This article isn’t intended to be a criticism of the Passion musical that aired last night on Fox. Truth be told, I didn’t watch it. All I know is what my coworkers told me about it this morning, so I’m not going to critique it.
What I am going to do is the thought experiment the musical was based on, because I think the founding question behind the production is fascinating.
If Jesus were born and raised in modern day New Orleans, what would the Biblical characters be like?
Since I grew up in New Orleans and I love reading the Gospels, this question sounds like a fun and interesting game to play. I’m going to tackle a few characters. If you disagree or want to tackle a character in a different way, I’d love to see your thought experiment too. Make sure to tag me in it somehow.
Mary, the Mother of Jesus
In the Bible, by the time Jesus emerges from obscurity, Mary is a hardworking, middle-to-lower-class, blue collar, widow with lots of sons.
In Modern Day New Orleans, I imagine Mary to be African American, living in Algiers (because West Bank is the best bank). She’s probably in her mid-fifties. She holds down a full time job, maybe as a mid-level manager at the local Walmart. She attends a small Gospel church somewhere near her house. She loves the music and the fellowship of the congregation. It’s the only time during the week that she gets dressed up. Her kids and grand kids are her life. A few of her sons, who are in their twenties, still live with her in her small shotgun house. She says she wants them out, but the truth is, she likes having them around.
Peter, one of the twelve
In the Bible, Peter is a large fisherman. He was never the smartest disciple, but he was courageous. When other’s held back, Peter pressed forward. He is bold, aggressive, and full of life.
In Modern Day New Orleans, I imagine Peter’s glory years were in High School. On the football field, he was king. No one could match his size and speed. He had his pick of the girls, and was invited to every party. Unfortunately, never the best student, he couldn’t cut it in college. He went for a year on a football scholarship, but dropped out because he couldn’t handle the classes. Now he works a blue-collar job he doesn’t love. Maybe he’s on a city construction crew? Maybe he’s working as a line cook at a chain restaurant? He probably drinks a little too much on the weekends. I see him going back to his High School each Fall to help coach the team. They don’t pay him much. He does it because that’s where his fondest memories are, and he loves the family of it.
Judas, the Betrayer
In the Bible, Judas is a Zealot, a politically minded revolutionary. He’s good with money, probably better with numbers than people. He has high ideals. He believes he is part of an oppressed race of people, who are held down by privileged foreigners. He sees injustice in the world and thinks radical action needs to be taken to end it, and if that change brings about his own success — great.
In Modern Day New Orleans, Judas is building a career in politics. He excelled in High School, but he wasn’t a nerd. Judas was a charismatic kid. He was on the student council, maybe he was even Student Body president his senior year. He went to a local university — maybe Xavier or Tulane — on a full scholarship. While in school, he went to work in the office of a state level politician. He talks about going to law school, or maybe running for city council, but he hasn’t made the leap yet. He’s still saving up money and weighing his options. He’s active on social media because he sees it as a way to share his ideas with the world. When crap went down in Ferguson, he and a few friends jumped in a car and went to join the movement. He went to Baltimore too after the riots. Now, back home, he’s trying to figure out what his next move is. He wants revolution and sees it’s seeds being planted, but he is unsure how to make it a reality.
The Pharisees and Scribes
Although we often think of these people as the villains of the Gospels, that is not how they would have been perceived in their own times. The Pharisees were the ones everyone wanted to be. They had perfect families and perfect kids. They were devout, following all the rituals and rules to the best of their ability. They loved God and devoted their lives to knowing him. If God were going to bring a revival, in everyone’s opinion, it was going to come through them.
In Modern Day New Orleans, I think we should imagine our favorite local pastor or priest. He’s a source of strength and wisdom in the community. He cares about the people of his congregation. He performed your friend’s wedding. He did your grandmother’s funeral. When people are in the hospital, he’s there. When someone loses their job, they cry to him. His Sunday morning sermons are cheesy at times, but they are full of knowledge. He’s been to school to study theology. He reads the Bible way more than you do, and loves talking about it. But he has a problem, one he may or may not be aware of. He is tied to a religious system that, at times, has more to do with the promotion of the institution than it does with pursing God. And because he has never lived outside of this system, he has adopted rituals and rules that tempt him to take a position of judgment over others. On its best day, it is not an oppressive judgment. It is rather a judgment of love. “I want you to change because your life will be better if you devote it to God like I have.”
In the Bible, he is the son of a carpenter. Jesus grew up blue collar in a small town. He showed promise as a kid, but then spent the first half of his adulthood in obscurity. Then, suddenly, he emerges from nowhere, speaking a message that changes the course of history.
In Modern Day New Orleans, I imagine Jesus was never the star athlete or the popular kid. He played on the football team, but mostly rode the bench. He was the kid that everyone knew and loved. People were drawn to Jesus not because he was the best looking or the most successful, but because he was kind, compassionate, and oddly wise. Never selfish, he routinely went out of his way to help others. He had potential to go off to a major university and “make something of himself” after High School, but he decided to stay near home and take care of his mom instead. The rise of his movement is terrifying to those in power because of its simplicity. It comes from a low income section of the city, and grows in strength before the major power players in town even know it exists. The most frightening thing about Jesus is that he is incorruptible and unafraid of speaking truth to the establishment.
You want to take a shot at it? Pick a Biblical character and write up a sketch of them in modern times. Or maybe you disagree with my interpretation. Let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear another take.