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Even Tyler Perry Can't Improve on the Greatest Story Ever Told

Why the passion of Jesus Christ doesn't need to be contextualized.
Even Tyler Perry Can't Improve on the Greatest Story Ever Told
Image: Fox

Modern remakes of timeless stories, like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet or Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz! may not always be particularly masterful in their storytelling, but they do provide fresh, modern takes on stories that can benefit from being told through different lenses.

Because of this, I found myself intrigued when I heard that FOX would air a live presentation of Tyler Perry’s spin on the Passion of Christ. This version takes place in New Orleans, presents the viewer with a Jesus who has expertly crafted hair and modern clothes. Judas is played by American Idol-born pop star Chris Daughtry. A series of pop songs originally composed with a spiritual bent originally composed by bands with names like Hoobastank and Evanescence convey the inner-most thoughts of Jesus and his disciples.

I walked away from the show disappointed and a little confused. It’s not that I expected Perry to create a theological treatise on propitiation or justification, but I didn’t expect a modernized version of Jesus’s life to feel so out of place.

The Passion was born into a glut of seemingly redundant, annually released Jesus movies. Give or take a few scenes and a series of slightly different accents, these films feature what seems to be the same desert, the same Jesus, and his same ragtag bunch of misfits who look like they haven’t showered in months.

But maybe the real story of the passion of Christ should be told in the first-century setting, more or less within the bounds of the Gospels themselves. Maybe it’s to my shame that I got bored with the barebones, historical story of Jesus. It’s not that the original story is boring or needs a facelift. Its simplicity is heart-pounding in and of itself. It’s the ultimate story of good trumping evil, of death receiving the death knell. We can do powerful justice to the gospel story of life, death, and resurrection within the first-century world of political bartering, domineering government, and the real messiness of human existence that transcends all time periods and eras.

In the Fullness of Time

Jesus was incarnated when and where he was for a reason. He was first and foremost Israel’s Messiah. The Old Testament predicted that the Messiah, “Immanuel,” would be born to a Jewish virgin mother (Isa. 7:14) in the line of David (Jer. 23:5). He was supposed to be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2) in the line of the tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:10). These are all, of course, corroborated in the narrative of Matthew 1–2. John the Baptist announces that “the time has come!” (Mark 1:15), and Paul tells the Galatians that Jesus came at the exact, right time (Gal. 4:4).

There are countless other examples, but there is no ambiguity in Scripture that Jesus’ first advent wasn’t some sort of random occurrence that could’ve happened anytime, anywhere. It was at the right time, in the right place, for the right reason.

In Peter’s one-two punch of a sermon in Acts 2–3, he makes clear that God has determined not only the time the Messiah would come, but when he would suffer. In Peter’s mind, it was no accident that part of the plan was for Jesus to stand right in front of the Israelites themselves so they could recognize their own Messiah (Acts 2:22–23). He was the priest and the lamb of Old Testament ceremony; the one who made intercession for the people and the one whose blood was spilled (Heb. 9:11-28).

Did Perry commit a cardinal sin by portraying Jesus buying the Last Supper from a food truck or being arrested by the New Orleans police department? Not at all. The artistry and creative storytelling in Perry’s remake shouldn’t be diminished, and neither should his good intentions.

But the story of Jesus isn’t the same as The Wizard of Oz or Romeo and Juliet. It’s not a piece of fiction with generalized undertones that can be molded and retrofitted into the context of 21st-century problems.

The story of Jesus is the greatest story ever told as-is. It doesn’t get better or more relevant when it is rewritten or remade. God wrote the existing story with his glory and our good in mind.

Jesus Yesterday, Today, and Forever

I know what you’re thinking. “Why can't you just appreciate evangelistic art? Don’t you think this will open up doors of conversation for non-believers?” I hope so! It’s always great to know that people are sitting around a living room thinking and talking about Jesus. I truly believe that God’s common grace works through even the most unsuspecting or misguided movie directors and writers. I don’t want to undersell that. But it’s also true that people are too often introduced to Christianity by murky theological means.

We lose the majesty of the original story when we try to make it “relevant” rather than doing the hard, creative work of drawing in the audience with the original set. Even Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, with all its warts (rock monsters anyone?), manages to explore the depths of human depravity and the doubts believers face while keeping the plotline within the (albeit limited) restrictions of the original Genesis story. One can quibble with the theology or history of the film, but Noah wasn’t stranded in a lake in a floating Ford Excursion—he was on an ark, surrounded by animals, in a pre-modern world, trying to figure out what the heck was happening around him even with the Lord’s voice in his ears.

The story of Jesus, the first-century Jewish Messiah from Bethlehem, is the central point of all of Scripture (Luke 24:27). The Bible rests on the historical reality of that God-man at that moment in history. That moment mattered. It still matters.

God’s sacrificial Lamb broke bread with his disciples at Passover to show them and us that sin was being dealt with once and for all. His body would break and his blood would cover the doorposts of our hearts for eternity. He would be the new Adam, bringing the promise of salvation from Abraham’s seed, leading a new Exodus, from the throne of King David. There would be signs and symbols and stories—the God of the Old Testament never forgot his promise to redeem all things.

Yes, the gospel is for today and every day. It doesn’t change. The historical reality of Jesus is a real man who went through the muck and mire of life in a fallen world (Heb. 4:15). It’s possible to look at the struggles in our own life and see how that Jesus identifies with them. It just takes a little creativity.

Brandon D. Smith works with the Holman Christian Standard Bible and teaches theology at various schools. He is also co-author of the forthcoming books, Rooted: Theology for Growing Christians and They Spoke of Me: How Jesus Unlocks the Old Testament. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Even Tyler Perry Can't Improve on the Greatest Story Ever Told