What do two women, living 19 centuries apart, have in common? If it’s a burning desire in their hearts to share their love and loyalty to Christ, the result can be a remarkable creation that spans the ages.
The two women we have in mind are Perpetua the martyr and Jasmine Myers the artist. What links them together is their joint creation: a diary that became a play and now a film.
Creations that last have been lifelong interests to we who regularly write this blog. As a dedicated senior professor of New Testament and the early church, Aída finds the recorded writings of Jesus’s disciples and their disciples provide the primary source data that reveals what we know about Jesus Christ. I, Bill, today’s writer, share that interest and, in addition, as a long-term professor of theology and the arts, I have found that one of my basic tasks is to help my students, creators and performers in many fields, find a working definition of art that is actually helpful as they seek to create and critique their own work and that of others. Having a guiding rule is one way the pursuit for excellence can be guided, measured, and achieved. After years of study and interaction, I settled on this short-form (blog-size) definition: Art is craft that points beyond itself. Why I was satisfied with this explanation is that it allows for a category of skillful or poor craft in the composition of a piece or a performance. It also makes room for adding in significance (or the evident lack of such) in its effect on viewers, and, finally, it can encompass a dimension of morality as to whether a creation moves a viewer toward good or evil, the final being a component I have found often sadly lacking these days.
Jasmine’s creation is Still Small Theatre Troupe, a gift to us all in our digital age, embracing all three of these levels. What connects Jasmine’s work to that of the other young woman 18 centuries in the past is their joint success in all three of these areas through a poignant reminiscence by Perpetua, concise and heart-rending in its journalistic clarity and avoidance of melodrama – a straight, unembellished report of her experience as a persecuted Christian martyr that reveals a compassionate, analytical, honest, and determined mind. This diary Jasmine studied carefully and transformed into an unforgettable film: The Diary of Perpetua. Previously a play performed live by the Still Small troupe since 2016, this new cinematic configuration replaces many of the long-term performing leads (who still are involved in the production both and off screen) with a new cadre of actors with film presence. Among the most visible missing face is that of founder and for this production, director, Jasmine, herself, a woman of vast creativity, who literally can do everything – capture the inspiration and the vision, research and write a play or screenplay, recruit, stage manage, and direct actors, compose the songs and perform the music by voice, flute, guitar, etc., make the costumes, and step into any role demanded of her with wit and style. She has even been known to wear a false moustache or a doggie collar, should a piece demand it…
The inspiration for this latest step forward for Still Small Theatre Troupe is bringing to a contemporary audience what has been called “a lost tradition,” in fact, the first written diary we have of a Christian martyr.
Don’t expect a blockbuster multimillion dollar production with hair-raising special effects. Expect a skillfully crafted independent movie performed by people who look like your neighbors thrown inadvertently into a gripping incident that is happening right now to everyday people all over the world whose lives have been suddenly interrupted by oppression facing them with a choice to continue living without integrity or to suffer execution. This is not a subtle film. My wife put it best, as we and our neighbor Anne Marie, watched its premier at Gordon College: “It’s a reality show.” Yes, it is in the best sense: it seems very real.
The woman on whose real-life diary the play and film are based is “Vibia Perpetua, a young married woman about twenty years old, of good family and upbringing,” according to a widely spread copy of her diary, which many scholars believe was annotated and distributed by the famous Christian lawyer Tertullian, who was a fellow citizen of Perpetua in Carthage, in what today is a suburb of Tunis, Tunisia in North Africa. Perpetua was executed in the arena on March 7, 203. All through her ordeal, her diary reveals a young champion of Christ, steadfast and unconquerable, but thoroughly human and intermittently heartbroken by any separation from her infant son. She was also grounded in the Bible, as were the band of Christians incarcerated with her, each one remarkable for their depth and steadfast allegiance to their faith. They all knew their Bibles, being mainly catechumens (young Christians in training). Perpetua had the passage “your daughters shall prophesy” (Joel 2:28) come alive as one of her spiritual gifts and others would ask her to seek God about her fate and the fate of their friends. Being condemned, the incarcerateds’ interpretations of Scripture sometimes differed from what many of us hold today. For instance, Jesus’s words, recorded in such passages as Matthew 7:7, Mark 6: 22-23, Luke 11:9; John 14:13-14, and expounded by John in 3:22, 5:14-15, “Ask and you shall receive,” took on a whole new meaning for Perpetua and her friends. The chronicler who appended the final report of her execution to the end of her diary, observed that, applying this scripture to their own situation, “whenever the martyrs were discussing among themselves their choice of death,” the Lord “granted to these petitioners the particular death that each one chose.” The power of the Bible applied was so close to her heart that an eyewitness reports, “Perpetua was singing victory psalms,” as she entered the arena, and her fellow condemned were warning the spectators, “You condemn us; God condemns you.”
Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullian (c. 160-c. 225), the probable collector and disseminator of the diary, would have been about 43 years-old when Perpetua made her valiant stand and to have been a fairly new convert himself. In one of his earliest books, Apologeticus, he defends Christians as “no danger to the state but good and useful citizens.” Apparently, his defense did not move the Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus to compassion.
A strangely conflicted individual, the emperor was reported to be “keenly interested in the administration of justice, and humane and equitable tendencies persisted,” but, at the same time, he was primarily a soldier, “ruthless in his exactions,” and he appears to have been insatiable in his campaigns not only against those who had challenged his hailing as emperor, but also attacking his opponents, and even those who supported them. Finally, he took his wife and two sons on an excursion to Britain, “in the hope of intimidating the Caledonians” by invading Scotland. But here he finally met his match and “the Roman losses were severe.” Settling for a “patched up” “temporary peace” and “worn out by sickness and broken in spirit” by the “unfilial conduct” of his son, Caracalla, Severus died in Britain. Some family outing that was! Caracalla, by the way, “whose reign contributed to the decay of the empire, has often been regarded as one of the most bloodthirsty tyrants in Roman history.” Onlookers report that, “on his death-bed the Emperor is said to have exhorted his sons to live in peace, enrich the soldiers, and despise the rest of the world.” Caracalla seems to have picked up the last point. With this merciless Emperor and his local governor Hilarion, the gentle but resolute young mother Perpetua had to contend. Severus died disappointed. The diary and this play reveals Perpetua, still honored today, achieved a completely different result than Severus and Caracalla did. Not only were several of her siblings inspired to become Christians themselves, but her shocking mistreatment, spurred by Tertullian’s courageous campaign to make it known, inspired the fledgling church across the known world to more zeal and more dedicated sacrifice.
As all of Jasmine’s plays and her previous film (The Prophet Project ) are each taking on lives of their own, so will this memorable new motion picture now chronicling dramatically Perpetua’s real-life experiences.
So, I asked Jasmine herself three questions about her newest cinematic gift to us all:
BILL: “What was it that drew you to present the diary of Perpetua at this particular time in history?”
JASMINE: I heard about Perpetua when I was in middle school, extremely briefly in a church history textbook, and something about it stuck with me. For years it was on my "not yet" list of creative projects -- the ones that have to sit on hold while I pour my energies into whichever one God has said is "now." In 2014, I had just finished a draft of a project that had consumed my attention for a long time, and was praying about what was next. At the same time, I got a mailing from the persecution relief organization The Voice of the Martyrs [VOM], asking me to sign a letter to Kim Jong Un in solidarity with the brutalized Christians in his country. As I wondered how I was going to be true to this pledge to make sure that people knew what was going on in his country, I realized that here was God's answer to my "what's next?" prayer. In that same issue, there were stories relating to VOM's efforts to help those who struggle with PTSD after being targeted for being Christians. It struck me that, when martyrs' stories are passed down, so much emphasis gets placed on their heroism and the Holy Spirit's power that their humanity -- the fact that they still cry and grieve and struggle with PTSD and in some cases lose their minds -- gets obliterated in the telling. For the sake of the health of the free Church that needs to learn from the persecuted, for the sake of the persecuted Church that needs the support and prayers of the free, this story needed to be told, and needed to be told as Perpetua told it: unadorned, truthfully, honest about both the highs and the lows. After performing it on stage for a number of years, I began to hope and pray towards an opportunity to adapt it into a film. My own faith was shaped enormously by a videorecording of the musical Upside Down, an adaptation of the book of Acts, and I wanted others to have that same experience of being able to "befriend" these characters -- not see them once at a live performance and never encounter them again, but return to them, learn from them, and let their influence sink into the soul.
BILL: “Thank you so much for these insightful reflections. Now, what specifically would you like viewers to take away from your powerful movie?”
JASMINE: I think I'd hope for Christians to come away newly confident in the belief that Jesus is either everything or He is nothing. Either the Gospel means everything or it means nothing. I hope they consider that, not so that they feel inadequate, but so that they become energized in asking God how they can take further steps in giving their entire lives to Him.
