Long before Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" shocked moviegoers with its grisly portrayal of Christ's death in 2004, a youth pastor in Colorado Springs created a live production that offered viewers a first look into the brutality of the cross.
Originally produced for a high school group of 200 teens, "The Thorn" has been showing at New Life Church since 1997. Over 500,000 people have seen the theatrical show and with added locations this Easter, another 60,000 are expected to see it this year.
Simply put, "'The Thorn' portrays the passion of Christ in a very real and 'gritty' way," said John Bolin, who created the show.
Since high school, Bolin had always been moved by "the intense physicality of Jesus' beating and crucifixion," he said.
But "The Thorn" is far from just a graphic and somewhat gory show.
As Bolin pointed out, the production is as much about the suffering of Christ as it is about the resurrection.
"The cross is the ultimate symbol of the grace of God and the power of forgiveness. The resurrection is the punctuation of the cross," Bolin told The Christian Post. "It has always been difficult for me to separate the cross and resurrection. ... The cross gives people hope for eternity and the empty grave gives people hope for a new beginning in this life."
"And that's the point," he emphasized.
While "The Thorn" focuses on Passion Week, it begins with the fall of Lucifer and the sin of Adam and Eve that separated man from God. It also depicts scenes from the Old Testament book of Exodus and the Israelites' desire to be freed from oppression. Then comes the birth of the Savior, Jesus, followed by scenes of his ministry of teaching and performing miracles.
"We feel that it's important that the audience has time to know who Jesus was and why he was here and not just what he did on the cross," Rob Stennett, director of "The Thorn," stated to The Christian Post.
During the portrayal of Passion Week, which begins with Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, the show offers viewers a "behind the scenes" look at the supernatural battle that most likely waged between darkness and light, Bolin explained.
"From the beginning, I wanted people to understand that there is a spiritual battle for our hearts, minds and ultimately, our eternal destinies," he said. The battle in the production is illustrated artistically with martial arts, gymnastics and ballet.
Viewers are later taken into a graphic portrayal of the whipping and crucifixion of Jesus Christ - which is presented not in a gruesome manner but "in a way that would punctuate the reality of the high price Jesus paid," Bolin explained.
The show concludes with Jesus rising from the dead, essentially defeating the enemy and having paid the price for all humanity.
Theatrically, the show is impressive, Stennett pointed out.
Greg Surratt, pastor of Seacoast Church in North Charleston, S.C., described it as "Cirque du Soleil" meets "The Passion of the Christ." Seacoast, a multi-site church, is currently hosting 11 live performances of "The Thorn" this week.
The show is also running at a church in Minneapolis as well as Colorado Springs.
"Christians should see 'The Thorn' for a reminder of what Christianity is all about," Bolin said.
But the show wasn't created for Christians. "The Thorn" is targeted specifically toward the unchurched who are unfamiliar with the biblical narrative, Bolin noted.
"Non-Christians will appreciate the theatrical and performance aspects of 'The Thorn' as well as the simple story of the life of Christ," he said.
Also, for non-Christians, Stennett explained that "the story in narrated by Doubting Thomas who questions many of the things that he sees as he goes through the story but ultimately finds forgiveness, hope and purpose even amidst all of the doubt."
Showings of "The Thorn" are being requested by churches across the country, Stennett reported. The production team plans to add more cities this year and in 2010.
The mission of "The Thorn," Bolin said, "is to share the story of the cross in a relevant way with as many people as God gives us grace to."
On the Web: thethorn.net