Theatre Preview: Bad Jesus

By Garth Paulson

“We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which one will go first–rock’n’roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me,” John Lennon once said. That comment resulted in an eruption of controversy. Beyond the mass Beatles burnings and radio bans, it lead to his death at the hands of Mark David Chapman. Add Rick Miller’s cutting comedy, Bigger Than Jesus, to the list of repercussions to Lennon’s misunderstood saying.

Making a return visit to Calgary after its triumphant run at last year’s High Performance Rodeo, Bigger Than Jesus offers a unique view on Christianity.

“I was trying to find meaning in words that I was just repeating as a kid, and, in doing so, we’re celebrating the spirit of religious thinking,” explains Miller. “Going to a play is not that different from going to church for a sermon. We’re making links between the mass that we offer in a secular setting versus the mass offered in religious setting.”

By questioning Jesus’ place in our lives, Miller hopes to open up a sophisticated dialogue regarding religion. The play neither comes across as an anti-religious tirade or a dogmatic proclamation of Christianity’s virtues, instead falling somewhere in between.

“Normally when people see the show they realize the irreverence is very much balanced with the reverence and very carefully placed to provoke, not necessarily to denigrate religious thinking,” defends Miller. “It’s not an anti-religion play, if anything it’s for religious thinking, but mistrustful of organized religion. Especially when organized religions compare gods and start wars over them.”

Miller has since left the church, but he incorporates many countless Sunday mornings spent sitting in uncomfortable pews into the tapestry of Bigger Than Jesus. Though his Catholic upbringing certainly plays a part in the desire to create such an ambitious project, the upswing in Christianity’s popularity, as evidenced by The Passion of the Christ and George W. Bush riding the fundamentalist vote to re-election, provided an even greater inspiration.

“I was reaching the age people call ‘the age of Jesus.’ I’d played Jesus in two different musicals and I encounter him on billboards, on crosses and around peoples’ necks every day. I’m just interested in what causes a crucified Jewish man to reach such levels of pop-culture saturation,” Miller remarks. “If Jesus can sell $600 million at the box office, or whatever it was, it really shows that this is something which needs to be talked about.”

Though Miller is certainly dealing with some heavy issues with Bigger Than Jesus, it’s ultimately a light hearted affair. It may make you seriously question your belief system, but you’ll laugh just as hard at scenes such as an action figure re-enactment of the last supper. This scene, along with several others throughout the production, serve to emphasize Jesus’s permanent role, not only as a religious figure, but a pop-culture icon as well.

“He’s in the same realm as John Lennon, which is why John Lennon is an action figure in our last supper scene,” says Miller. “His action figure is a little bigger than Jesus, of course.”

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