By Candace Simpson,
This isn’t a call-out. This is a confession.
Last night, Tyler Perry narrated The Passion Live. It was an incredible spectacle — I mean, when was the last time you saw that many people in one place enjoying the same thing?
Of course, because social media allows for a second show to happen alongside the first, I saw something else happen. I’m a seminary student, a church girl, and a blogger at a Black women’s writing collective. My timeline was filled with the most magnificent of responses, both affirming the work and critiquing it. In one sense, I had to take a moment to be grateful for this mosaic. I’ve got brilliant and beautiful friends. I would not trade anyone’s presence in my life.
When I researched the movie, I learned that Tyler Perry was not the producer. He was just the narrator. This production’s marketing made it look like he was more involved than he actually was.
But then I learned something else. This project was made because the Dutch producer Jacco Doornbos felt it was his duty to tell the story.
“Only 25 percent of the Dutch population was still aware of what the story of Easter was about. And that really shocked me, because I felt like — whether it’s from a religious standpoint, an historical standpoint or a cultural standpoint — we need to know this story because it’s part of our culture.”
Friends, this story was not told because someone read all our Black Liberation Theology recommendations and felt motivated to tell the story. This story was not told because someone went to XYZ Conference or sat in ABC lecture. This artwork is not going to meet our standards because it was not intended to be that. Sometimes it matters that we say “why was this made?” because that answer will likely be sufficient for any other questions. I mean, shawty is talmbout “it’s part of our culture,” but he’s not a Black liberation theologian. He’s going to tell the story that is relevant and meaningful to him. I can’t hold people to standards that are not their own.
This was one Dutch producer’s attempt at popular education, at telling the story the best way he knew how, for an audience he took seriously. And when you consider that this art-text was meant to teach people the Easter story, do we really think the story told would have been “theologically sound?”
What concerns me about this whole debacle is this —
The people who love this art-text and the people who hate this art-text are TWO completely different sets of people with no overlap. I’ve been tracking the phenomenon informally on my own social media pages. It’s a predictable pattern. All the seminary-adjacent folks hated the film. Everyone else either was ambivalent or loved it.
That’s concerning. That tells me something isn’t translating either way. Seminary-adjacent folks are not listening to the experiences of church folks. And church folks aren’t hearing seminary-adjacent folks. So what ends up happening is this masturbatory spectacle. And I am guilty of it too.
Friends. We cannot keep invoking our nanas and our beloved church family in our work if we do not labor to really hear what they feel. It’s hard. Because I’ve done this myself. For me, it is a struggle. It is possible to dislike something without pooing on the folks who love it. It is possible to be underwhelmed by something and still take time to hear how and why it resonates with the people we love.
In fact, that’s good information for church leaders and seminary-adjacent folks. Did we ever ask people why they liked this? Before we smacked folks up the head with links to books and videos of our favorite theologians, did we ask them what attracted them to THIS story? (I’m telling on myself here.) Those might tell us something about what WE missed.
There’s a pretty stark divide among the “Hated it” and “Loved it” crowd. It’s concerning. It tells me that whatever we learned in seminary is not exactly finding its way to the spaces that matter. This experience taught me that there has to be something other than thinkpiece-smack-and-tag culture. Where are the spaces of popular education in our churches? We are failing at meaning-making in community. We are not providing places to “rereading for liberation” as Dr. Renita Weems might argue.
As much as I think a mainly all-White cast save for the villain is bad theology, as much as I am troubled by a blonde Mary, as much as I hated seeing that Times Square Cross paraded down the streets of New Orleans and felt it exploited Black pain as a plot device, as much as I can’t stand to see Tyler Perry’s aggravating facial hair ever…
It’s bigger than that. We saw this with “War Room.” Some people called it Bad Theology. Other people were moved. Some people loved the Passion Live, others hated it. But this weekend I learned that those categories — bad theology and good theology — are irrelevant for most people. I have to deny my ego to say “my categories are irrelevant.” Because then that means I’m not the end or the way.
