The Thorn

Jon Swihart witnesses The Thorn, a two-hour Easter production put on by one of the country’s most notorious megachurches.

New Life Church in Colorado Springs is a veritable stronghold for Evangelical Christianity and social conservatism on Barry Bonds-grade steroids. The name conjures up images of Ted Haggard, best known as the Church’s founding pastor and “that guy who does meth and has sex with male prostitutes.”

But I had little reason to think of any of those things Easter Saturday during a visit to see my girlfriend’s parents in the Springs. A neighbor was playing the part of a centurion in some church’s Easter play called The Thorn or something, and we had agreed to attend. Clearly, there is little better a man can do with his Saturday night.

My rough guess is that there’s a church every five blocks in Colorado Springs, so we really could have been going to any old church that night. It wasn’t until I had completed the long drive from Boulder that I learned which church we were actually going to. New Life Church is not just any old church. In fact, I use the term church loosely here. For most people, church is that dark building filled with pews reeking of incense and attended by people who mumble prayers and moan depressing dirges for an hour before returning to their normal lives. New Life is not this.

New Life is visible from the highway as you drive in to Colorado Springs. It is a big blue tent-like structure with stadium seating built for a capacity of 7,500. There is enough sound and lighting equipment to embarrass most professional venues and arenas, and you would probably be forgiven if, upon viewing center stage, you were fully prepared to watch Jesus and Satan throw down WWE style.

The church also has a certain method and vigor to its preaching, which I won’t go into, but suffice it to say that I, a nonbeliever and avid supporter of gay rights, felt pretty uneasy taking those first few steps into that Goditorium. Surely, they would be able to root out evil and heathens like me. I admit that I was a bit concerned for my safety as I made my way further and further into the raucous crowd.

We got all the way to the ushers without being struck by lighting, which I took as a good omen until I discovered that our seats were in the front row. Needless to say, I was ecstatic about not having known this beforehand either.

After a delay for technical difficulties, which the audience filled with a rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and, like, ten rounds of the fucking wave, I was getting antsy. I had seen the hordes of professionally dressed actors and black-clad stage techs when I walked in, and goddamnit, I was ready to see them deliver some heavenly action. I would not be disappointed.

Shortly after we finished wondering about diamonds in the sky, Doubting Thomas hammed his way onto the stage to kick off The Thorn and two hours of fog machines, pyrotechnics, and Christian rock in full surround sound. For those of you who don’t know of Doubting Thomas, he was Jesus’s disciple who refused to believe the Resurrection until he touched the holes in the big man’s hands. The stage version of Thomas went on to ridicule his biblical forbear’s demand for empirical evidence, and insinuated that Jesus did not love him as much as the others because of his need for reason. He then noted that the story of The Thorn could not appropriately be addressed without a quick review of how the world was created, and with that, he left the stage to let the cast and crew take the reins for awhile.

Remember in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time when you are forced to watch the cutscenes detailing the creation of Hyrule by the Spirits? Remember the music, clouds, and ethereal light beams? That’s almost exactly what transpired on the New Life stage, and I couldn’t help but reminisce about those 64-bit animations as I sat there watching the angels and spirits prancing around in heavy fog with their rudimentary ballet skills. We learned how the Earth was created by the all powerful God who was then betrayed by Lucifer, whose greatest sins were unarguably his henna tattoos and faux muscle suit. We relived the great rift between heaven and hell as the shirtless and greased up angels repelled the hissing goth kids of Satan’s treacherous army. Controlled explosions and flames abound, the special effects were striking and professionally executed. It was entertaining, and quite enjoyable, save for me constantly reminding myself that the audience believed that all of this was a truthful reenactment of an inconceivably more fantastical event.

This production was indeed fantastical, and based on the amount of bare, oily chests and eyeliner, pretty fabulous too. In almost every scene with Jesus, there were literally hundreds of elaborately and convincingly dressed extras flocking to him. The Pharisees were fashionable and self-righteous in their purple and gold garb; the Roman centurions looked like they were fully capable of dragging your ass off to the Coliseum. Jesus himself was dressed pretty much exactly the way you imagine your typical white Jesus. There were only a few people who were not in costume, and besides being the most distracting, I considered them the most annoying as well since they were the ones belting out the horrible Christian rock scraping its way through my eardrums.

Let me be clear; Christian rock does not make anything better or more dramatic, and it is not, under any circumstance, to be used in lieu of an actual score. All it does is bring awareness to the fact that you are being force-fed your spirituality. This is especially true when the people singing the Christian rock are dressed in button up shirts, jeans, and sport jackets standing right in the middle of a fully costumed Bronze Age cast while belting lyrics into big black microphones and executing your average arm-reaching, air-grasping passion gestures. They were out of place and distracting. I couldn’t understand why these people, much less their terrible music, needed to be a part of the show. I already knew Jesus died and that he was going to rise again, but they kept telling me over and over again with every verse, every chorus.

That’s when I realized, though, that the whole execution of the story telling was a bit redundant and relied almost entirely on narration. Only a few of the actors had major speaking parts, Jesus not among them, and although Pontius Pilate did give a brilliant monologue, I can’t help but feel that this was lazy storytelling writ large. It went something like this: Doubting Thomas explained an event in its entirety, the cast acted it out, the Christian rock group sang the story during the acting, and Doubting Thomas returned when it was over to give a summary and jazz hands before beginning the cycle again. After the whole thing was done, pastor Aaron Stern gave us yet another summary of what we had just seen.

Over 100 people stood up at the behest of Stern to testify that they had been saved simply by watching the show. Many of them were tearful as they paraded themselves in front of the stage. I have a hard time believing that The Thorn allowed Jesus into the hearts of anyone who hadn’t already propped open the door.

When I left, I did not feel Jesus in my soul, but at least he had provided me with something interesting to write about. The guy was still useful even if he wasn’t going to be my savior.

The next day, Easter, I was nearly killed in a car accident where sheer luck was the deciding factor between the demolition of the driver side back seat and my existence entirely.

Jon Swihart lives in Boulder, CO, where everyone owns a frisbee and dogs are allowed in the grocery store. He works in the corporate office of a tea company doing design work, film editing, database maintenance, and pretty much anything else you wouldn't associate with tea. In his spare time he's into graphic design, illustration, his band Missing Fundamentals, and a variety of cartoon shows that don't air until reasonable people are sleeping.