I recently went to see Matthew Hurst’s one man play The Man Jesus, ‘starring Simon Callow.’
It was simply amazing.
I made a ‘mistake.’ As often happens we left the house in a rush and I didn’t have time to change out of my dog collar and into civvies. A potentially fateful move when going out with one’s spouse to a ‘religious play.’ And so, during the interval, I was approached by a couple keen to know what I thought and, how I was challenged.
It became clear that both husband and wife were carrying around a great deal of religious anxiety but were extremely moved by the drama that unfolded before our eyes.
Maybe this is why:
Matthew Hurst and Simon Callow were both, through the play, exploring their understanding of, and reaction to, Jesus.
They were using the literary form to work out their own religious sensitivity. By studying the person of Jesus they were able to critically reflect on the ‘historic Jesus’ presented to them by others, in their youth.
Simon Callow was brought up a Roman Catholic and experienced something of the transcendence of God through the Roman Mass. Matthew Hurt was variously introduced to the Jesus of ‘oily mahogany’ clad Catholicism, the ‘watery acrylic cartoon Jesus of the Jehovah’s Witness,’ and the ‘superhero and benevolent phantom’ of Pentecostal Christianity. Unable to decide on whether the Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Pentecostals had the best Jesus he realised that ‘the cumulative effect of all these images of Jesus was to leave me with a bland figurine, in various clichéd poses, of whom I had no sense whatsoever.’
Lesson 1: beware of how we Christians present Jesus.
Fortunately Hurt decided to explore the gospel for himself: ‘I went back to the Bible and re-read the gospels. The more I read, the more clearly a figure – a man – started to emerge. He bore little resemblance to the Jesuses I’d previously envisaged. He was much more radical, provocative, brilliant and contradictory……..not a cartoon, not an ethereal presence, but a very human being. An exceptional and strange human being, who, irrespective of questions of his divinity, merits being heard.’
Lesson 2: To what extent do we Christians really want people to explore and read the gospels for themselves, allowing them to find their own Jesus? How comfortable are we with taking people on a voyage of discovery with an uncertain destination?
Simon Callow’s rationale for accepting twelve multiple roles through which to portray Jesus was the ‘hope that they (the audience) will be profoundly challenged by what Jesus says in the play, and that they will ask themselves whether he has anything to say to them individually and personally.’
Lesson 3: How much time do we spend exploring Jesus through the lens of those who he touched and changed –or indeed looking at the faith stories in our own communities? It might be the way to reach a hugely diverse audience. It seemed to work in the play!
Simon Callow was adamant that he sought ‘neither to endorse Jesus or to dismiss him, but to present him as vividly as we know how, so that they (the audience) can make their own minds up.’
Lesson 4: should we spend more time reflecting on how vividly present Jesus than in trying to apologise for Jesus? Jesus, through vivid and vibrant presentation, is more than capable of endorsing himself.
The first point that Simon Callow makes in the programme notes is ‘Jesus doesn’t belong in a church, he belongs where he can be most vividly be brought to life.’
Ouch, ouch, ouch!
Lesson 5: Simon Callow understands that Christian mission is simply this: to bring Jesus to life and to do so in a way that renders him so attractive that he becomes irresistible.
So five simple challenges: is the Church up to them? Are you?