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If you’re in the mood for something silly and entertaining (but technically, biblical?!), I have to highly recommend this YouTube video that a friend shared with me last week. The video is essentially a highlight reel of the extravagant Easter plays from Church of the Rock in Winnipeg, Manitoba, paired with amusing and informative commentary. 

The plays are zany retellings of the Easter story using popular films. If it’s been a blockbuster hit sometime in the last several decades, the church has ripped it off for their Easter play — Star Trek, Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Avengers, Batman, The Princess Bride, Back to the Future, and more. Each year it’s the same Easter story but with a new cast of characters, insane props, costumes, and special effects, and an eclectic soundtrack of pop hits. Trust me, it’s even more zany than it sounds.

The sets, costumes, props, and effects are elaborate, at least as far as church plays go. The Batman play has an actual Batmobile that they drive around the stage. The Back to the Future play has a mini-DeLorean. I couldn’t help but wonder what the budget was for each performance and where that money came from. 

The soundtracks for each production are also something else. They sing a lot of pop songs to and about Jesus. Not praise music or well-known Christian songs, mind you, actual pop songs. 

For some, they changed the lyrics: “Rasputin” with lyrics changed to be about Jesus and the kingdom of heaven, “Drunken Sailor” now rebranded as “What Shall We Do with a Risen Savior,” “Uptown Funk” transformed into “Uptown Faith.”

For others, they kept the lyrics the same and simply inserted the pop songs right into the Easter story: “I’m Walking on Sunshine,” “I Feel Like a Woman,” “Gangnam Style” — yes, you read that right, “Gangnam Style.” How do these songs help us understand the Easter story? I’ve watched the video twice now and I’m still not quite sure. 

Since watching the video, I’ve also spent too much time wondering what my post-Crucifixion lament might be. If you watch the video, you’ll see that almost any song goes if you need a song to sing after the Savior of the world has been crucified: “The Phantom of the Opera” (with lyrics about the crucifixion?), Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” Imagine Dragon’s “Radioactive,” and more.

A lot of it is cringeworthy. Some of it is a little culturally insensitive and racist. Most of it is downright silly. Using pop culture stories and songs to tell the Easter story, while clever and entertaining, doesn’t lead to the most coherent or compelling storytelling. And I’m sorry but it’s just a little odd to see Captain Jack Sparrow (I’m sorry, I got that wrong, Captain Jack Savior) crucified at the end of Pirates of the Galilean or to see a Donald Trump-Mr. Potato Head mashup in Joy Story.

As you can probably tell, it’s an entertaining watch and good for a laugh. At the same time, it’s food for thought as an outside observer of white evangelicalism in Canada and the United States.

First, I think it says a little something about evangelicalism’s odd relationship to pop culture – sometimes embracing pop culture, sometimes keeping it at a distance, other times seeking to transform pop culture for its own purposes. While the plays are drawing on pop culture references, they’re always at least a year or two behind, sometimes decades so. They just lift jokes directly from random movies and films. A lot of what is meant to be funny just isn’t or isn’t funny for the reasons the church thinks it will be. In step with pop culture, but not quite — something is always a little off. 

It begs the question of the audience and purpose of these plays. Part of me thinks this was supposed to be a seeker-friendly sort of service — maybe a draw for people who otherwise wouldn’t come to church but have showed up on Easter Sunday? Is it a way to keep them entertained and hopefully to get them to come back the next week? And I wonder how effective the plays are if that’s the purpose – again, much of the content was entertaining but also led to a lot of secondhand embarrassment as the viewer. 

All of this points toward the apparent waning cultural power of evangelicalism. The plays feel like a church trying a little too hard to be culturally familiar and aware. But the humor and pop culture references in the plays aren’t quite right. The plays exemplify evangelicalism’s flawed and sometimes desperate efforts to seem relevant and remain a cultural player in the ways that evangelicals desire.

Allison Vander Broek

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics. She earned her doctorate in history from Boston College, Her research explored the origins of the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and its rise to national prominence in subsequent years. Though she swore she'd move back to the Midwest after grad school, Allison still resides in the Boston metro area and now works in academic advising at Tufts University.


  • mstair says:

    “in the world, but not of the world”… The O.T. & Jesus teach us (as The People of God) to become peculiar for the sake of our witness to the corrupt culture around us… this sounds like a little too much “OF the world” to be distinctive… to borrow from Shakespeare, re: this type of “evangelism” … “methinks thou enjoyeth it too much…”]

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    First response without having seen is “how silly/ VBS for adults;” stuffy-elder me cringes at a trivialization of the gospel; is this actually an evangelism program or insider entertainment. Etc.
    And then English major me thinks also of the anthologized medieval mystery plays, Second Shepherds’ Play, carols,even, that retell the old, old story of Jesus and his love. Ragman; Cotton Patch Gospel; Lewis & Tolkien by extended association.
    Curious to see–thanks for the article!

  • John Hubers says:

    Insightful reflection on how evangelical flirtations with pop culture are always a little bit off. Been that way for years actually as I’m sure you’re well aware. I saw it happening already in the 70s.

    My own take on this is that the underlying core belief that the Gospel is a message that has to be packaged and sold like any other commodity leads to an embrace of all the gimmicks of slick salesmanship.

    What is missing is the more accurate description of Gospel as lived good news. That has an attraction that doesn’t need sales techniques.

  • David Landegent says:

    On your recommendation, I zipped my way through this long critique of multi-years of Easter plays. I was hoping for better since I always enjoy Christians attempting to do Mad magazine style satire (like the Wittenberg door). I remember being taught at seminary that there was a long-standing tradition of beginning an Easter service with a joke. Sometimes we just have to do this kind of humor, not for some serious purpose, but for the sheer joy of it. But I have to admit, I didn’t think these sketches seemed very funny. Part of the problem is that I seldom go to movies, so I couldn’t catch the spoofs very well. Better scripts could help. But still, if this is the only service offered by the church on Easter (at least that’s how I understood it), the people are missing out on some real joy. Nonetheless, I try to always remember Helmut Thielicke’s words about the incarnation: when Christ came in the flesh, he did not only come in “cultured” flesh, but even in “corny” flesh. In trying to catch up on good books, I recently read Vincent Miller’s Consuming Religion, and he made the point that when social groups feel left out of cultural power (and he was thinking especially of minorities here), they will often take cultural symbols that they have no power to design or control and subvert them to their own purposes. He quotes another writer who said, “Theological discourse is a kind of parasitic cultural production’ that depends on wider culture ‘for the materials with which it works.” Whether you think evangelicals have lost cultural power, or not, the reality is that they think they have. This church’s Easter plays look like an attempt to subvert that culture, but for me it didn’t work out well.

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