“But who do you say that I am?” That’s the question Jesus posed to His disciples after the Pharisees and Sadducees demanded that Jesus give them yet another sign (Matthew 16:15). It’s also a question we should periodically ask ourselves: Who do we say that Jesus is?
A.D. 16, a new musical whose world premier began at the Olney Theatre Center in Maryland, has some thoughts on Jesus. According to creators Bekah Brunstetter and Cinco Paul, as cited in a 16 February Washington Post review, Jesus is the “prototypical social justice warrior” who is sought after by a lovestruck Mary Magdalene who aims to “enlist in whatever first-century humanitarian start-up Jesus would want to found.” Here Jesus is “dreamy” and “nerdy,” “kindhearted and endearingly awkward, still stumbling his way to becoming the Messiah,” according to another WaPo article.
Mary Magdalene also gets a modern reinterpretation. Rather than being one suffering under the torments of demons, she is “a feminist figure whose independence and agency ruffle feathers in biblical Nazareth.” It is her outspokenness and refusal to conform to first-century Jewish stands, not her demon possession or immorality, that have forced her to flee her native Magdala. Mary is not a sinner in need of salvation but a feminist hero in need of self-actualization and empowerment. She endures a trial for civil disobedience, which is the perfect opportunity for the audience to reflect on the victim narratives that supposedly give our lives meaning.
The WaPo reviewer notes with commendation that the musical has “just enough of A.D. 2022 for a savvy political bridging of the ages, without unctuous sermonizing.” It would appear most of the actors are persons of color, which of course they would need to be, to ensure relevancy, no? The casting, storyline, and song lyrics are enough to lift the woke activist’s spirit.
The musical’s creators claim a desire to remain faithful to the Bible and find ways to communicate it to a modern audience. “We always wanted to honor the Bible, to not contradict the Bible, but lovingly ask some questions about what is damaging about the Bible and what was dark about the time in which Jesus lived,” says Brunstetter. Director Stephen Brackett adds: “What I think has been really beautiful is the openness of the team and the desire of the team to really have this transcend being a story about Jesus and Mary Magdalene and reach out into some of the beautiful ways in which the Bible speaks about humanity.”
And what better way to accomplish this artistic vision than make Jesus and Mary Magdalene into the equivalent of gun control activist David Hogg and anti-racism journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones as teenagers in love? Alternatively, A.D. 16 is yet one more stupid, irreverent example of reducing Jesus to a flat, uninteresting manifestation of our own fleeting pet political and cultural fetishes; one with no ability to speak eternal truths.
In some sense, this is an ancient sin. If Jesus is God, which we as Catholics believe de fide, then it’s going to be eternally difficult to box Him into some human, this-worldly definition. The transcendent has a way of refusing to be reduced to our peculiar, ephemeral desires and opinions. We want Jesus to be more relatable, to be more human, to be more, well, us.
And that’s the problem. For as much as Jesus is fully man, as the Nicene Creed tells us, He is also fully God. That means His ways will always be in conflict with our ways, as the prophet Isaiah tells us (Isaiah 55:8-9). Or, as Jesus says: “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world” (John 8:23).
Some of us would love Jesus as a drinking buddy. We would hit the bar together, have a few drinks, talk about deep stuff; and after we split the check, we’d stumble out and go our separate ways into the darkness and back to our respective beds. Others would love Jesus as a political ally. We want Him to march alongside us in favor of a particular political candidate, to appear on Tucker Carlson (or I suppose, if you’re a liberal Christian, Rachel Maddow), and pontificate on how the other side is destroying America. And some simply want Jesus to affirm us in every decision we make, however increasingly untethered from reality and divine revelation.
The disciples were like this, even the ones closest to Him. Right after the exchange in which Jesus asks them about His identity, Peter, chief of the apostles, tries to rebuke Jesus for His declaration that He will go to Jerusalem and be killed. Perhaps we can relate with Peter—“Willingly walk into a trap that will result in your death? Jesus, what in the world are you thinking? This is not the way to win friends and influence people! Let’s start a political party or think tank!”
But Jesus is not interested in our pet social and political projects…at least not primarily. He is interested in saving our souls. His way is the way of personal, intimate confrontation: “You, yes you—you’re a sinner, an arrogant, stubborn fool, but you’re dearly, unconditionally loved, and you need me and my free gift of salvific grace. Or you will die.” That’s what Jesus says to us, every day, in every Gospel reading at Mass. He knows us in all of our weakness and failings, and He extends His offer of grace and love afresh, despite our betrayals and failures.
It’s a remarkable message—always fresh, always relevant, always true. It’s also hard to hear. It’s painful and jarring to be told that we’re sinners in need of a Savior, whether we are woke activists who repudiate heteronormativity and bigotry or daily Mass attendees who faithfully pray our Rosaries, obey Church teaching, and regularly frequent confession. Thus our attempts to make Jesus into something else, whether it be a social justice warrior or a based conservative who knows what time it is. Whatever our caricature of our Lord, the sin is the same: making Jesus into us, rather than us being transformed by His grace into someone who resembles Him.
The problem with A.D. 16 is the same problem as St. Peter attempting to turn Jesus away from the Passion. We don’t want Jesus as He actually is, in His transcendent, sacrificial, transformative power. We want to make Him into us. How boring. How short-sighted. How deadly. This is why A.D. 16 fails. We need religious art that doesn’t debase Jesus but instead helps us perceive Him as He truly is. As St. Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
[Photo Credit: Olney Theater website]