London Crucifixion – bringing the past to life or locking it in the past?

The iconic London location of Trafalgar Square was host to another set of iconic symbols yesterday (14th April) as the Wintershall Players performed a 90 minute ‘re-enactment’ of the crucifixion of Jesus. The two performances included a hundred actors, as well as live donkeys, horses and even doves.

LONDON, ENGLAND – APRIL 22 (2011): Actors perform The Passion of Jesus to crowds in Trafalgar Square, London. (photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Wintershall presents a number of these types of events, including the nativity (in a barn) and the Acts of the Apostles and reflects the vision of its founders, Peter and Alison Hutley to:

“advanc[e] the Christian story by sharing its message with those of all faiths and none, through high quality drama.”

The Wintershall productions certainly appear to attract vast numbers of people who, perhaps, ordinarily would not encounter the New Testament stories and The popularity of this type of event is unquestioned; previous performances attracted over 20,000 people. This year, it could boast an even wider coverage as it was also streamed on Facebook Live. Reading audience comments on social media suggests that many found it a powerful, emotional and deeply moving event.

The effectiveness (or not) of performances like these, as an evangelistic strategy, is a debate for another time and another place. However, what does really interest me is the way that they can highlight the challenges in trying to engage (or even) immerse the modern audience in an historic event. As a lecturer in biblical studies, it is a tension that I know only too well. The Bible is a collection of historical texts written in times very different  to our own. Nevertheless, it is a group of texts whose very preservation has been dependant upon its capacity to be understood and applied to the present audience – whether that is medieval monks, Elizabethan clergy, Renaissance scholars or urban shop assistants in a 21st century mall.

History should not just be for the past

The first year biblical studies module I teach at at Newman introduces students to some of the ‘classical’ literary-historical reading approaches. Initially, some of the students find it a little strange (even threatening). Familiar stories (particularly those from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament) heard in church or school assemblies take on very different aspects. However, by the time we are rattling through Redaction Criticism to take a healthy look at Textual Criticism, interests (for the most part) are piqued. Focusing on the Hebrew literature in their literary and historical contexts helps us to understand the New Testament writers better; their selection and use of the texts. In fact, by the time we get to the final third of the module, where we begin to explore some contextual approaches, there can be a bit of a resistance.

Students see the value (and importance) of carefully identifying the historical nature of the texts in order for us to understand them. Some of them even get quite excited about the discoveries to which this type of reading can lead. In fact, I am often surprised that, at this point in the course, even those used to the more contextual approaches of devotional reading need to be reminded that, as important as it maybe, understanding the minor prophets only in terms of their historical nature can actually be counter productive. Historical criticism has a habit of locking the text in the past. What good is a Bible today that only relates to the hill country of Iron Age II Judah that Amos knew? Or what is the value (as a biblical text) of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, if they are only applicable and relevant to a 1st century Corinthian?

We listen with different ears

I am reminded of these conversations when I look at the pictures of the  Wintershall Trafalgar Square Passion. Although, I applaud the effort and the creative (and organisational) skill behind it – and being a Bible geek I definitely love seeing ways in which these texts are brought to life – there is something that makes me slightly uneasy about it?

I think Peter Macdiarmid’s image (above), that juxtaposes one of the Trafalgar Square lions and the crucifixion scene with the city background, encapsulates it. Although not in the league of Mel Gibson’s, harrowing, The Passion of the Christ, care has been taken to create what would appear to be a ‘realistic’ crucifixion, complete blood and bruises and vicious Roman brutality. Many of the news outlets covering the performance note the gruesome and gory spectacle. There is nothing at all wrong with that. Those are all essential elements to the crucifixion accounts. If it were in some way ‘prettied up’ there (rightly) would have been howls of protest from the likes of me charging them with sanitising the historical event. Nevertheless, our pursuit for historical verisimilitude has its own dangers – particularly when there is also a knowing use of contemporary social and cultural landmarks, like Trafalgar Square and the city of London. No one, least of all the organisers, have sought to claim that they can recreate Roman Period Jerusalem in the middle of 21st century London. But, nevertheless, sometimes we can forget that. And in doing so, we can forget that we watch with different eyes and listen with different ears. We can forget that the internal and external reference points through which we make sense of what we experience are different.

Who are the Pekahs of today?

