Friday, February 19, 2010

Jesus Christ Superstar

When I was younger, just the name of this musical sounded blasphemous. In the upbringing I had, rock music was associated with sex and drugs and sin. And the thought of singing songs about Jesus in any other idiom than the organ-accompanied hymns I grew up singing in Church seemed disrespectful at best. I remember in grade school having a music teacher who wanted us to sing a few songs from the Broadway Musical Godspell. I was so offended, I refused to sing. So I always found the whole idea of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar odious. All the same, years ago I finally gave the movie version a chance by watching it, and actually found it inspiring. In the years since then, I have found myself strangely attracted to this film, watching it again and again. Listening to the album -- which oddly came out before the musical was ever staged -- has also become a regular staple of my personal devotional life.

The end of the film is abrupt -- the actors are literally shown packing up the sets, getting on a bus and leaving. There's no resurrection scene. I wasn't sure I liked that at first, but I've come to love it as the most deeply mystical aspect of watching this film. Christ is resurrected not on celluloid, but in the heart of the faithful viewer. This epitomizes what I love about Jesus Christ Superstar. The musical -- presented essentially from the viewpoint of Judas Iscariot -- deliberately counterpoises all the different, conflicting views of Christ. We see Christ through the eyes of Judas, of Mary Magdalene, of the other disciples, of the lepers, of the crowds in Jerusalem, of Simon and the Zealots, of the Saducees, of Pilot, of Herod, even of the Roman soldiers who crucify him. Through all this, the film essentially rephrases the question again and again: "Whom do you think I am?"

I weep during almost every song of the production, as each individual or group of individuals in the musical is portrayed wrestling with what they think about Jesus. Mary sings, "He's just a man!" The crowds: "Hey J.C., J.C., you're all right by me!" Simon and the Zealots: "I believe in you and God so tell me that I'm saved!" The Jewish council: "He's dangerous!" Pilot: "Who is this broken man cluttering up my hallway?" A Roman soldier answers: "Someone Christ King of the Jews." At each juncture, the viewer is prompted to wrestle along with them. But always one is left with the distinct impression that nobody really understands Jesus. That is what Jesus protests throughout the film each time someone tries to corner him. Mary comes closest, because she insists simply on loving him and caring for him. Everyone else completely misses the mark.

This creates the essential pathos of the film: Jesus' loneliness. The burdens he bears are his and his alone. And what burdens! Through it all, his humanity and his divinity shine through in equal portions. The Jesus of Jesus Christ Superstar feels alone, anguished, angry, afraid, even, at times, overwhelmed. It's these portrayals of his utter humanity that never fail to move me. It is Christ's humanity that makes the anguish of Gethsemane and the torture of the cross that much more painful to watch, and that much more poignant. Yet Jesus always confounds his followers by staying a transcendent course, by embracing his destiny to the bitter end. So the viewer, like the other characters in the musical, is always left with a sense of wonder, the distinct impression that this man Jesus Christ is really something so much more than what is signaled by our superficial perceptions of him.

The character I identify most with in the film, oddly or not, is Judas Iscariot. Judas is portrayed as a man with a deep hunger for social justice, which fuels a sense of outrage about the social order in which he finds himself. He sees Christ as a teacher of justice, with a mission to lift up the poor -- that's what attracted him to Christ in the first place. The idea of Christ's divinity offends him as distracting and potentially dangerous, so the opening scene has Judas essentially pleading with Jesus to publicly disavow the title of "God." Throughout the drama, Jesus refuses to do so, thus setting the stage for the central conflict between the two that leads to Judas' betrayal.

Listen Jesus I don't like what I see.
All I ask is that you listen to me.
And remember, I've been your right hand man all along.
You have set them all on fire.
They think they've found the new Messiah.
And they'll hurt you when they find they're wrong.

I remember when this whole thing began.
No talk of God then, we called you a man.
And believe me, my admiration for you hasn't died.
But every word you say today
Gets twisted 'round some other way.
And they'll hurt you if they think you've lied.

The first two lines are the ones that always get me: "Listen Jesus I don't like what I see. All I ask is that you listen to me." How many times have I uttered that line in my life? The source of all Judas' fear, anger, inability to trust, and -- ultimately -- his betrayal of Christ, hinged on his inability to accept Jesus' divinity. That would be the story of my life.

