While driving through the Black Hills earlier this month, I saw what I thought to be an increased number of signs advertising the Black Hills Passion Play, playing throughout the summer months Perhaps I was wrong, and the number had not increased, or perhaps, in light of Mel Gibson's success, they had decided to advertise more. But, from the first time I saw a poster for the Black Hills version of the play many years ago, I have wondered; "Why a Black Hills Passion Play."
And it's not just the Black Hills. A couple of hours away from me in the Alberta badlands town of Drumheller, there's another Passion Play staged every summer. That one is held a stone's throw away from the Royal Tyrrell* Museum, one of the premier paleontology museums in the world.
I do know why the oldest continuing Passion Play is held in Oberammergau. The town was spared from the bubonic plague in the early 17th century. The citizens had vowed to stage a Passion Play every 10 years forever if they were spared, and they are fulfilling their promise. While now the play gets about half a million visitors whenever it is staged, it was not tourism or profits that motivated the play. It was a genuine act of faith. The play has a genuine history behind it which accounts for the staging of the play. And in spite of the money the play brings in, the residents of Oberammergau have not chosen to change the schedule of once every ten years.
On the other hand, consider the Passion Plays held in Drumheller and in Spearfish in the Black Hills. There is no real history which justifies holding this particular play in either location. But both have other attractions which bring in a steady supply of tourists. Would the plays in be held these locations if there were not tourists already coming? Would they attract an audience on their own merits? I don't think so.
The play is just another way to get the tourist dollar, no different than the casinos of Deadwood. It masquerades as religion, but is just another entertainment. In Spearfish, you can even get a discount on attendance in conjunction with other local attractions.
Of course, perhaps that's all religion really is - just a form of entertainment which some people confuse with reality.
* No relation