By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – The image that leaps to most people’s mind is Mel Gibson’s 2005 film “The Passion of the Christ,” the movie that brought spontaneous – almost participatory – bursts of applause from Christian moviegoers and made previous portrayals seem milquetoast by comparison.
The scourging scene is what everybody remembers.
“I thought it was wonderful, very well produced. There were people crying, of course, but there was so much more. I mean, it had to have been so much worse than even the movie showed,” said Zack Chennault, a Verona resident who saw the movie in the theater with his wife.
In the scene drunken, loutish soldiers laugh as they mercilessly whip a handcuffed Jesus. The whip tears loose pieces of the savior’s flesh, splattering blood on the crowd and on his tormentors. The beating seems to go on forever.
Gibson’s film raised the bar for graphic portrayals of Jesus’ passion, perhaps following to its logical conclusion the imaginative recreation of the events Christians participate in each spring.
This Easter, as they’ve done for years, several Northeast Mississippi churches produced passion plays. In at least two of them, the actor playing Jesus was covered in blood and did his best to evoke the agony the carpenter from Nazareth endured before he died.
Looking back on Easter, local Christians say that while they remain people of the resurrection, they also find value in remembering Jesus’ agony, and it helps them appreciate the tremendous sacrifice God endured for humanity.
As evening descended on Good Friday, Chennault was strapped to a tall cross with thieves on either side of him. Roman soldiers stood guard at his feet. Footlights shined up from the mound of tree bark and mulch members of Verona Christian Church used to recreate Golgatha.
Chennault was covered in blood. He wore a crown of thorns and his face was a convincing mask of shocked pain for passersby to stare at and photograph.
“I wanted people to look at me and see a man dedicated to his faith, a man who’s trying to understand some small part of the suffering Jesus endured and to get that message out to others,” Chennault said weeks later.
Gawking at the bloody, crucified Jesus is an age-old Christian devotion.
“I’m thinking back to Renaissance painting, the depiction of tortured saints, Salome holding the head of John the Baptist, the shock value of these images,” said the Rev. John Armistead, supply pastor at Unity Presbyterian Church (USA) in Plantersville and an accomplished painter.
In the middle ages, long after crucifixion was used as a method of execution, graphic portrayals of Jesus’ death served to educate a mostly illiterate public about the horrors of Jesus’ ordeal, according to Armistead.
Most folks today can read but have perhaps even less appreciation for the excruciating pain Jesus endured.
“We’re used to seeing a swooned Jesus, with a loin cloth across his privates, but the reality was he was exposed, shamed up before the world, dying slowly,” said Armistead. “A more realistic depiction would have Jesus screaming in agony.”
Graphic passion plays continue to bring the gospel accounts of Jesus’ torture alive in a unique and powerful way, Armistead said. The shock value is a tool in service of evangelism.
“We’re simply trying to create something very close to life, to the way it actually was,” said Jose Luis Ortega, who directed the Stations of the Cross at St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo on Good Friday.
The performance concluded with a crucifixion scene, staged high on a hill on the northernmost edge of the property. To motorists passing on Gloster Street it must have looked shockingly real.
Hispanics, particularly Mexicans, have an affinity for gruesome portrayals of the passion, according to Elquin Gonzales, St. James’ Hispanic minister.
Part of that he ascribes to the intimate, hands-on approach Hispanics take toward death, an approach they express through traditions such as holding festivals in cemeteries and placing favorite foods, like candies, on graves. It’s an approach Gonzales sees as very different from the more formal, reserved customs of Caucasians.
On the other hand, Gonzales said, going all the way back to the slaughter of indigenous people by Spanish conquistadors, bloodshed continues to be part of everyday life in many Hispanic countries, especially in Colombia and Mexico, where warring drug lords create unspeakable carnage.
In some ways, Gonzales said, the bloody Jesus is more easily identifiable as a brother to Hispanics. He serves both as a source of devotion as well as a kind of cultural commentary on violence.
“As a people, we hope to overcome this death, just as Jesus overcame his torture and death on the cross,” said Gonzales.
Theology is essentially a symbolic discipline, an attempt to represent divine realities through the medium of language.
Theology draws from sources like the gospel accounts, that offer examples of how people of faith should live. There’s scriptural basis for meditating upon the more unpleasant aspects of Jesus’ life, even his torture, according to Armistead.
“Paul talks about participating in the crucifixion so that we can share in the resurrection,” he said.
Some traditions, like Catholicism, teach that sharing in Jesus’ suffering conforms believers more closely to the savior’s image. Protestants have traditionally emphasized more Jesus’ resurrection and glory, and they’ve expressed that in their symbolism, or lack thereof.
“We tend to look at the life of Christ, the life that makes it possible for us to live even after we die,” said Gina Thorderson, director of public affairs for the Tupelo Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-Day Saints.
“If your brother died in some graphic way, you wouldn’t want to focus on that,” she said.
Mormons don’t even wear crosses, which are considered fine by most Protestant Christians, most of whom wouldn’t wear the crucifix worn by Catholics because it has the body of Jesus still on the cross.
Still, over the last half century, Armistead has noticed what he called a symbolic osmosis among Christian denominations. Years ago, Southern Baptist churches, he said, wouldn’t have displayed a cross on the pinnacle of their steeples. Today it’s common. Protestants, who once felt a strong aversion to concentrating on Jesus’ death, are more often staging passion plays that present Jesus’ final hours in all their agony and pain.
Despite the gasps of horror it elicited from audiences, “The Passion of the Christ,” directed by a Catholic, was hailed as a cinematic triumph by almost all Christians, even right-leaning evangelicals.
The essential thing, area faithful say, is that portrayals of Jesus’ death honor his suffering, while pointing beyond the blood and gore toward the new life symbolized in the resurrection.
“It’s not about violence. We’re not celebrating suffering,” said Ortega. “We’re remembering the pain he went through for us.”
For nearly two hours on Friday night, Chennault didn’t break character. He wore the rictus as if he were really nailed to the boards. Children in passing cars pointed, with blank looks on their faces, and a few people even closed their eyes in prayer.
“It’s hard to understand how a man could take all that, the beatings, the scars, the blood,” Chennault said later.
“I just hope some of those people who drove by and saw me said, ‘Wow, these people are really dedicated to their faith. They love Jesus. Maybe I should become part of this.’”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.