The difference, I suppose, between Judas and me is that I figured it out before it was too late. I've finally learned how to trust Christ, to put aside my doubts and just accept that I'm the one who ought to be listening to him, not the other way around. But I have always felt like the dividing line between me and Judas was razor thin. But for the grace of God, I was the one hanging myself. So I always weep for Judas in that scene. That could have been me, when the choir sings, "Poor old Judas."

But the line of Judas I still relate most to, even in my present path of faith, is the one Mary Magdalene also sings: "I don't know how to love him." No matter what I do, it doesn't seem adequate. Not that I doubt his love for me. Just that nothing seems equal to his love for me. I am and always will be a beggar.

7 comments:

Abelard Enigma said...

Wow - I haven't thought of that movie in a long long time. It was a guilty pleasure of mine in my younger days. I enjoyed watching it - but I didn't think I should enjoy it, I should be appalled by it - at least I think I should be appalled.

The chorus of the main song "Jesus Christ - Super Star" - I once perfected that on the organ. While on my mission, on P-day, while my companion was playing basketball with other elders, I would tinker around on the organ in the chapel - and I would crank it up and belt out that chorus.

J G-W said...

Wow, I'm delighted to find another secret admirer of this amazing musical!

You know, it's funny because the other day I was listening to it, and Glen overheard it, and he said something like, "Are you listening to some kind of Mormon music?" I think he heard the name of Jesus Christ being sung, and he just assumed I was listening to something Mormon. I laughed out loud. Even Carol Lynn Pearson in her musical heyday didn't get quite as edgy as Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber do in JCS.

MoHoHawaii said...

You might also like Leonard Bernstein's Mass. This was composed about the same time as JCS and also adopts elements of rock and gospel. Both Mass and JCS influenced me as a young teenager. The crisis-of-faith theme of Mass spoke to me more, though. LOL!

J G-W said...

I'll have to check it out...

Andrew S said...

You know, it's funny because the other day I was listening to it, and Glen overheard it, and he said something like, "Are you listening to some kind of Mormon music?" I think he heard the name of Jesus Christ being sung, and he just assumed I was listening to something Mormon. I laughed out loud.

Sounds like he needs to be introduced to it.

But, now, to get onto something else you had said:

The difference, I suppose, between Judas and me is that I figured it out before it was too late. I've finally learned how to trust Christ, to put aside my doubts and just accept that I'm the one who ought to be listening to him, not the other way around. But I have always felt like the dividing line between me and Judas was razor thin. But for the grace of God, I was the one hanging myself. So I always weep for Judas in that scene. That could have been me, when the choir sings, "Poor old Judas."

I think there's a particular reason why you "figured it out" that I don't see as being all too applicable to Judas (or most people in his situation). For example, the reason Judas seems to be wary of this divinity stuff is because it isn't real to him and it never really seems like that to him. So, I completely understand his lines in Heaven on Their Minds. So, social justice on the ground, staying in place, etc., all are important, because these are real, tangible things.

The only thing that I don't really get is how Judas continues to insist -- although with self-professed doubt -- that really, Jesus really would've wanted to be betrayed. "But I only did what you wanted me to."

That's one place I think I would differ.

J G-W said...

Andrew - Well, yes, the character Judas in JCS does resort to a certain amount of rationalization in the name of self interest. He's actually afraid of the same thing the Jewish High Council is afraid of -- that the Romans are going to come down and destroy everything. And he's rationalized himself into believing that Jesus just got carried away with all this "God" talk, and he doesn't really know how to stop it, so he needs somebody to stop it for him. Like an addict who won't stop his addictive behavior until there's an intervention. So Judas is giving him an intervention (and maybe hoping that he'll just be arrested as opposed to being killed). At least, that's how I read the character's motivations as written by Rice and Weber.

Andrew S said...

While I think the intervention motivation makes sense (and he rationalizes an explanation for the actions he takes to achieve that intervention with the Sanhedrin), again, I don't believe that he rationalized himself into believing Jesus got carried away (at least, I didn't get that much from the characterization). Rather, this is what he truly believed (and he had no personally persuasive reason to believe contrary.)

He seems pretty sincere about believing Jesus is getting carried away, but seems pretty uncertain about what to do about it.

But now that you put it like that, I kinda feel like a terrible person. I probably wouldn't "intervene" for a friend unless they came up to me first. So while I wouldn't betray any monumental religious figures (at least I hope not), I probably also wouldn't save anyone who is determined to destroy themselves.