Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"Christian" play The Big Picture reduces the Bible to a two-hour production

For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Matthew 5:18

For some strange reason, many in evangelical Christianity seem to think that we have to improve on God's means of communicating with man, i.e., the complete text of the 66 books of the Bible. Some think that the written word that God has given us is an insufficient and/or an ineffective means of communication with Western culture in the 21st century, so they decide to make it more "relevant" by adapting it for theatre or cinema. I don't know if I need to remind anyone that God gave us a book (actually a collection of books), not a play or a movie script.

I decided to pass on The Big Picture, not least because the production took place at the increasingly liberal King's University College, and I regard with suspicion anything taking place there. If I had gone to see it, I suspect my reaction would have been about the same as the lady mentioned in the article below who said, "That's not my Bible!" Please note the comment by the director, Tom Carson, that the goal of the play isn't to convert anyone to Christianity, but “if anything, it’s about converting Christians to art.”

As to the play's being "contemporary in its visual style and form," the people responsible for The Big Picture should keep in mind that the events recorded in the Bible took place in a certain time and place and can't just be transplanted into modern settings. For instance, there was a very narrow window of history in which the dozens of Old Testament prophecies of Israel's Messiah could have all been fulfilled, and they were all perfectly fulfilled by the Lord Jesus Christ when he was on Earth--during that very narrow window of history. You can't transfer the Messianic prophecies to another time and place and have them be fulfilled; those who try to "modernize" the Gospel narrative in such a manner (often placing the events, for some reason, in the southern United States, e.g., the musical play Cotton Patch Gospel and the movie The Judas Project) are unwittingly (or maybe wittingly) undermining some of the best evidence for the truth of the Bible.

And what right does anyone have to edit the Bible down to a two-hour production, and claim that what is being offered is still the Bible? Some "scholars" thirty years ago thought the Bible needed to be shortened (they apparently thought that God had made it too long to be suitable for the attention spans of 1980s readers), and gave us the Reader's Digest Bible, which attracted much publicity and controversy, but sold few copies when it arrived in bookstores in the fall of 1982. As far as I know, most of the copies were returned unsold to the publisher, and I don't think it even had a second printing. The Reader's Digest Bible, one of the biggest publishing fiascos of the decade, failed because people weren't interested in an abridged Bible. The apostate "scholars" assumed that shortening the Bible would make it more popular, and missed the point that the reason the Bible is unpopular isn't because of its length but because unregenerate sinners are offended by the content. The Lord Jesus Christ, in the passage from Matthew cited above, upheld the entire Law, even including the jots and tittles.

Here's a review of The Big Picture by Liz Nicholls of the Edmonton Journal, February 14, 2012:

The show that alights at King’s University College Wednesday is an epic act of theatrical creation that redefines stage chutzpah for our time. Dennis Hassell’s The Big Picture tells the storyline of The Bible, Genesis through Revelation. In two hours. With five actors — make that four really really busy actors plus Jason Hildebrand, who plays God in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New.

“The, uh, genesis of this project?” Tom Carson laughs. He’s the director who shepherded a 2000 incarnation of The Big Picture and now this much-applauded touring production by Toronto’s The Arts Engine, which arrives here from a run in Calgary. “Our impulse was to see the whole Bible in the context of a single narrative.... It’s informed our culture and literature in such a rich way. But we tend to think of it in little snippets, truisms taken out of context. We were exploring what the whole narrative arc of the Bible might be.”

In this, The Big Picture takes up a challenge akin to Peter Brook’s celebrated theatricalization of the Sanskrit epic The Mahabarata. “We’re exploring the narrative between the Judeo-Christian god and humanity,” says Carson. As world history continues to demonstrate, there’s a certain continuity challenge between the two Testaments. What Hassell’s play discovers is that “the main moments are all tied to God’s promise to humanity,” Carson argues. “That’s the ‘you aren’t lost forever; I will bring you back to me’ promise.... Every story ties onto that pretty neatly. Noah and the ark, and the rainbow. Abraham and Isaac. Joseph and his bros. Right back to Adam and Eve.”

When you’re doing the Bible in two hours, with five actors playing hundreds of characters, you can’t be dithering around with stage gak, set pieces, major costume changes. “We don’t build the ark onstage,” laughs Carson. “No ark, no camels. No bathrobes, no manger.” The Big Picture is strictly contemporary in its visual style and form. And that, along with a general lack of both awe and “traditional language,” puts some people off. In addition to ovations, “we do get walkouts,” says Carson. “One lady stomped out in Calgary saying ‘that’s not my Bible!’ We’ve had a lot comments on both sides.”

What Carson and his Arts Engine colleagues, Christians all, are after is the narrative. “Considering the impact the Bible has had on literature and culture, it’s striking how weak the work is that comes out of that,” he says. “As soon as you say you’re working with a bunch of Christians, (it conjures) such cheesy images, propaganda, no depth, bad art. As Christian artists we’re fighting that.”

The Arts Engine archive includes The KJV: The Bible Show, which links the 1611 King James Version to the period from which it dates, “the heyday of Shakespeare.” Two Thousand Candles is a Christmas show that wonders about the season as a cultural phenomenon: “why do we put a pine tree in the living room, anyhow?” The goal, says Caron, is that “the voice of the Christian community should speak with an intelligent, deep voice to the mainstream.” It’s not about converting people to Christianity; “if anything, it’s about converting Christians to art.”

Theatre is a natural for this, he thinks — in its liveness, its “roots in worship.... Theatre has always been about incarnating spirits, or the forces of nature, etc., and making them visible for people.”

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