Working Through Grief and Fear to Go Forward in Faith: Review of The 12

12 disciples apostles theater theatre musicalOn Saturday, I was among the members and friends of Sacred Stones Ministries to attend a matinee performance of The 12, a new rock musical about the followers of Jesus as they work through their grief, fear, confusion, and commitment in the two days following the death of their Teacher. While I expected a thoughtful and moving show that would give me some food for reflection, I was blown away by the power of the performances and some new theological insights.

This was the second date for members of our group to attend, following an evening performance on April 10. Unfortunately, the show closed yesterday, so as much as I would like to encourage you all to go out and buy tickets, you’ll have to wait until some unknown future date and location to catch it.

The Gospel accounts of what the disciples are doing between Jesus’ arrest on Thursday night and the resurrection appearances on Sunday are limited. Yes, Peter attends the trial but denies knowing Jesus; Mary Magdalene and other women follow Jesus all the way to the cross and watch him die; “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” usually interpreted as John, was also present at the cross. Then they all disappear for the Sabbath day, when no one may touch or embalm the body.

The 12 picks up at this gap in the narrative on Friday evening, portraying the 11 remaining disciples (after Judas dies) plus Mary Magdalene, and, briefly, Mary the mother of Jesus, as hiding out in the upper room where they had celebrated the Passover meal. I was struck by the intensity of the fear experienced by these followers of Jesus as they tried to figure out whether they could even go out in public after their Teacher’s execution. They were far from home, in an unfamiliar city, and fearing for their own lives, even as they wrestled with the confusion, doubt, and grief of Jesus’s death as it related to what they expected from following him.

I appreciated that each disciple was fully developed as a character with a history, personality, philosophy, and perspective on what Jesus stood for. We saw a contemporary and personal interpretation of Simon the Zealot as a revolutionary willing to kill for the cause, Matt the judgmental tax collector in a dirty suit, James and John the “Sons of Thunder,” Mary Magdalene the outcast among outcasts, and Pete the impulsive yet committed leader. While many details were drawn from extra-biblical sources and church tradition (legend), the actors clearly made personal choices about how to portray their characters.

The music was powerful, modern, and diverse, revealing the range of emotions the disciples experienced. Composer Neil Berg is quoted as saying that rock was the natural musical vehicle for this show because, “for me, rock music is a natural voice of revolution. So it’s a great vernacular to use. It’s also great for (expressing) anguish and pain” (source). And the songs were masterfully performed, especially by Mary Magdalene, Mother, and Thomas. A couple numbers have the potential to be adapted for use in worship, and I would eagerly buy the soundtrack to listen again and get more out of the lyrics.

I was especially impressed by the playwright’s and director’s inclusive approach to interpreting this sacred story. While remaining mostly faithful to the biblical witness, the show focuses on what might have happened after the crucifixion from a perspective of universal human experience. Rather than watering down the faith impact of the story, I found the show’s keen insight into individual psychology and group dynamics to heighten my understanding and appreciation of what the disciples might have gone through.

“We have all experienced a dark night of the soul. A time where everything we have believed in whether it is a religious expression or an idea or a cause has failed us. And we have to find a way to go forward. To recover our faith and our belief. That’s at the heart of what we are trying to do here.”

– Robert Schenkkan, playwright [Source]

The show leaves open the questions of who Jesus was in relation to God, what his life and death mean for humankind, and what the empty tomb means. By focusing on the human experience of the disciples, without bringing in the baggage of theological or doctrinal pronouncements, the audience is allowed to apply their own lens of interpretation to the story. Our group included Christians across a pretty wide theological spectrum, and all of us found a great deal to appreciate without anything that caused offense. And I imagine that this openness of interpretation would appeal to skeptics, seekers, doubters, all those who question or struggle with faith, and those who follow other faith traditions, as much as those who are committed to following this same Teacher.

“Act I begins with a famous tableau in which one essential figure is missing, indicated by a chair. The pain of that absence haunts everyone. In Act II, a new absence is announced — the empty tomb — and, it, too, haunts everyone. It is between these two poles — between despair and the possibility of hope – that The 12 lives. And, I would argue, that all of us live.”

– Robert Schenkkan, playwright [Source]

That tension between despair and hope comes to a climax in a sequence of songs between Tom (Thomas) and Pete, as Tom first refuses to join the others in believing that Jesus has risen, demands the kind of tangible proof that any reasonable person would want – to see his Teacher face to face and touch the wounds of the nails and spear – and finally confesses that his anger and biting sarcasm are because he loved the Teacher so deeply. Pete, in turn, confronts Tom and insists that the group can’t go forward without him, that Jesus chose each one of them for a reason, that Tom’s doubts and sharp tongue are gifts that the group needs, and finally speaks (sings) this powerful truth:

“You aren’t hurt because you can’t touch him. You’re hurting because he put his fingers in your wounds.” [emphasis mine]

This moment took my breath away for its emotional and theological insight. It is a sermon in song that I will continue to reflect on in the days ahead. In conversation about this moment, Sacred Stones CEO, Rev. Denise Bender, pointed out, “The whole play is about trying to touch those places in us in need of healing.”

From Pete and Tom’s emotional wrestling to Mother’s heartbreaking grief and Mary Magdalene’s gritty strength in the face of the male disciples’ attempts to shut her out, The 12 does not shy away from the shadow side of human experience, but probes it for redemptive meaning.

I could write more, especially about the importance of the communal connection in moving forward as disciples to bring about the new life Jesus had proclaimed, but I will wrap up here. The story of the surviving followers of a charismatic, revolutionary, wonder-working Teacher, struggling to make sense of tragedy as they work through their own fear, doubt, and grief, The 12 offers a message of hope and transformation for all who have suffered deeply and wondered how to begin again. I highly recommend it as a theatrical experience for any person of faith, and for any person who has ever wondered what the point of faith might be.

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