The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is held every August and this year's daily programme, which is dominated by comedy and theatre, is 167 pages long. Student groups from all over the UK are a mainstay, together with every conceivable amateur, semi-professional and professional performer from every continent. But what's remarkable is just how many of these many and varied performances are in some way inspired by the life of Jesus.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
At the soundly Christian end of the spectrum of 'Jesus-inspired-performances' is a stage production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by US Christian teenagers, for which the programme expresses a hope that the audience will come to a living relationship with the Lord Jesus. Their energetic and inventive performance is faithful to the original and comes complete with near flawless British accents. Their Aslan is a towering puppet moved and voiced by actors inside a simple lion body. I was hoping they would simply let the story speak for itself and dreaded a cringeworthy altar call at the end. Thankfully, they seemed to have the same idea and ended without even so much as a a curtain call.
Ursula Burns: The Dangerous Harpist
At the weirder end of the spectrum is Ursula Burns: The Dangerous Harpist. The songwriter and comedian ends up lying on her back, playing the harp impeccably and erotically. On the way she sings ‘Dry Your Eyes, Jesus’ a reaction against her Roman Catholic childhood. She reminds our saviour that it’s been 2000 years, so he should be "over it" by now, and, anyway, we weren’t there at the time so "It's not our fault" he was crucified. The perfomrnace is a fresh take on the ex-Catholic theme of being made to feel guilty even when just living a normal life. The audience loved it, but clearly the show demonstrates that more work is required by Christians to help people relate to the resurrected Jesus and to understand exactly why his death and resurrection has implications for us today.
Before the song, Ursula was worried that I might be offended. The compere had picked me out for sitting dangerously near the front and cheering too loud when he asked if there were any English in the house. He had fun at my expense and then asked about my job, looking to carry on in the same vein. When I answered "prison chaplain", he became a comic rabbit in the headlights, blinking, riposteless. He appealed to the audience for sympathy "Did anyone see that coming?" Thereafter I was "Father Roger" and accorded respect. A poor Eric on the other side of the room bore all the banter. So when Ursula was about to have her go at religion, she looked at me nervously. "Bless you!" I called out, which raised a laugh and she carried on. At the end of the three act show the compere thanked all, including Eric. "What about Roger?" shouted the audience, before giving me the last applause. There is affection still for some of Jesus’ people, even the official ones.
Go to Hell, Jesus
My best chance of seeing a star of the future was a member of the Oxford University Improvising Comedians. Brilliant (mostly), bouncy (physically and mentally) and brotherly (including the girls.) They spin comedy off the back of audience suggestions. A young man volunteered his Facebook account, including a photo of two female friends enacting Mary holding the dead body of Jesus in a Café Nero. (Unless you were there, you’ll have to take my word for it.) This became the Nero’s Nativity, with Mary innocently explaining her unbelievable bump and screaming to shatter glass as a sheep wandered by at the birth...
...And it gets weirder. First year Drama students from Hull University have created comic play, Go to Hell, Jesus. The title may sound angry but really it's affectionate as the show proves how endearing Jesus remains in our culture, despite much confusion.
Jesus in hell is a hidden story, even among Christians, so it is not surprising that the Hull students thought they were breaking new ground. Their Jesus was a likeable ordinary British lad, with "superhuman powers" mostly able to make the lights flicker brightly. He didn’t know why he was in hell, finding himself there after his rapture and second coming. He's shocked to discover Satan's first name is Karen - the estranged wife of God, and his real mother. His experience leads him to set up a new afterlife for people who are neither notorious sinners, nor great saints.
The Hull students gave us a comic take on ordinary flawed Brits, confused about all the various gods, knowing little detail of Jesus. (He had no nail marks.) "But we’re not really bad, and we’re likeable" they seemed to be saying. They seemed also to be portraying Jesus as equally likeable and even the saviour of the flawed but likeable. Can Jesus’ people pick up on this and make the connection with the real Jesus? Might it be good to resurrect the message of Jesus who descended to the dead and says ‘Don’t be afraid! … I have the keys of Death and Hades?’ Could the Jesus who is alive on the Fringe be welcomed centre stage in our nation?