A radio DJ once enthused, on the first bank holiday of the Easter season, “I hope you’re having a really good Friday!” For the vicars and worshippers who complained, the broadcaster’s ignorance of a paradox of Christianity (“In spite of that, we call this Friday good,” T S Eliot wrote) confirmed their frequent lament that the entertainment industry treats holy days as holidays, though members of England’s still established religion remain better served than those of other faiths, whose celebratory dates are largely ignored.
In this year of their Lord 2014, churchgoers seem to have less cause to demonise popular culture. Opening in London on 1 May is the transfer from Broadway of The Testament of Mary, Colm Tóibín’s adaptation of his Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novella. The production at the Barbican extends a Jesus and Mary chain across the capital that includes a dramatic re-enactment of Christ’s final hours on Good Friday in Trafalgar Square. This is the latest large-scale contemporary version of the communal Easter theatre known in medieval times as passion plays; the actor Michael Sheen took part in something similar in Port Talbot three years ago.
One of the hottest movies of the moment is a biblical epic, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (out now), which may be not quite seasonal, but cinemas next spring should have the option of screening the more thematically fitting Mary by Alister Grierson, another in the new wave of Hollywood films based on scripture. (Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott’s take on Moses, is due at Christmas.)
As Christian church worship declines precipitously in Britain, the artistic examination of Christian stories booms. One explanation is a trickle-down effect from US culture, in which the rhetorical and spending power of the Christian right – which turned Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) into an improbable blockbuster – has encouraged a rush of godly products in US cinema and television. The producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, for example, created the miniseries The Bible, which they adapted into a feature film, Son of God.
The pieces to be seen here this Easter, however, reflect a different trend, in which the ancient stories are humanised and questioned – not from an aggressive, Dawkins-like perspective of contempt but from a practical angle, exploring their physical and psychological realities.
The Passion of the Christ differed from biblical epics of the Cecil B DeMille era by suggesting what it might be like to die by crucifixion and to have known that it was your duty to do so. Taking a similar approach, Noah vigorously examines the logistics of the legend. How might an old bloke actually have constructed a craft able to transport a zoo through a tsunami?
The film’s answer is less credible than anything in the Bible – a task force of CGI Transformer-like creatures called “Watchers” – but the guess at Noah’s mindset is provocative and fascinating. Whereas the bearded flood-buster has generally been thought of as a poster man for animal lovers, Aronofsky draws the corollary that the flip side of this position entailed hating human beings. In chilling and original scenes, Russell Crowe’s Noah is almost psychopathically hostile to the survival and reproduction of his own species. The film has been seen as a tribute to environmentalism but it can be read as a critique of animal rights extremists.
In The Testament of Mary, Tóibín also pursues the human truth and consequence of a Sunday school scenario. Theology and artistic iconography have historically presented Mary as nobly accepting of the sacrifice of her child but in this rendition her attitude has more in common with a mother bereaved in a pointless war that politicians then co-opt for patriotic propaganda. It is also clear that Tóibín’s Jesus was conceived through the usual masculine tool, rather than angelic intervention.
These interpretations appalled some American Christians but Tóibín movingly captures the bewilderment and bitterness that a woman might logically feel in such circumstances. The advance word on the new film Mary is that it will also humanise the situation by focusing on her years as a “young mother”.
As in Noah, such emphases on characterisation and situation acknowledge that these stories have a narrative power that reaches beyond believers. Tóibín explores in an extreme form two situations that are part of common secular experience: maternity and bereavement. Having already published a collection of stories called Mothers and Sons (2006), he was drawn to the ultimate one. Equally, in Trafalgar Square or Port Talbot, or wherever modern passion plays are acted, the visceral sight of a tortured man carrying the piece of wood on which he will be killed doesn’t require piety to prick interest, any more than belief in extraterrestrials is necessary to enjoy Star Wars.
Regardless of whether someone regards them as divinely inspired fact or fables told to console the bleak brevity of human life, the great biblical set pieces retain a claim to be, as a Hollywood marketing department once termed them, the greatest stories ever told.