An atheist visits The Thorn passion play
Before I read the books of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and began toying with the idea that my thoughts were my own and no God was monitoring them, I regularly felt the narcotic high of belief. Praying several times a day, contemplating heaven, seeing the world through a juvenile lens of good and evil, it's a consistent, on-demand blast of serotonin to get you through any trial. And events like The Thorn are the king-top orgy of neurological good-times -- granted, a celibate, sober orgy, but basically the same end result. A University of Pennsylvania study of subjects in heightened states of Pentecostal worship showed that the frontal lobe of the brain (which controls, among other things, rationality and self-control) slowly shuts down, whereas the temporal lobe -- the emotional, sentimental side of the brain -- flares up with activity.
When John Bolin mentions things like illness, or relationship troubles or addiction, he's covering a large territory of very common life problems. And by offering an immediate, emotional solution to those problems, one requiring nothing more than walking down some steps, meeting with a friendly counselor and filling out a card with all your contact information, you have a product that sells itself. It's something the temporal lobe responds to.
On the surface, it does sound "silly." But it's different when you've sat through an hour of visceral assaults on your senses, with unexpected bombs exploding, demons screaming and a very nice man with a beard being grotesquely tortured before your very eyes. Things like this make you feel vulnerable, open you up to new ideas. It's a tactic that is much more effectively executed each Halloween through Hell Houses, those church-funded gauntlets of sensory torture that temporarily rob you of your sanity and could turn even Bill Maher into a member of the 700 Club.
Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was the bloodiest and most popular of all the Hollywood Jesuses.
None of this really outrages me while I watch The Thorn. The only outrage I feel is over the glaring historical inaccuracies. And it's not like I'm nitpicking about the Pharisees wearing the wrong robes or Jesus's obvious use of a straightening iron (whereas the real Jesus -- if he existed -- would have had a kinky Jew-fro). It's things like the assertion that Jesus performed "thousands" of miracles. Or that the narrator of the play (for the most part, he's the only one who speaks -- everything else is a collection of montages) is a mash-up of three different biblical characters. His name is John, but he refers to being both Jesus disciple (John of Zebedee) as well as John, the author of the book of Revelations (John of Patmos) and the author of the Gospel according to John.
"That is SO inaccurate!" I shout/whisper into my girlfriend's ear during the performance. It's not like this stuff is even debatable among Christians: Scholarly believers acknowledge that the disciple John didn't write the Gospel (it was penned about fifty to sixty years after Jesus's death), and certainly accept that he wasn't the same fellow who wrote The Book of Revelation; that guy is believed to have lived about two generations after Jesus's time.
I wouldn't get uptight about this stuff if The Thorn (and countless other passion plays produced around the world for hundreds of years) didn't present this story as historical fact. As in: this is what happened, this man died for your sin, and he certainly rose from the dead. Secular historians assert that Jesus the man most likely never existed; outside of a handful of references by the Jewish historian Josephus, there is little evidence of him. And since the story is a kind of greatest hits of all the gods and heroes of the Mediterranean -- centuries before Jesus -- many propose that the big JC was as real as Hercules.
But most of the people we are surrounded by at The Thorn don't see things this way. They view this story of Eve and her apple, Moses and his Exodus, and Jesus and his miracles as the way it all happened. They weep at Jesus's death and cheer during his resurrection -- and likely are praying throughout, illuminating their temporal lobes as they thank Jesus for all he has done for them.
As we walk back to the car -- surrounded by others wiping tears from their eyes and getting into SUVs with bumperstickers reading "God is my co-pilot" -- my girlfriend still can't get over how so many parents subjected their kids to such a production. "It's really a form a child abuse," she says. Her statement briefly reminds me of a similar sentiment uttered by outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins when asked to comment on Catholic priests molesting children: "It may do them less lasting damage than the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place."
But for the most part, I'm stuck observing the faces of those leaving The Thorn. I have countless memories of being in the same place they are, loving the narcotic high of belief, allowing myself to shut down rationality and feel the love of a God I was sure existed. Unlike my girlfriend, I do not think they are all "kind of silly." I am actually quite jealous. The catharsis in the believers' faces is obvious; they are experts at subduing their frontal lobes, controlling their self-control until there is nothing left but a blissful de-evolution: knowing that Jesus is in heaven, winking down on their SUV as they drive home to suburbs. But instead of begging them to take me with them, my girlfriend and I drive home to Capitol Hill, our frontal lobes active and our atheism intact.
The Thorn repeats at 4 and and 7 p.m. today. For tickets or more information, visit www.thethorn.net.