In England in early June, my wife and I went to a fascinating event at the glorious old York cathedral. The York Mystery Plays are a 700-year-old medieval tradition in which guilds (masons, bakers, tailors, etc.) offered an all-day rendition of the biblical narrative. The mystery plays consisted of around fifty twenty-minute renderings of specific biblical stories. Each guild took responsibility for just one part of the story, but together the whole biblical story, as they understood it, was told.
The Mystery Plays were banned by the Crown in the 16th century after the break with Rome, but revived in 1951. This year, Yorkminster church provided the setting for a 3 1/2 hour version of the mystery plays, starring “Game of Thrones” actor Philip McGinley as a quite compelling Jesus, supported by what seemed like a cast of thousands, in an elaborate, picturesque, and unforgettable performance.
Besides a highly stimulating evening of entertainment, the York Mystery Plays made me think about a question I have raised in this space before. What exactly is the Gospel? Seeing the biblical story staged in York, I refine the question: what exactly is the Christian Story? If you had 3 1/2 hours and lots of resources, how would you tell the big-picture biblical story? What is the narrative?
This is how the medieval York Mystery Plays told it, as updated a bit by writer Mike Poulton for the new presentation:
Once upon a time, before the creation of the world, certain angels of God rebel against God, and are cast out of heaven. These fallen angels become the Devil (Lucifer) and his demons. God then creates the heavens and the earth, populates the creation with an array of creatures, and culminates creation with the first man and first woman, innocent and in relationship with God and each other.
Lucifer, however, deceives Eve into disobeying God. She brings Adam into disobedience, and both face God’s judgment, which includes expulsion from paradise. Things go from bad to worse and God decides to send a titanic flood to wipe out sinful humanity. But God saves Noah, his quarrelsome wife, and the next generation, together with some awfully cute and amazing animals, and life starts over again as the floodwaters recede. Later the godly Abraham very nearly sacrifices his Son Isaac, but God was testing him and tells him at the last moment to spare his son.
Some time later an angel comes to Mary and tells her she is going to have a baby. Her aged fiancée Joseph is not pleased, but an angel tells him to accept this child as a miracle from God. Later come the Nativity scenes we all know and love. Jesus is born into a world ruled by a vicious tyrant named Herod, who orders the slaughter of innocent children in order to snuff him out, a slaughter which the soldiers appear happy to oblige.
Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist, tempted by Lucifer in the wilderness, and briefly undertakes a ministry of healing, forgiving, and feeding hungry people. However, after a triumphal entry into Jerusalem he is betrayed by his friend Judas, purely out of greed, into the hands of the Jewish high priests (called bishops here!) who very much want him dead. They persuade a reluctant Roman ruler named Pontius Pilate to crucify him, which Lucifer tries to prevent because he knows that this death will save humanity from sin. However, the tortured Jesus dies on the Cross.
But Jesus rises again, and appears to his incredulous disciples, most memorably to doubting Thomas. After a short while he ascends into heaven. At the very end, he and his angels will come back and judge the world, handing over to Lucifer and his demon spawn those judged negatively and taking up to heaven those judged worthy. This is how the cosmic drama will end.
French postmodernist Jean-Francois Lyotard once famously wrote that we live in a time of “incredulity toward metanarratives.” He meant grand narratives of all types, including but not limited to the grand Christian narrative.
As I was watching the York Mystery Plays, I was wondering how many people in that audience still believe this grand narrative? Is this story now too fantastical to believe, left behind by sophisticated people?
But I am more interested in a different question: how many might have been there who would still claim to be Christians but who have arrived at a different understanding of what the Christian story actually is?
Maybe they want a Christian story more connected to its Jewish origins, and so they don’t like how the vast majority of the Hebrew Scriptures drops out of this version of the York Mystery Plays. Maybe they think it is dangerous to Jews for Christians to pin the blame for Jesus’ death on Jewish religious leaders. (It is dangerous.). Maybe they don’t think that what happened at the Cross was a blood sacrifice for sin demanded by God. Or maybe they don’t think the story ends with billions of people sent down the chute with Lucifer to eternal torment — for how does that reflect any victory for God the Creator and Jesus the Savior?
But then, how much reworking of the Christian story can be undertaken before it is no longer the Christian story? And who has the authority to do the reworking?
Is there an alternative way of telling the great Christian story that can be biblically justified? I think there is. It’s about a king coming to reclaim a rebellious world and make everything right again. It will be the subject of my next post.