One of the lessons we learn in that first year course (and subsequent ones) is that, studying the historical context of a text is one thing, reading the text in that context is an altogether different, if not impossible, challenge. One of the texts we explore is Isaiah 7: 14:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

After disentangling it from its later New Testament use, we note the environment in which it was created; the Syro-Ephraimite War of 734/5 BCE. That might be very interesting (particularly when then exploring Matthew’s use  of it), but it still can take us only so far. We might understand this passage as part of an 8th century BCE text, but we can never read (or understand) it as an 8th century Israelite. For us, the name ‘Assyria’ holds no dread. There is no sense of betrayal or confusion when we read the name ‘Pekah’ or ‘Ephraim/Israel’. Unless we are facing immediate invasion and suffering, the text remains locked in the past. Let’s be honest, hands up all those for whom ‘Pekah’ and ‘Rezin’ are just vague foreign sounding words that hold absolutely no significance whatsoever. That is what trying to be historical does – it reminds us of the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’. That what we are studying is not about today. We might be tempted to try to approximate with more current figures; but then who is the Assyria of today; who are the Pekahs, who are the Rezins? We can never encounter these texts are there first users did.

Jesus as a Hipster cover of Newsweek (09/04/2012)

The chimera of authenticity

Of course this is not unique to the Bible and biblical studies. The question of ‘authenticity’ and ‘recreating an authentic audience experience’ has dogged the heritage industry for years. Can one really experience what it was like to be a child in a Victorian classroom (no matter how convincingly terrifying the actor playing the school mistress is) or what a it was like in the stable yard of a medieval castle (no matter the ingenious aromas and clamorous soundtrack)? We might be able to listen to Mozart being played upon Mozart’s very own piano, but we still won’t be able to listen to it with 18th century ears.

More importantly, the problem is that attempts at historical verisimilitude rather than make the message relevant (even in the middle of London) can have the opposite effect. History can create a comforting distance between us and the narrative. It can remind us that we are (fortunate) onlookers, not participants. It might contain buckets of gore, but that sense of distance that history creates makes it bearable. An awareness of the gap of history between us and it has a capacity to anaesthetise. We can look the Roman Centurion in the eye and boo him. We don’t know any Sadducees, so they’re all evil cowards. We don’t know any Pharisees and so for us they become pantomime villains and arch-hypocrites. A sense of history (bad history) can make us naive; it can smooth out of the past the messiness and inconsistencies that confound our lives today; the past becomes a world without shade and ambiguity – a world painted only in primary colours… or even just black and white.

Roman soldiers in 21st century London

For me, that is what the sight of the Roman soldiers in 21st century London does. It reminds me that this is the past. What a different story it would have been if Jesus (and those with him) was portrayed being killed by men (and why not women too?) dressed in security-issue fatigues? But even then that would have been hugely problematic. Most of us in the UK are privileged enough to have very little to fear from our security forces (apart from the odd speeding ticket). We don’t experience the icy dread at the sound of their approach or the paralysing fear when they look in our direction.

Modern Crucifixion by Frederick S. Wight (1933)

This is one of the reasons I find modern re-tellings of the story of Jesus far, FAR more interesting. They are fraught with difficulties and I’ve yet to find one that I really like, but I have to admit that they pack much more of a emotional and visceral punch, and they can also be helpful in highlighting historical aspects of which I wasn’t aware. It makes us ask questions that very few people today want to ask. What would Jesus dress like? A Jesus in a hoodie or a Jesus in a suit are significant cultural statements – even in dress-down Britain, we still label one another by the clothes we wear. Even more importantly – if Jesus was alive today, who would be the ones to kill him?

I totally accept that these questions do not really concern Wintershall- and I have absolutely no quarrel with what they are doing. Their aim is, as far as I understand, primarily evangelistic and evangelism is (today) very much focused on an individual encounter and response to the message. It is just that we need to be aware of the wider issues. We might be moved by a spectacle. That spectacle might be a highly effective tool to convey a much deeper message. I am also prepared to accept that some people might truly believe that God has ‘touched’ them through that spectacle. But it is, nevertheless, a spectacle. If the passion of Christ is dependant on Roman soldiers and donkeys and ancient Palestinian costumes, I am not sure that we’ve properly grasped what the Evangelists were trying to tell us…




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