Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

The power of the message. If I needed any further of evidence that there’s a huge audience for faith-based drama, I didn’t have to look any further than the Times Square Church at 1657 Broadway (at 51st Street) last Friday night.

I was invited to the former site of the Mark Hellinger Theater to view a live production of The Cross and the Switchblade, based on the 1962 memoir by the church’s founding pastor David Wilkerson.  I was told the production was attracting very big crowds but that turned out to be a very big understatement. What I saw when I arrived was a long streaming line that extended from the church’s entrance all the way to the far corner of  the street. The line would have no doubt wrapped around that corner and then some if the ushers weren’t so adept at keeping things moving and helping people inside.  Keep in mind, it was actually cold and snowing that night, so those who came really had to make an effort to get there.

The theater portion itself was reserved for younger people for whom the story is, perhaps, particularly pertinent. I sat up in the church’s annex where I and other slightly more mature audience members viewed it on multiple movie screens.

The Cross and the Switchblade tells the story of Wilkerson who, as a young preacher, answered God’s call to minister to youths caught up in the violent street gang culture of the late 1950’s. The story was brought to the screen in a 1970 film starring Pat Boone and Erik Estrada (yeah, Ponch from CHiPs). I’ll leave it to you to guess who played idealistic minister and who playing the tough and cynical gang member.

This stage adaptation is written and directed by David Ham who effectively brings you into the story and its central conflict between Wilkerson and a particularly angry and dangerous gang member. Armed with nothing more than a commitment to bring God’s love to society’s abandoned, Wilkerson’s faith ultimately triumphs over the fear and self-loathing of those he’s been called to help. The unabashed idealism of the story still has power. A film remake might not be a bad idea.

The production, which is followed by something of a revival meeting in which audience members are invited (but not pressured) to pray and commit their lives to Jesus, has been so successful that it’s intended run of a couple of Fridays in January has been extended through February. Additional performances are now scheduled for February 1, 8, 15 and 22 at 7:00 PM and are free of charge. My advice is to arrive at least an hour early.

Sadly, Pastor David Wilkerson died nearly two years ago in a head-on collision with a tractor trailer on US Route 175 in Texas. His legacy, however, lives on at the church he founded and in the lives he helped transform.
You can view the full movie version of The Cross and the Switchblade here.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11