Oberammergau In Further Decline
In the Banner of Truth magazine, December 1971, the late S.M.Houghton wrote about the Passion Play at Oberammergau: “In recent days Protestantism has suffered invasion from the Bavarian village of Oberammergau, noted for the Passion Play which it presents to the world once in a decade, a thank-offering, as it terms it, for a deliverance from the Black Plague in the year 1634. To recognize the Divine hand in deliverance from evil is indeed good, but to dramatize the sufferings of Christ is thoroughly evil. For a person to play the part of the Lord Jesus Christ and to hang upon a cross (presumably made as comfortable, physically, as the part permits); for another to play the part of Judas Iscariot and to engage in the dread act of betrayal; for others to act as dying thieves – not only is all this altogether alien to the spirit of Holy Scripture; it is also akin to the blasphemous. It should be completely intolerable to one who has ‘the mind of Christ’. Yet in these days many who term themselves Protestants are beguiled, and lend their eyes and ears to the bewitchment. Maybe they would even claim that the message of the cross comes home to their hearts with a new and a strange intensity.
“We are far from claiming that the dramatic art, in the hands of the skillful, does not produce thrills. But a believer has no more right to come into contact with a fictitious Calvary than he has to bow down to wood and stone, to a crucifix or to an altar. That the persons who figure in the performance are living makes no difference. In essence, idolatry is present in a seductive form, and such thrills as may be produced in the hearts of the patrons of the play are not the work of the Spirit of God. But in this way Romanism advances and entraps a Protestantism which delights itself in the spectacular and the showy rather than in the obedience of the Christian man. Faith comes by hearing, hearing by the Word of God; and the preacher of the glad tidings is not a play actor. What else can we do but echo the apostolic exhortation, ‘Wherefore, my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry?'”
The play has become so much a part of Oberammergau village life that the actors of the main parts are referred to as ‘Jesus’ or ‘Mary’ when they are seen in the street. One house is named ‘Pilate’s House’, and in the rococo village church – an art form in which Catholic worship and representation are merged – the painting behind the altar is altered according to the religious calendar, much as a backdrop is changed in a play.
Hitler himself visited the Passion play twice in 1934 and explicitly referred to it eight years later, in July 1942, as the Final Solution was getting under way. ‘Never,’ he declared, ‘has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation.’ So pressure has been brought upon the village to tidy up its act and the Oberammergau play has been changed. Some 65 per cent of the text has been rewritten to root out what is perceived as the play’s anti-Semitism. This has resulted in the play’s programme notes now containing approbatory comments from members of the American Jewish Committee. What are the changes introduced?
The words of the crowd recorded by Matthew, ‘His blood be upon us and upon our children,’ have been deleted. The play introduces protests by a minority of Jews in the trial before Pilate who ask for Christ to be saved. The old invented storyline of the intrigue of the money-changers in the Temple has been suppressed. Caiaphas is depicted as a kind of Pius XII figure – the wartime pope who collaborated with the Nazis and turned a blind eye to Jewish suffering. Pilate becomes an anti-Semitic representative of the Reich of the day. The crowds clamouring for Christ to be crucified sound like a Nuremberg rally. Their cry to free Barabbas, “Barabbas gib frei!” sounds uncannily like “Seig Heil!” The crowd raise their right arms as thy utter their yell.
John Langland writes, “In order to stress Jesus’s Jewishness the apostles address him as ‘Rabbi’, and they all don prayer shawls at various key moments, including at the Last Supper. Then, indeed, Christ breaks into Hebrew as he utters the traditional Jewish blessing over the cup of wine” (‘The Spectator,’ 5th August 2000, “Jesus, the Germans and the Jews” pp.16 and 17). One little omission is most erroneous. When the Lord Jesus broke the bread and gave the wine to his disciples he said to them, “This is the blood of the new covenant,” but in Oberammergau the word ‘new’ has been omitted, as if to suggest Christ instituted no new covenant and that the Jews were in a continuing covenant with God because of their Jewishness.
To justify all this the director of the passion play, Otto Huber, has said, “It is important to emphasize that precisely because the Passion play is based on the gospel, it is not a historical document, but a play of faith.” In other words, the gospels are not historical documents, and belief in the events they recount is a matter of personal opinion. Well, what is truth, anyway?
Living in the World 6 November 2020
This article is the contents of an address first given in February 2020 at the Westminster Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Newcastle, UK. * * * LIVING in the world. How are Christians to live in the world? The question can be answered in many ways. The topic is potentially vast in scope — that becomes more […]
When coming to consider plagues throughout history and some Christian responses, it is appropriate to begin with this extract from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: O Almighty God, who in thy wrath did send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also, in […]