At some churches, passion plays are no longer an Easter tradition

Adorned with a makeshift crown of thorns, a crimson-drenched Ernesto Jose hangs limp on a cross outside Resurrection Catholic Church in Riverview.

Men dressed as Roman soldiers torment him, pacing back and forth before a backdrop painted to look like Jerusalem.

"Just die," they shout. "You're a liar! You're a heretic!"

Grown men and women in the audience weep as the actor portraying Jesus cries out in agony. Children whimper and avert their eyes. Desensitized teens whisper gossip or surf the Internet on their smart phones.

"I've seen this play so many times, I know it by heart," Estella Dominguez, 16, says between typing messages on her BlackBerry. "I'm used to it."

Passion plays depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ date back centuries. Increasingly, some churches question whether they still appeal to people today. Many pastors view Easter as a time to reach nonbelievers, some of whom might be put off by the violent portrayal of Christ's final days. So at a time when the pews fill with visitors, they aim to present a more palatable worship experience.

Only 42 percent of Americans who celebrate Easter associate the holiday with the resurrection, according to the Barna Group, a California research firm that conducts studies on religious topics.

Re-enactments have undergone scrutiny in the last decade, especially after the 2004 release of Mel Gibson's blockbuster film The Passion of the Christ. Many critics deemed the film anti-Semitic for blaming Jews for the death of Christ.

Since then, churches nationwide have altered their approach to telling the traditional Easter story by changing dialogue, toning down violence in productions, or shutting them down altogether.

Many ministries such as Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon and Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz have replaced high-cost dramas with egg hunts and music programs. Other churches attempt to draw crowds to Easter services by featuring performances by secular recording artists or well-known gospel singers.

"We're looking at what's effective for the times," said Doug Crawley, pastor of music and worship at Bell Shoals. "We want to reach out to the secular community."

Several factors may influence a church's decision whether or not to produce a passion play, said Robert Cundiff, master of religious studies and professor of dramatic arts at Clearwater Christian College.

"There's the cost and the work involved in it," he said. "Young children may be shocked and disturbed by it."

Idlewild's drama became cost-prohibitive when the church moved from its Bearss Avenue location to a larger property in Lutz. Staging the production there would have required more sets, decoration and lighting, so the church opted out. Instead, it added a Saturday evening worship service to compete with neighboring churches that offer multiple services throughout the weekend.

"Rather than take the drama approach, we decided to focus on preaching to influence more people," said Ron Upton, Idlewild's music minister. "We think about what appeals to young families."

Passion plays are traditionally violent and hard to watch, Cundiff said. Jesus is whipped, dragged, kicked and forced to carry the weight of the cross. Directors often warn parents that some scenes are unsuitable for children, a tough sell to nonbelievers unaccustomed to traditional church doctrine.

Non-Christians didn't typically attend Bell Shoal's play, A Journey to Jesus, at the Florida State Fairgrounds, Crawley said. The curtain fell on the show after 2003. Since then, the church has celebrated Easter with the tag line A Celebration for the Whole Family.

But not everyone is willing to let the passion die down.

The Story of Jesus, also known as Florida's Passion Play, attracts about 15,000 people annually to an outdoor theater in Wauchula with a budget of $250,000. The production features 250 actors, 150 live animals and a 250-foot long set with a man-dug river and palm trees. Ticket sales and donations pay for the show.

"It's a production of epic proportions," said Mike Graham, the play's director and producer. "As far as we're concerned it will never become outdated, but it may get harder to get people to come and watch it."

Erik Olson, director of Prayer in the Garden, Trial and Death of Jesus Christ at Resurrection Catholic Church, said the story never gets old. The church's production, written by Monsignor Antonio Diez and first performed in 1987, lasts two hours and brings in close to 500 people each year. Audience members follow actors through a series of scenes set up on church property.

"We do it because it does bring new people to the church," Olson said. "It does influence young people."

Gilbert Bastin, 19, said the play helped him build a relationship with Christ.

"The first time I saw it, it really impacted me," he said. "Watching it, it's hard to deny it, that (Jesus) really did that. That's around the time I started to come back to church."

An hour and forty-five minutes into the play at Resurrection, Ernesto Jose disappears behind a wall that represents the tomb of Christ. He washes the fake blood from his skin, prays silently and prepares to re-emerge a king.

Out front, a mother reprimands her son for skateboarding through the church parking lot during the show.

A boy sits under a tree playing video games.

In the background, the Hallelujah Chorus plays.

Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or swhitman@sptimes.com.

At some churches, passion plays are no longer an Easter tradition 04/21/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 21, 2011 11:44pm]

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