My daughter, to me, while I brushed her hair tonight. “Daddy, why did God make Jesus die on the cross?” How do you even begin to answer that? “Well you see honey, the penal substitutional theory states that …”
You remember Spinal Tap, right, England’s loudest (and perhaps least clued) band? Amps that go to 11? D minor is the saddest of all keys? Drummers that spontaneously combust?
Yeah, you remember.
Spinal Tap was the first in a line of absolutely smashing mockumentarys from Christopher Guest and company. Spinal Tap has given birth to many cult jokes since 1982, but in our family, there’s one called, “Having a Spinal Tap Moment,” that I need to share with you right now.
If you’ll remember the film, there are two scenes that vividly illustrate The Spinal Tap moment, as we define it. The first is the famous Stonehenge scene, where the band has written a long, operatic song about the mysterious monument, and has arranged for a model to be lowered from the rafters onto the stage at just the right moment. A clerical error makes the model eighteen inches high, instead of eighteen feet high, and therefore they must have midgets come dance around it to give it the right scale.
The second scene was the one where they had decided to make their grand entrance from large, adult sized, alien looking pods. All went well, except for Harry Shearer’s character, who remained stuck in his throughout the song, finally bursting forth just as his bandmates had already returned to their pods of origin.
A Spinal Tap moment, in our family lexicon, refers to something that was meant to appear dramatic or sinister or moving, but due to any combination of ego, incompetence, and general bad luck, comes off looking silly.
Church productions, unfortunately, are rife with Spinal Tap moments. The most classic one in my memory banks happened at a megachurch in our area. In this particular story, the names have been changed to protect the innocent, as for them all I have deep affection.
Several people of talent and means had pooled their resources with a singular purpose in mind: to create an Evangelically minded, Broadway style musical that would tour the nation. The working title was something along the lines of “God of Glory!” These were serious people. The financial backer and chief creative force had been at executive vice president of a major Hollywood film studio. He is a good guy, knows a lot of people, and knows how to move and shake with them all. One of the composers is the grand poohbah of church choral music, the other a successful player and arranger, with some of the funkiest bass chops around.
So, they’ve all been working on this thing for about 18 months… developing, writing, rewriting, etc. They decide to have a showcase, and invite essentially every major player in the Southern California church scene, in an attempt to raise awareness and support for the project. Nearly all of them showed up, it was quite a thing to mingle that night. Erica and I were invited, not because we have money or influence, but because… well.. actually I can’t remember why… but we were there.
The program was to be about 60 minutes, featuring sequences from the first half of what was to become, like I mentioned before, a fully orchestrated and produced two-and-one-half-hour Cirque-De-Hey-Soos-A-Pallooza. The story was being told on two levels, one revolving around the difficult life of a Latina woman working with inner city youth and battling her own past and present, and another revolving around the demonic and angelic forces engaged in warfare behind the scenes. Think West Side Story meets This Present Darkness meets… I dunno. YWAM.
It was… meh… so-so. A for effort, though. I saw what they were going for and, wanting to believe the best for my friends, was trying to look for the good.
About forty five minutes in, a villainous character was introduced and all of a sudden the stage was flooded with red lights, the orchestra struck a mightily menacing minor chord, and a half dozen muscular actors, clad head to toe in full Tim Curry-esque demonic regalia, descended on ropes from above the stage in a tight formation, like kinda-gay Navy Seals. Five out of six of them landed safely, continuing their menacing stances against the hombres already on the stage.
The sixth one, dead center, got stuck halfway down. He did his best, really. He struck scary looking poses. He used his angry eyes. He continued to stay in character even as the stagehands rushed to the catwalk, and started to pull him back up. At one point, again to his credit, he actually did a mid air backflip to position himself for re-entry to platform, still looking really pissed.
His best efforts aside, it’s safe to say the moment was ruined. What was meant to be terrifying was instead a giggle fest.
I told this story to the creative planning team at our own little church about five weeks ago. It was meant to be a humorous warning against reaching artistically beyond the limits of your stagecraft and personnel. Keep it simple, stupid. You see. we had decided to take a creative approach to Good Friday. We wanted to get people out of the sanctuary. We wanted to put our hands on something real. We wanted to get out of ComfortLand for one night.
We divided up four aspects of the Good Friday story and assigned them to the three pastors, and one elder who teaches and sits on our planning team. We decided to take the congregation, break them into four groups, and rotate them on a walk on our campus, making our presentations simultaneously four times before returning to the sanctuary for one final reflection and act, more on that in a moment.
Andy was tasked with talking about Jesus’ suffering. He and a friend went down to Universal and rented some really great looking props, which were arranged on top of black cloth so that everyone could just barely make them out in the flickering candle light. No Spinal Tap moments in there, just an accurate telling of what happened when someone endured a scourging by professional Roman Soldiers.
