Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 74 (June/July 1997): 12-13.
Centurions ride through the audience on white Arabian horses, Pilate feeds his pet tiger while interrogating Jesus, and the Resurrection is accompanied by a light show and fireworks; let it never be said that Robert Schuller is intimidated by Disneyland just down the street. The "Glory of Easter" Passion Play at his Garden Grove Crystal Cathedral is an action-filled, dazzling-effects, cast of hundreds spectacle that even the custodians of Mickey could be proud of. Not only does it pack the house for the two weeks of its yearly run, but it reaches a national audience during Easter on Pay-Per-View cable television (and it’s available on video year-round from the Cathedral bookstore).
It’s quite a show. A monumental series of steps and platforms spreads across the auditorium’s front, transforming it to the markets, palaces, and holy sites of Jerusalem. Entering on a donkey, Jesus is greeted by biblical cries of "Hosanna" and extra-biblical dancing girls. He sparks a riot in the temple by overturning the tables of merchants, a very noisy affair punctuated by the squeals of an escaping pig. King Herod’s bacchanal (same dancing girls here as for Palm Sunday but with fewer veils) is lit by enough torches to strike fear into the heart of any fire marshal. Pontius Pilate is a vision of imperial splendor, and the women at the tomb are greeted by angels who "fly" forty feet above the audience. There’s a thunderstorm that rattles the rafters at the Crucifixion, an earthquake that shakes the foundation at the Resurrection, and smoke and blinding lights at the Ascension.
This hour and a half extravaganza is the work of Paul David Dunn, who wrote it, produces it, and directs it. Inventing "Vitelius," a centurion who reports on Jesus to Pilate, Dunn unites a conflation of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ final days and Resurrection into a convincing and moving drama. On a technical level, all of this is very well done indeed. Director Dunn moves his individual characters and crowds around Charles Linsanby’s huge set to great effect, never allowing the action to drag while clearly suggesting changes in locale and time. The choreography, so often painfully embarrassing in Christian productions, is here fully competent and well danced (if a bit unimaginative). The music is a serviceable mixture of pop Christian ballads and background orchestrations of the Vaughan Williams-goes-to-Hollywood type, and the costumes are handsome and historically convincing (even if not always historically accurate). The lighting is imaginative and dramatically effective and the angels really do look like they fly—both of these real achievements considering that the designers don’t have a proscenium with which to work. And the acting is first rate. The major roles are cast with highly talented professionals while the minor roles are carried by competent local men and women. Even the production office is efficient with tickets, helpful with press releases, and warmly polite.
As I said, it’s quite a show. But is it Christian?
While to the general humanist, the story of Jesus’ martyrdom might be one more moving tale of innocence unjustly punished, to the Christian it is a particularly painful confrontation with Sin—personal and corporate. This is the story of the Atonement, of how God gave Himself for our sin. Christianity is based upon the belief that Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, died for the sins of the world and was bodily raised again to life. It was as the means of the Atonement that John the Baptist introduced the Savior, and ever since it has been the way that the Church heralds him in worship and proclaims him in evangelism: "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world." No sin, no need for atonement. No atonement, no salvation. No salvation, no Christianity.
Traditionally, presentations of the Passion Story have been careful to stress the immediate relationship between the presenters of the story and its hearers. In liturgical readings, the congregation itself takes the role of the mob, forcing the congregants to recognize their culpability in the crucifixion. For his 1727 setting of the St. Matthew version of the story, Bach required what was probably the largest body of performers ever assembled north of the Alps (two orchestras, three choirs, and soloists) for didactic purposes; with performers ranged all around them, Bach’s listeners found that they were not mere observers of a moving story, but the cause of the tale, participants in it, and its beneficiaries. They were literally in the midst of it all.
Yet this is not the case with the Crystal Cathedral "Glory." Here there is no congregation participating in the action, reflecting on their responsibility in the torture and death of the Savior of the world. There is only audience, thrilled, amused, and perhaps even emotionally moved by the drama—but always distanced from it.
To enforce that distance, the Crystal Cathedral goes so far as to change the biblical text. While many of the Passion events are open to different interpretations, one of the things on which all the Gospel writers agree is the culpability of the mob in Jesus’ death. The mob demanded it. They howled for it. But in the Crystal Cathedral version, the mob never even mentions crucifixion. Instead, when Pilate comes to them with his offer to release one prisoner in accordance with custom, the mob merely demands the release of the murderer Barabbas. Jesus is marched off to his execution while the mob watches—silently.
But even more remarkable than this dramatic change in the biblical account is the Crystal Cathedral’s rewording of the Lord’s Prayer. The Garden Grove Jesus teaches his audience:
Our Father in heaven,
We know your holy name.
We ask that your kingdom come,
May your will be done
On earth just as it is in heaven.
Forgive us those who have wronged us.
Lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil.
For yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever;
And whatever you ask, believing in,
You will receive, and nothing will be impossible for you.
In Garden Grove, not only is the mob guiltless in Jesus’ death, but the very notion of personal responsibility for doing wrong—sin—is swept away. "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us" is replaced by the syntactically grotesque "forgive us those who have wronged us."
This brings us to the core of the problem presented by the "Glory of Easter." Schuller and his team are not to be condemned for the scale of their production. On the contrary they should be commended for technically doing it so well (if extravagance were a fault, we might as well condemn Bach and the townsfolk of Oberammergau too). The problem does not lie in the donkey, tiger, earthquake, and angels. It lies in the fact that by both dismissing the role of the observer’s sin in Jesus’ death and by removing the central role of the Atonement from the drama, the story becomes only one more tale of the suffering hero. Siegfried, King Arthur, John Henry—and Jesus of Nazareth. We are not participants in this story, compelled by it to self-examination and reflection upon the sinfulness of our own lives, a self-examination that leads to confession and repentance and the vow to live hereafter a more godly, righteous, and sober life.
In short, the Crystal Cathedral presents a passion that is Christian only in its contour, not its content. The broad outlines of the Gospel stories are maintained. This Jesus is kind and wise. He heals. He makes many people happy by loving them and telling them that they can have anything they want if they only believe. And he finally triumphs over a tragic end.
But so does Tinkerbell. This Jesus is little more than a cosmic pixie from Never-Never Land. He tells us to ask for bread, for safety, and promises us anything we want, "if we only believe." Fairy dust for everybody, and nothing is required—not that we forgive others, not that we acknowledge our own deep perversions and inextricable duplicities, not that we repent and take up a cross and follow him. Schuller’s spectacle is hugely entertaining. And it may even be uplifting and "empowering." But it’s not Christianity.
By offering the hope of healing and resurrection without shame and repentance, the Crystal Cathedral’s Passion Play presents a fraudulent gospel, a kind of cheap grace tarted-up by high-tech smoke and mirrors. And while it is uncomfortable to call the "Glory of Easter" a simple fraud, it is even more uncomfortable to think that this work may represent the kind of Christianity that the folks at the Cathedral apparently prize: a Christianity that requires little more of its faithful than a sparkling grin and an optimistic outlook, a religion high on receipts but low in responsibilities. I hope this is not the case. But if it is, it speaks grimly of a people biblically illiterate and spiritually etiolated. But as I said, it’s a great show.
Michael R. Linton is head of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University.