In a delicate mix of public entertainment and spiritual fervor, actors dramatize lengthy, almost unbearably bloody scenes of torture while a long-suffering audience endures front-row seats to the Crucifixion.

No, it's not a blockbuster movie by Mel Gibson. It's a play performed in York, England, in the fifteenth century.

Though the violence may shock modern critics, as an artistic expression of the Christian story "The Passion of the Christ" has a long and distinguished heritage, and no discussion of the movie, its purposes, and its aftermath can be complete without an understanding of its historic roots. Let us go back six centuries, to a theatrical form that scourged audiences' emotions as powerfully in its day as Gibson's movie does today.

From the late fourteenth century to the latter half of the sixteenth century, during the annual festival of Corpus Christi to celebrate the mass, town guilds in England staged elaborate plays on outdoor wagons to captive audiences. The centerpiece of these cycles of "mystery plays" was the Passion.

In an age when preaching, art, religious writings, and devotional practices were centered upon the sufferings of Christ (see Chris Armstrong's recent Christianity Today article " The Fountain Fill'd With Blood"), the new phenomenon of popular drama had a unique role to play. Here more than anywhere else, lay people could follow the instruction of the influential devotional guide Meditations on the Life of Christ: "You must direct your attention to these scenes of the Passion, as if you were actually present at the Cross, and watch the Crucifixion of our Lord with affection, diligence, love, and perseverance."

The Passion plays for the most part followed the biblical record, with a remarkable exception: their expanded characterization of the villains and tormenters. No opportunity was missed to heap insult, humiliation, or torture upon the silent, patient Christ. The Crucifixion itself was drawn out in excruciating detail-beyond even the Gospel accounts. For example, the soldiers stretched Jesus to fit the cross, pulling apart sinews and veins, then cruelly dropped the base of the cross into the mortise with a jolt in order to increase his pains.

The merciless cruelty and vulgarity of the soldiers, who treated their job of torturing the condemned man as a sadistic game, contrasted starkly with the heroic endurance of Jesus as he forgave his tormentors. Adding to the pathos was a special focus on the grief of Mary, the quintessential bereaved mother lamenting her beloved son.

These plays were enormously popular, and not simply because the typical medieval townsman was a glutton for blood and gore or needed an excuse to thrash his Jewish neighbor. Christ's humanity and misery were presented before the audience with a final exhortation to ponder and to pity and thus to receive the saving effects of his death with open-eyed gratitude. Gibson's use of the quotation from Isaiah 53 at the beginning of "The Passion of The Christ" echoes the way in which the medieval narrator (or sometimes the actor playing Jesus) reminded playgoers that Christ was wounded for their transgressions and that by his wounds they were healed.

Christians in the Middle Ages were hungry for a concrete expression of the abstract doctrines of the Church, a visual proclamation of the truth that fed their emotions and deepened their experience of Christ's reality. Drama was a key that fit the lock of the medieval imagination.

Though there were many who objected to it on theological or moral grounds, defenders of theater argued that a play is more effective than a painting or even a sermon because it involves both the eye and the ear, both the illustration and the proclamation. It can convert those who could not be converted in any other way and move cold hearts to a new warmth of compassion and love for the suffering Messiah. Drama is a "living book," a picture that speaks, a sermon made concrete and immediate, a marriage of word and image.

Evangelicals have inherited the word-based faith of the Reformers, but we find ourselves in a culture swinging back to a reliance on the visual, just as medieval culture was in so many ways a visual culture. Though the English Reformation put an end to the Corpus Christi plays, today Protestants are flocking to a twenty-first-century cinematic version of a fifteenth-century Catholic art form. Have we regressed? Or could it be that we, like the medieval Christians, have starving imaginations?

To what extent the medium of drama-whether on a portable stage in medieval England or on the big screen of a modern movie theater-can and should be used to tell the Christian story is a question still worth debating. And in this debate as in so many others, we cannot afford to ignore the voices that call to us across time.

Jennifer Trafton is a freelance writer living in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

—For the story of some unfortunate uses to which the medieval dramatic form of the Passion play was put in the modern era, see Collin Hansen's recent "Behind the News" newsletter for Christian History & Biography, "Why Some Jews Fear the Passion."

—For some thoughts on the historical accuracy of the story of Jesus' life as told in the Gospels, see Chris Armstrong's "Just a Closer Walk … with the Historical Jesus."

—On the question of whether those Gospel accounts are anti-semitic, see Steven Gertz's "Good News to the Jew First."