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On Timing, Timeliness, and Timelessness

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

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As we approach the beginning of year ten of the Prodigal God adventure, I’ve been thinking a lot about the wonders and inanities of time’s passage.

When Brian and I set out in 2002 to retell an ancient tale using contemporary music, we dove headlong into the contradiction of trying to make something timely and timeless at the same time. This is the task of all storytellers, of course, but our story of choice seemed to offer us starker terms. And, as I’ve written ad nauseum, musicals take a long time to realize.

The relationship between a religious brother and a cosmopolitan one, their seeming incompatibility, the dire consequences of their conflict, and the painful no-win position of a father who loves them both – this seemed as contemporary as any story one could tell in a post-9/11 world, where the sociological pandemic of “fatherlessness” is indisputable inside and outside of religious circles.

And yet, the story remains a parable without an ending told two thousand years ago by a Jewish rabbi to his contemporaries, and retold by thousands of people of different cultures over centuries. It didn’t really happen. It’s pretend. It’s a myth with a moral.

So, which way to go? Swing contemporary or swing mythic?

Our oft-questioned choice to swing mythic and set the story in its original cultural context grew out of the sense that much of the story’s original middle-eastern punch may have been lost in western translation. In the individualistic west, there seems to have been a sentimental overemphasis on the father’s all-forgiving embrace of the wayward son whose actions tend to be dismissed as youthful indiscretion and no big deal. This, in our minds, minimized the power and meaning of that embrace and the original choice to grant the son his inheritance.

Likewise, there seems to have been a playing down of the culturally appropriate shame, anger and injustice which the Elder Brother feels. We don’t much identify (at first glance) with his melodramatic refusal to enter the party. He seems mean-spirited, villainous, and no fun. (Unless of course you are that elder brother, in which case, his actions seem much more laudable than his father’s. But who wants to admit to being that? And there’s the rub.)

By retelling the story from the perspective of the Elder Brother we sought to bring a bit more of the honest edge back and to clearly portray how costly and deliberately offensive are the father’s actions in the original cultural context in which the story was told.

Furthermore, we wanted to beg the question, is the same all-forgiving embrace extended to that bitter Elder Brother or is he beyond the reach of such love? Is his only hope to go off and spendthrift his way through his portion of the inheritance or is there another path homeward for him? I might venture to say that religious fundamentalism being what it is today, I don’t think many of us want the Elder Brother at the party. But the Father seems to. Here’s where Jesus’ parable seems to pile offense upon offense if we let it.

Timely and timeless, or so we like to think.

By: Christopher Greco

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