An atheist visits The Thorn passion play
The kids, dressed in their Sunday best, hold their parents' hands as they walk toward the Magness Arena on the University of Denver campus. We follow behind, my girlfriend gripping my own hand tightly. At the foot of the steps there's a football pre-game party just getting started; kids holding red cups are sitting on thrift-store couches, listening to "Born in the USA." Someone asks if we want a beer but I decline; we are not here to drink. We are here to get our Jesus on.
Tonight, April 6, is the Denver premiere of The Thorn 2012, a big-budget epic of Bible theater sometimes described as "Cirque Du Soleil meets The Passion of the Christ." It was the novelty of such a mash-up that attracted my girlfriend to come along, but now that we're here she looks as though she wants to bolt for the car. As we walk inside, two large men costumed as Roman soldiers stop us, grab my girlfriend's wrist and actually ask me, "Do you have proof of ownership of this woman?"
After some nervous laughs and playing-along banter, the guards let us pass and we find our seats. "What the hell was that?" my girlfriend asks.
Despite growing up in Colorado Springs, my girlfriend has had almost no experience with the evangelical community and has always seen belief in God and the afterlife as "kind of silly." She wasn't raised with religion and has almost no context for these Bible stories -- whereas I have an over-familiarity with them, having grown up in an intense, outback Midwestern Pentecostalism, not only attending church activities nine times a week but participating in similar passion plays twice a year since almost the time I learned to walk.
As a sensory experience, The Thorn is an impressive exhibition of choreographed dances, pyrotechnics, acrobatics and multi-media stage production. Sitting in the front row, we have to shield our eyes when the jet-engine style flames roar twenty feet into the air. The bass from the music rumbles our bellies, and I uncontrollably exclaim "Jesus Christ!" when an unexpected explosion catches me off-guard.
Obviously, I have long since shed the skin of the creationist worldview, and now take great pleasure in taking "our Lord's name in vain," a sin I once believed would damn me to an eternity of torture in Hell. Like a majority of young evangelicals, when I reached college age I discovered books, psychotropics, sex and academic debate, and suddenly agreed with my girlfriend that the Bible and belief in God all seemed "kind of silly."
For the most part, the adults in this auditorium either represent those who didn't lose the faith as young evangelicals, or experienced some tragedy later in life that drove them to Jesus. Those behind The Thorn understand this dynamic. After the thespian Christ is crucified (it's worth noting that this crucifixion is significantly less snuff-like than Mel Gibson's gore-porn film version), Thorn creator John Bolin interrupts the narrative, walking on stage with a microphone to directly ask the audience to "consider the sacrifice of Jesus." Syrupy piano music plays over his speech, while he talks about how our sins have "earned us death" but "Jesus paid the price."
Some of us in the audience "have come here tonight with heavy hearts," he continues. "Maybe you've got a relationship that's breaking apart, or you've received a doctor's diagnosis and you don't know what to do; maybe there's a secret addiction in your life, but I want you to know that there's healing at the foot of the cross."
He invites those to which this applies to leave their seats and come down to speak with the friendly counselors who are waiting at the sides of the stage. To my girlfriend's shock, a large portion of the audience does so, many with tears in their eyes, outnumbering the counselors ten to one. For someone who has never believed in God, this all seems baffling -- but for a believer (or former believer, in my case) it's all quite beautiful.