Look, I’m a Delores Williams Womanist. I do not believe in suffering as a way to something greater. I learned that last year when I had to go on strike from the movement. I do not believe in doing things that harm me or make me sad unnecessarily. And still, I can name ten people in my life who are likely to say “sometimes God takes you to a storm to see if you can handle it” or “He’ll never put more on you than you can bear.” I can prove with notes from Old Testament AND New Testament that these cliches are insufficient and biblically unsupported. But what would that do, except make me feel smart and brilliant and powerful?
We need to empower people to ask their own questions of the text. It cannot be that the pastor or the professor or the seminary student has all the knowledge. That only reproduces a dependency upon other people’s work. And sadly, it is just as dangerous for us to mindlessly consume Tyler Perry’s work as it is to mindlessly consume Black Liberation Theology. All texts deserve critical engagement, questioning, and meaningful conversation. It would be just as bad for us to sit in a room and snap excitedly at the left-leaning lecturer as it is for us to do so at The Passion Live.
Our responsibility is not to content, but to process. Personally, I wish I could get everyone to agree that Nicki Minaj provides a womanish model of self-sufficiency. Everyone won’t. But it is the exercise of taking work seriously that matters. And more often than not, when we throw things and products away, we do that in ADDITION to throwing people away. If we truly believe no one is disposable, that has to be a consistent mantra. And for those I’ve hurt without offering an ear, I apologize. We can do better together.
Some religious professionals (I hate this term but that’s the best I have) have to give up some power, sit in a circle with “regular people,” and ask, “What did you think?” That’s not everyone’s project. But some of us better figure out how to help imagine something other than this right here.
This is the beauty of the church. We already have mechanisms that support this sort of inquiry. Bible Study and Sunday School can address these questions. Can we take the thing most people know and make sense of it together? This is that unsexy work. It will not make us important and it likely won’t win us any accolades or awards. But it is life-bringing to talk about things together. And as much as I enjoy writing, I fear that this public writing machine does not allow us to make sense of things together. We simply want to be seen agreeing with the person we like the most. That troubles me. Sometimes I feel really disappointed that my words can be used to smack someone upside the head. I don’t want to write things like that. As much as I believe what I believe, there are people being lost in my pontificating. Perhaps this is the teacher in me, but frankly, I just don’t think that’s nice. And niceness matters.
(LOL this is coming from the clapback-sarcasm-eye roll-Queen. I’m a mess. Help me, Holy Ghost)
For that reason, after learning how this project came about, I am not mad. I can see that there is capitalist interest in depicting the Jesus story as a White hometown hero. I can see a world that makes the darkest character its villain is also the world that depends upon the exploitation of a permanent lower class, and it’s much easier to make that lower class an aesthetically differentiated category. We all knew Seal was gon’ be the villain, same way we know the Black guy dies first in the horror movies, and the cops usually tend to shoot Black folks more than others. We can play this game all day and we would be “right.” And then what?
Oddly, watching this story also gives me hope. It makes me feel like there is indeed a space for us to challenge that which angers us. If ole Dutch shawty can make that, surely I can gather ten people in a room and ask them, “So, what did you see here? Is this right in your estimation? How does this line up in your world? Is this your Jesus? Who is your Jesus? When have you encountered Jesus?” I’d ask those questions and I’d stay for the answers. I’d learn a lot.
If this art-text resonated with so many people, there’s likely a reason. We should really sit with ourselves and wonder why. For me, I am convicted to be more thoughtful in my writing. Am I writing about a subject or writing tothem? For me, I’d like to be doing more of the latter. Perhaps that’s not everyone’s project, but it should happen more often. I’d like to live in that world.
Knowledge is power. It needn’t be a weapon.
Candace Yonina Simpson is a Masters of Divinity Candidate at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Follow Candace on Twitter @CandyCornball