Mike was asked to teach a little bit about how Jesus’ body would have been prepared for burial. A mother and daughter set up five 10′ X 10′ outdoor tents on the lawn next to the sanctuary. They draped the entire 200 square foot structure with black cloth, and decorated the insides with candelabras and torches. Mike found some actual Myrrh incense and burned it inside the tent. It was slightly low, you had to duck slightly to get through the opening they had created, and it was slightly damp feeling inside due to our strange SoCal spring weather. Our church is in a rural-ish part of town, and our neighbors have all sorts of barnyard animals, braying in the distance. No Spinal Tap moments in there, it was atmospheric and haunting.
I was asked to speak on the grief of the disciples and Jesus’ family. Being me, I wanted to use media, so I got the youth room, as it was configured for projection. My friend Kala draped the entire room in black, and arranged a sea of candles. No Spinal Tap moments in my room, I wrote a good piece, and I had simple and effective media to go with it. We were in the moment together four times in a row. It was a personally satisfying creative experience, and I don’t get to say that often enough.
As I mentioned, our campus feels very rural, spread out over several buildings. Two other ladies had arranged dozens or perhaps hundreds of candle bags and tiki torches around the property, lighting paths from one room to the next. Mike turned the lights off. Crickets and frogs sung, and we heard them, because two hundred people walked in near silence throughout the entire sixty minute exercise. It was a great marriage of content and vibe.
There was only one thing remaining. We have this really cool 10 foot tall wooden cross. It’s really impressive, sturdy and thick. We wanted to end our evening by somehow making a connection between the cross and the torn curtain. We decided to put the large cross at center stage, but drape it until the end of the service. Then, we’d re-gather, read that final bit of Scripture together, and someone would actually tear the curtain at the same time, revealing the cross. The service would then be concluded as people chose to meditate, pray, make confession, or leave.
It was in this planning of this final event that visions of Spinal Tap began to dance in my head. There was a brief discussion about creating some sort of facade with piping around the cross. I had visions of old women being clobbered in the face with a PVC pipe as an overzealous deacon started REALLY putting his back into ripping that thing apart.
In the end, simplicity won out, and we decided to run a long strip of velcro along the front wooden crossbeam and hang the curtain from it. We would not actually tear it, but pull it to the ground, the sound of the velcro giving us the aural satisfaction we wanted.
It was first set up on Wednesday, as a test. It was a totally striking visual, to see it in place for the first time. It was a large piece of cloth, perhaps twenty feet high and forty feet across. The stage was rendered almost completely invisible. With permission, I tested it, and it worked like a charm. We had to rehearse that night, anyways, so we all knew we were going to put it up twice. Our chief decor engineers reset it sometime Friday afternoon.
So, we’re back to Friday night. We open with worship (Erica and I on the floor of the Sanctuary with two vocal mics and one Fender Rhodes), then we break into our four rooms, and rotate four times. Then we are all back together. We’re giddy at this point, because all the logistics had thus far worked perfectly. We were downright Emergent! The night had been thick with the Holy Spirit, no joke.
So, Bill (the elder) starts reading the Scripture, and Mike moves to the stage for the big reveal. At first, it works brilliantly, and there is even the sound of breath being caught in the room, as people realize what’s been shrouded this whole time. About two thirds of the way down, the amps go to 11: the cloth gets caught on something.
My pulse quickens.
Bill keeps reading. Mike squares himself and starts pulling. The curtain… rips. It’s violent and beautiful. It looks like we meant for it to happen. Mike tears it to the ground, and disaster is averted. Almost. See… he still wants the other piece, a section about five feel across still hanging from the crossbeam.
No, I think. Let it be. We’ve had this amazing moment. We can see the cross. It’s cool, dude!
He’s gotta get it. He is a tall man, father of six, and not exactly a wimp. He squares up again, grabs it with both hands and give it all he’s got. I’m trying not to think about the lighting rig, intermingled with the velcro. He cranks on it, and it doesn’t budge. A titter murmurs from the crowd.
This is it… the moment I’ve dreaded. Our very own Alien Pod, our Dangling Demon. Jerk-weed cousins visiting for Easter will make fun of us after they go home. Crap.
He pulls again, and it gives way, and he nearly topples over, remaining upright despite physics’ best attempt. The remainder of the curtain falls, as well as the last ten feet of the velcro strip, which now dangles to the floor. The crowd erupts into applause, totally sincere. We had really worked them over emotionally that evening, and they were ready for victory. Their Savior had wrestled sin and death to the floor, and their pastor had wrangled that #%$*#!! curtain to the floor, and they sincerely wanted to cheer about it.
It was a beautiful moment. I loved Good Friday this year. I needed Good Friday this year. Who knows of you out there read this stuff, but if you are, I hope that somehow Jesus found you this season.
Oh, and we did crank it to 11 this morning. Happy Easter, everyone.
The bright glorious breaking
headlong, and furious
of the Risen
Broken for us
Breaking, now, death
We’re bringing a little bit of Good Friday into Easter this year, at our church. We’re performing this piece live, with this video (some edits yet to be done) on screen in sync. Click image below to view it.