Wednesday, April 26, 2017

We go to a Play at Church

Truth Tabernacle, Fresno, California
You can’t go wrong by opening with a sword fight. So that, wisely, is how The Centurion, a play performed on Good Friday at Truth Tabernacle in Fresno, opened -- with a tableau of Roman soldiers battling men wearing your basic church program Bible robes. The scene comes to life, and there’s a brief battle with no stabbing or blood. We soon discover that this altercation has resulted in the arrest of Barabbas. It was a nice beginning for the play, and we were already in good spirits from the pleasant welcome we’d received from people in the church.

We got a flyer for the program in the mail. There was a good sized crowd at the entrance when we arrived., and we were asked if we had tickets. We showed the woman our flyer, but she said we needed get a ticket and fill out contact information. She took us to one of the tables and gave Mindy a ticket to fill out. After we’d done that, we headed inside (ticket in hand), where we handed our ticket to an usher. Many people greeted us, often with “God bless you.”

We thought we’d arrived in plenty of time, but the sanctuary/theater was quite full. An usher directed us to seats in the middle of a row, where we sat next to a man with a couple of young boys. He welcomed us, “First time here? You guys will love it.” He told us that there were several different Tabernacle congregations (called Branches) at different locations, but all they all came together for special events such as this one.

The worship service/play began promptly when a man in front invited us, “Can you worship and sing with us tonight?” But there were no printed lyrics and no screen to read from. Fortunately, the first song had plenty of repeating, and I happened to know the next song. The singing was loud and lively. We were then encouraged to “Give Jesus a hearty hand clap of love and appreciation.”

A couple of announcements were made before the play began. No videography of the play was permitted (though they didn’t say anything about photos), and people were to stay out of the aisles (actors would be using them throughout the performance).

After the swordfight in the play, we got to hear a conversation between two centurions who seemed to have a very sophisticated understanding of Hebrew Scripture and theology. (For a bit, I was wondering why the title was singular, but eventually the focus goes on one of the two.)

We then saw Jesus preaching. We’ve been told he’ll be in the marketplace, and there he preached the Sermon on the Mount, healed the woman who touched the hem of his clothes, argued with the Pharisees about healing on the Sabbath, and then saved the woman caught in adultery. It was kind of like a Messiah’s Greatest Hits. Then we watched the religious leaders plotting against Jesus, with Satan working behind the scenes. (The Devil got a red spotlight whenever he was on stage, and it was never good news when anyone in the show got the red spot.)

The Palm Sunday procession which soon followed was sadly donkeyless. Immediately after, Blind Bartimaeus was healed (which the Bible mentions happened in Jericho, not Jerusalem). I guess if the Gospel writers felt the need, at times, to change the order of events to make theological points, I shouldn’t complain too much, but there were little inaccuracies that bothered me.  

These two imaginary additions to the story of the Passion bothered me most:  Judas and the religious leaders haggling over the price of betraying Jesus crept too close (for me) to stereotypes of Jewish frugality. The other addition that was troubling was the characterization of Barabbas as a serial killer (rather than the traditional revolutionary), threatening the families of the soldiers and the people in the crowd. I can’t imagine the Romans releasing such a man.  

There was a really small detail that I appreciated, though: the actress who portrayed the woman who anointed Jesus with perfume had hair that fell nearly to her knees, so I really believed she could dry Jesus feet with her hair. All of the villains, however, were a bit over the top -- from the plotting religious leaders to the sadistic Roman soldiers to Satan himself, who all seemed to (constantly) share the same “Bwahahaha” laugh.

A tableau was used again to portray the crucifixion, with Jesus on the cross in a bloodied robe. Though I could understand why they chose to portray him dressed, that’s not what the Bible describes; it’s not true to the text.

After the death in the play, there was a brief preaching interlude, then the Resurrected Jesus appears outside the tomb wearing white and (for some reason) clean shaven, though He’d been bearded throughout the rest of the production.

The little boys near us laughed at the right times and were displeased with the bad guys. Though the writing and direction were awkward, most of the actors got their lines and hit their marks. The sets and costumes were nicely done.

But after the play was over, the pastor wrapped everything up with a sermon and an invitation. This part, I’m afraid, went beyond a few Scriptural inaccuracies made for drama’s sake into what I’d consider heretical teaching.

Truth Tabernacle says on its sign that it’s a “Jesus Name Church,” and the minister speaking made more explicit what that meant. He said, “There is one God, and His name is Jesus...The Name of the Father is Jesus, the Name of the Son is Jesus, and the Name of the Holy Ghost is Jesus.” He went on to imply that those who were baptized in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit would be in big doo-doo when they got to Heaven because they weren’t baptized in the Name of Jesus alone as Peter commanded in Acts 2:38.

Indulge me while I tell a little side story on Mindy. She went to the same seminary I went to, and she found systematic theology classes difficult. She’d think she’d come up with a solution to a particularly thorny theological conundrum, and in the next class she’d learn that her “solution” was a heresy the Church had condemned centuries ago.

I’m the first to admit the idea of the Trinity is difficult. One God in Three Persons is not an easy idea to understand. What they seemed to be teaching at Truth Tabernacle is that there is not Three Persons, there is only Jesus, which would make many statements of Jesus into gibberish. For example, in Matthew 24:36 Jesus talks about the end times and says no one, not even the Son, knows the day or hour of these things, only the Father. This makes no sense if there is no distinction between the Father and Son. In John 16:7 when Jesus talks about why He must leave, He says so the Holy Spirit can come. He did not say, “Jesus must leave so Jesus can come.”

There are plenty of people who have problems with the Church’s traditional teaching on the Trinity and the Holy Spirit. But the pastor at Truth Tabernacle was clearly saying that if you don’t believe their viewpoint, you are not saved, not a believer in Jesus Christ.

We very much appreciated the friendliness of people in the church and the creativity, energy, and effort used to draw people to this Good Friday (and Easter) play. But I’m afraid that even if the play being performed was Hamilton with the original Broadway cast, I couldn’t recommend this church because their teaching and theology isn’t orthodox or true.

Service Length: 1 hour 50 minutes
Sermon Length: mini-message during the play, 3 minutes
Sermon after the play, about 10 minutes
Visitor Treatment: We were greeted warmly and repeatedly by people at the door, in the parking lot, and inside the building. Early in the service there was a greeting time, and people all around us greeted us and each other.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 750
Probable Ushers’ Count: 900
Snacks: none
Musicians: piano (woman)
Organ (woman)
Drums (man)
Electric bass (man)
Electric Guitar (man)
Vocals (2 men, 3 women)
Songs: “I Know it was the Blood”
“Nothing but the Blood”
In the musical
“Messiah Comes”
“There’s a Stranger in Town”
“Alabaster Box”
“Thirty Pieces of Silver”
“This Blood”
“Via Dolorosa”
“Above All”
“He’s Alive”
Distance to Church: ½ mile
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: too many to count; women were mostly in skirts or dresses