Jesus of Nazareth
Jesus of NazarethFor 16 years I played Jesus in a touring stage ministry. I did it in churches, in synagogues, in community centers, in theaters. I did it indoors and outdoors. I did it for 2,000 people and I did it for 20. I did it for them and, truth be told, I did it for me. About 1,200 performances between 1994 and 2010 (I stopped counting after passing 1,000.)
Why would a sane man do this?
When a man is in love, he’s not quite sane. I’ve been in love with Jesus since I first saw him wander across the felt boards of my distant Sunday School youth. I remember wondering, once I was old enough to read his story for myself, “How can preachers make him so boring?”
Jesus Of Nazareth was born of a perhaps quixotic quest: to recreate the teaching presence of Jesus and to restore that freshness of discourse that so startled his original listeners. With a little press release and a lot of make-up, I tried. I said what he said.
Looking back, I see that I was preaching to myself in the presence of a multitude. Playing Jesus is like that. Staring into the eyes of thousands of strangers, I’d see them look past me – up, up, up, to where ascension might be glimpsed and redemption might be gained. I was hardly there.
An editor of the old monthly LIFE magazine, hearing of this strange endeavor, asked me to provide a quote for a special issue. It later appeared in the book Who Do You Say That I Am? This is what I wrote:
“Jesus is the most durable and resilient figure in history. Whether debated or marginalized, adored or detested – Jesus remains untouched, whispering across the centuries his ridiculous, illogical, heart-rending mantra of reconciliation. Attempts to contain him in creeds or liturgy invariably fail, as they must. Jesus remains, independent of our attempts to interpret or tame him. Had he not existed, I doubt we would have had the guts to imagine Him.”
Or, to put it less poetically but more precisely, in the words of a gloriously gruff old man who waited to speak to me after a performance (a man who, as the astounded pastor noted, had not darkened the doors in a decade):
“I don’t give a damn for religion, but Jesus is alright.”
Bill Oberst Jr.
Los Angeles, 2015