For all the creativity that dramatists have brought to depicting the Passion events, Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane has a certain template.
Audiences experience His fervent prayer, disappointment at dozing disciples, and a calm before the storm – while sinister forces gather in darkness to arrest Him.
The Thorn, a flashy musical pageant, which originated at an Evangelical megachurch, stages it quite differently, as imagined by writer-producer John Bolin.
“We try to peel away and see the spiritual layer,” he told me in an interview. “What would be happening behind the scenes? While Jesus is praying, could there have been this supernatural battle?”
Gethsemane becomes a battlefield, as menacing demons in full-body black-and-red makeup clash swords with blue-and-white-clad angels (think elves in Middle-Earth).
“Our lead warrior angel actually works at Universal Studios, as the Jason Bourne character in their live experience,” says Bolin.
Premiering in theaters March 6 and 7 as a Fathom Events screening (SEE UPDATES BELOW FOR ADDITIONAL DATES/WAYS TO WATCH), The Thorn presents the ministry and Passion of Jesus in a musical drama of dance movements, acrobatics, and pyrotechnics.
Immersive and fast-paced, it brings significant Gospel scenes to life through the eyes of characters who draw viewers into the narrative.
Bolin and his wife, Sarah, who premiered The Thorn in 1996 as youth pastors at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, have enhanced the production every year since then.
He says the “unchurched” invariably enjoy it, some recognizing influences such as The Passion of the Christ, Cirque du Soleil, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar.
Yet some religious viewers critique that they’ve, as Bolin puts it, “lost the message amid all the circus.”
Bolin counters that his team, “take cues first from Jesus, who used spectacle to get people's attention. When you're turning a few loaves of bread and fish into feeding 5,000, you get people's attention. When you're turning water into wine, you get people's attention.
“Jesus was the master of knowing how to grab the attention of people – showing who he was and revealing himself to them.”
The Spectacle and the Spiritual
Towards that end – compelling people to watch – The Thorn employs world-class performers.
Some of their dancers trained at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City. Their choreographer, an assistant coach at USA Gymnastics, recruited some athletes to perform acrobatics on the show. And one of their cast members has for years performed on Broadway.
“What we're trying to do is tell the story at the highest level we can,” says Bolin.
They’ve been inspired in this approach by looking back at church history.
“Consider the cathedrals that Christians built in past centuries,” he said. “The stained glass, sculptures and art of the Renaissance was a way to say: Let's draw the attention of the best art we can create to the story of God.”
The narrative has two framing devices, building suspense to the climax during Holy Week.
The Thorn begins with John the Beloved in his elder years exiled on the island of Patmos, chronicling the ministry of his former rabbi. In the live show, John breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience.
For the film, they’ve introduced bookend scenes with a young thief entering John’s cave on Patmos. The disciple finds the forsaken boy curious and recounts the story.
Similar to The Princess Bride, the narrative revisits the two a few times for context.
“In places, I think it works really well,” says Bolin.
While the ministry of Jesus is the show’s focus, early scenes briefly depict the fall of man in the Garden of Eden and the Jewish people’s flight from Egypt during the Exodus.
Viewers also glimpse the spiritual realm, with rebellious Lucifer being cast out of Heaven. A translucent blue globe symbolizes choices for good or evil, turning red during the latter moments.
This Biblical highlight reel, particularly compact in a 90-minute film, could be confusing to those unfamiliar with the text – a “valid criticism,” admitted Bolin.
“Have we brought this to the masses in a way they can understand what's going on?," he says. "I think the answer is mostly yes, but partly no. And that's part of our mission going forward.”
He notes they are working on ways to facilitate post-show engagement with relevant Bible passages.
Why the Show Resonates
As the film event rolls out a month before Easter, it’s intended in part to help fuel interest in The Thorn live tour, which heads to 10 performing arts centers this spring.
Rehearsals are ongoing for the tour, which begins in Denver, Colorado, and concludes at the iconic Ziff Ballet Opera House in Miami, Florida – a venue that Bolin calls “a work of art in itself.”
He explains: “It has this beautiful dome ceiling, atop an orchestra level and four balcony tiers. To present the story of God there is going to be amazing.”
From performers suspended 40 feet in the air to fire-wielding foes – staged with a rotating platform and a bank of LED light arrays – The Thorn utilizes state-of-the-art technology to retell the Gospel story.
Yet, when asked why the show still resonates after decades, Bolin points to Scripture, not spectacle: “It's not by might nor by power, but by His Spirit."
The producer concludes: “If there's any success with this film or live stage show, it's not us or our team. I believe it's God being faithful to us, because He loves it when we champion His Son and tell His story.”
The Thorn film premieres March 6 and 7 in theaters nationwide as a Fathom Event, and the live show comes to ten cities from March 1 to April 8.
UPDATE: The Fathom Event theatrical showings have been extended to include March 15 and 26.
In addition, starting March 27, The Thorn can be streamed at home on your TV as a Virtual Cinema Event, through Chromecast, AppleTV/Airplay, Roku or via HDMI from a computer. More information and a link to purchase tickets for specific dates/times can be found here.
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith and public-policy issues for various media outlets. He and his wife are raising two children in Northern Virginia.