I met a friend for a cup of tea the other day. She is going to be directing “Jesus Christ Superstar” at our local community theater in the spring and wanted to pick my brain a little bit.
She told me something that surprised me — although perhaps it shouldn’t have. She told me that some have been surprised that she is going to direct this as they consider the show blasphemous. She expressed her own amazement at this as well and when I asked she said they weren’t able really to say why they thought this was so.
Now, I don’t know about you, but ‘blasphemy’ isn’t a word I hear used very often. Oh, I know what it means, but still I paused a moment this afternoon to actually look it up. To commit blasphemy is to claim for oneself the attributes of God. It is also to insult or show contempt or lack of reverence for God. I expect the latter is what these folks mean when they call the show “blasphemous.” I would also say different ones among us might have different understandings of what it is to insult, show contempt or lack of reverence for God.
I was pretty young in 1971, but as I’ve poked around a bit I’ve learned that at the time it first hit the stage this show caused quite the stir among more conservative Christians. One negative review showed up in Truth Magazine which asserted that “Jesus Christ Superstar” was yet one more method Satan was using to attempt to destroy faith in God, in Christ and in the Bible. Apparently they were particularly distressed at how the show depicts Jesus as being so very human. And that it leaves out the resurrection altogether,ending instead with Jesus’ burial in a borrowed tomb.
Wow. I have to say I’m eager to watch the show again as I don’t remember those things being so distressing at all.
This whole conversation does, in fact, remind me that as individuals and as communities of faith we are still sorting out just who Jesus was and is. It comes as no surprise that there is more than one way of thinking about this. And this question is one that is ours to ponder in a particular way as we come upon Christ the King Sunday once more.
What, in fact, does it mean to say that Jesus is King? How important is it that he was both fully divine and fully human? How central is the resurrection to our understanding of Jesus as King? And moving beyond this purely academic conversation here, how does all of this matter in the midst of our lives in the moments or the hours after we’ve seen the show or read the book once more? What does it mean to not only claim but actually to confess that Jesus is King?
I, for one, find myself most convinced of Jesus’ royalty — not so much because of his triumphs, but rather because of where and how he spent his life. And without a doubt, that runs contrary to how the world usually thinks about royalty.
For instance, like any king whose realm is of this world, Jesus surely held power. Only his power was always on the side of justice for the poor, the downtrodden, the outcast. His power was never self-serving, rather it was always exercised in behalf of others. That is not the way power is typically understood or seen in the world today, not then or at most any time in known history, it seems to me. Indeed, the power that Jesus had led him right into being on trial for blasphemy himself. One where he wound up being judged by both the authorities of the temple and of the state as we hear about in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus’ power led him to a shameful death on a cross. No, his kingship was not marked by the usual trappings of power.
No there is no evidence of the usual definition of power in Jesus as we encounter him today. And yet, while he found himself in conversation with Pilate where it appeared Jesus had no power at all, still he held on to his own integrity — even to the point of engaging Pilate in a conversation which I believe left even Pilate wondering about the things that mattered: Things like justice and truth. So in the end, I do wonder which one held the power that mattered here?
Through it all, I find courage in my own journey of seeking to be a disciple of Jesus when I hear these ancient stories as ones which were lived by one who was fully human. As one who must have struggled to be all he was meant to be in the hardest times: like the place we encounter him today. I know that I am more likely to follow one who has been ‘down in the dirt’ with me, so to speak. I am more likely to believe I can find my way out of the dust and the grime if I can follow one who has potentially been just as mired in it as me. Oh, I might admire a king (a president, an orator, a teacher) who shows remarkable gifts or whose very presence evokes a sense of history. But I won’t drop everything to follow him or her unless I believe they understand where I am and have been and hope to one day be.
As for the ongoing conversation about “Jesus Christ Superstar,” I think it is a good and important one. Although I guess by now it’s pretty clear that I would land on the side of embracing both Jesus’ humanness and the wonder of the divinity that was also him. Still, it’s all only just talk until we ask what it means in the midst of our lives —- until our confessing “Jesus is King” makes a difference in the decisions and choices I make in the world where I live. Until it begins to impact how I live in the midst of the same challenges of this hurting, hopeful world where Jesus lived as well.
- What does Jesus’ conversation with Pilate today lend to our understanding of Jesus as King?
- What do you make of the 40 year old ongoing debate about “Jesus Christ Superstar?” Where do you find yourself within that conversation?
- What does it mean to you to confess “Jesus is King?” What does it mean for you that you follow one who had none of the usual trappings of power? How much does it matter to you that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human?
I hope that you’ll watch while the end credits roll, just to see a shepherd leading his flock across the lower portion of the screen. The film does end with the resurrection!
Thanks! I’ll watch more closely next time…
And from watching the commentary, the shepherd leading his flock at the end was not planned in the production. The Producers were surprised to see this too. God's mysterious ways.
Thanks for your insightful reflection. Since you mentioned Jesus Christ Superstar, I will post my comment about the film. I find the film’s casting to be quite unfortunate (at best) and racist (most likely).
Jesus the blue-eyed and blonde haired white man. Judas the (sole?) African-American. Mary Magdalene (who “knew” many men before, or so the song lyrics go) the sexualized Asian-American woman (she’s half, but in that cast, let’s face it, she’s the token Asian). Were they all cast strictly due to their abilities and talent? I have doubts. I believe Carl Anderson (Judas) could have played Jesus just as well. I don’t think they were ready for that kind of controversy. (Or are we now?)
Instead of being subversive, the film is a visual reminder of racist stereotypes.
Sure, the film/play highlighted the humanity of Jesus and that was “groundbreaking” for its context. However, I wouldn’t talk about the film or show it for didactic purposes without providing critique for its essentialist views on race (and gender, that’s another blurb).
You make an excellent point about the casting. I had some of the same thoughts as I was watching it again the other day. Carl Anderson’s portrayal of Judas is stunning though… and I find it to be one of the most complex in the film. Either way, the conversation (both the one I offered and the ways in which you have expanded it) is certainly interesting, isn’t it?
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