearly getting stoned to death right at the outset because he is so threatening to the status quo.
Would I stick with the text directly from the Bible, or would I add some interpretive perspective? Would I re-write the story, putting it in contemporary language and obviously adding my own interpretive slant all the more? Should it include the three opening chapters — the birth stories of Jesus and John, Jesus at 12? Is there some other way to get around the Jesus actor problem other than having the role continually shift?
I put this all out there inviting people to share there thoughts on the whole process.