I hope also that Christians pay attention to some of the sentiments expressed by the martyrs -- "We're no superhuman saints, no perfect paragons of faith," "none of us is great, we are no giants of the faith," "even the most ordinary lamp is still a lamp" -- and realize the people suffering these stories don't have some special inner strength that's inaccessible to the rest of us, but that the same God indwells us.
There are also non-Christians watching this story, both in local showings and on the selection panels of film festivals. I hope that those who see Christianity as a tool of white male oppression are given pause by this story of a female African who is still remembered by name in the Catholic Mass and celebrated in the worldwide Church. Even more importantly, I hope that people will have the moral honesty to consider the Story for which Perpetua died. It is easy for a modern person to see the human rights violations in a movie like this and want to fix them, but the people who are dying for Jesus are choosing not to be rescued: they are choosing being heard over being safe. I hope that in our social-justice oriented cultural moment, people will have enough respect for this oppressed group to honor them the way they would want to be honored: by hearing and considering what they have to say.
Bill: “How can viewers see your film?”
JASMINE: Currently, the film is playing at various regional premieres (our next one is in NYC!) and is under consideration at several film festivals. We're currently hard at work on the special features for the DVD; once those are finished, we'll be able to get the DVDs manufactured and get those out to those who have been patiently waiting for them. Eventually, when it's finished with the film festival circuit and such, it will become available on YouTube. Right now, the trailer is also available on our website, www.stillsmalltheatre.com ,
or directly on YouTube at https://youtu.be/ZArvfYtSdiIhttps://youtu.be/ZArvfYtSdiI
DVD preorders are available at www.stillsmalltheatre.com/store, and for those who can't wait that long, we're happy to schedule local showings -- contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also, please see my cookies, music, fiction, and thoughts on life -- find these and more at www.patreon.com/jmdmyers!
How relevant is it to see a film based not only on a true story, but one that follows that true story carefully and faithfully from the actual words of the martyr herself? As they always do, Jasmine and the staff of Still Small Theatre include a non-profit beneficiary from their efforts. This time, they set out free of charge piles of “The 2022 World Watch List: 52 Weeks of Prayer for Persecuted Christians” from Open Doors. Why is this important? Because the conditions that led to the execution of Perpetua are rampant today around the Globe. In 2021, Open Door notes, there were: “Over 360 million Christians living in places where they experience high levels of persecution and discrimination; 5,898 Christians killed for their faith; 5,110 churches and other Christian buildings attacked; 6,175 believers detained without trial, arrested, sentenced or imprisoned; 3, 829 Christians abducted.” 
Correcting such evil should be the concern of every government and every nation that honors the ideal of ensuring human rights. And, since these are brothers and sisters who follow Jesus Christ, interceding for them should be the primary concern of every Christian denomination, organization, family, and individual.
These two women, 18 centuries apart, have united in setting Jesus’s unmistakably clear statement before us all that persecution may happen to Jesus’s followers (John 15:18-19). Their means of delivering this message is art: craft that points beyond itself. The diary is real and poignantly written and has the impact of Anne Frank’s heart-rending reflections. The film is skillfully crafted verisimilitude, filled with a powerful, moral dimension of timeless significance that blends the past and the present together in a wallop of an effect on viewers. Everyone of us owes it to ourselves, and to our Lord, to see this excellent triumph from Still Small Theatre and take its message to heart and action.
 Anyone interested in our long-form thoughts can find them in God through the Looking Glass: Glimpses from the Arts, our book on the arts.
 While you are preparing to see this film, or if you have already done so, Jasmine has made available the beautiful music she wrote for the diary’s play and film on her compact disc The Diary of Perpetua: Official Soundtrack, available from stillsmalltheatretroupe.com..
 Perpetua, “The Martyrdom of Perpetua“ in “The Martyrdom of Perpetua: A Protest Account of Third-Century Christianity,” Rosemary Rader, ed., in Patricia Wilson-Kastner, G. Ronald Kastner, Ann Millin, Rosemary Rader, Jeremiah Reedy, A Lost Tradition: Women Writers of the Early Church (New York: University Press of America, 1981), pp, i, 1.
 “The Martyrdom of Perpetua,” pp. 19-20.
 “The Martyrdom of Perpetua,” p. 28.
 Tertullian, in F.L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 1352.
 Henry Michael Denne Parker and Bruce Herbert Warmington, “Severus,” in N.G. L. Hammond and H.H. Scullard, The Oxford Classical Dictionary (New York, Oxford University Press, 1970), 982-83.
 Open Doors ,“The 2022 World Watch List: 52 Weeks of Prayer for Persecuted Christians,” 2.