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Jesus Christ, Superstar
by Jeff Carter
Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?This Saturday (Feb. 7th) I will be auditioning for a part in our local community theatre’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar the rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice about the last seven days of Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
So ask the characters of Jesus Christ Superstar . Many Christians have considered it to be controversial, even blasphemous. But I think that though there is much wrong biblically with the story – there is great value in Jesus Christ Superstar – particularly in the questions it asks.
In preparing for the audition I’ve been watching the movie version that was released in 1970 (– five years before I was born, by the way…) And my two children (4 and 2 years old) have enjoyed it so much that they ask for it almost everyday. They’re even singing the songs with me. As I’ve watched the movie I’ve noticed a number of truly wonderful things about it that I’ve found helpful in approaching the persons of Jesus, Judas, Pilate, and Caiaphas.
The movie, which was filmed in Israel, makes no attempt to look like first century Palestine unlike other Jesus films which try to look like first century Palestine but were actually filmed in Utah, or Spain, or Italy… The cast members are dressed in an eclectic array of costumes and use a variety of props – the soldiers carry both swords and spears and sub-machine guns – Jesus is dressed in a simple white robe while Judas is costumed in an ornate red tunic.
As the overture plays we see a bus arrive out of the desert carrying the actors. They exit the bus and unload the props. They are setting the stage for the story they’re about to tell – a play within the movie. They put on their costumes and take their places.
The first song is Heaven On Their Minds sung by Judas. This is Judas’ lament to Jesus. He is worried that things are getting out of hand. He’s confused by the talk of Jesus’ divinity, and anxious that the crowds that are following Jesus are getting much too loud.
“Listen Jesus do you care for your race?
Can’t you see we must keep in our place?
We are occupied!
Have you forgotten how put down we are?
I am frightened by the crowd
for we are getting much too loud,
and they’ll crush us if we go too far!”
Judas’ soulful lament ends with a plea that Jesus listen to him. He begs for Jesus to just listen to his advice, but “he won’t listen to me” Interestingly, in Judas’ final song he has abandoned the demand that Jesus should listen to him and instead asks questions, “I only want to know…”
What’s the buzz?
In the disciples’ song, What’s The Buzz, they pester Jesus with the repeated questions, ‘What’s the buzz? When do we ride into Jerusalem?’ – betraying their nationalistic concept of Jesus’ kingdom.
Why should you want to know ? Don’t you mind about the future,
don’t you try to think ahead.
Save tomorrow for tomorrow;
think about today instead.
I could give you facts and figures,
even give you plans and forecasts
even tell you where I’m going.
Why should you want to know? Why are you obsessed with fighting?
Times and fates you can’t defy.
If you knew the path we’re riding
you’d understand it less than I.
Some say that this shows Jesus as confused and weak. He doesn’t know what he’s doing – but I think that it may actually be on the right track. Jesus did say that he himself didn’t even know the times and dates of the future: “But as for that day and hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, no one but the Father alone. ” ( Matthew 24: 36)
We Need A More Permanent Solution To Our Problem.
Caiaphas and the priests are truly frightening – and the symbolism connected with them in the film is completely accurate. They wear billowing black robes and towering hats that look like the onion domes of Russian Orthodox churches. They are always seen standing among ancient ruins and precarious scaffolding and are shown with a sky filled with circling buzzards(think Old Covenant here). Caiaphas sings with a deep heavy bass voice and Annas, his constant companion, sings with a high nasally voice:
Listen to that howling mob of blockheads in the street!
A trick or two with lepers and the whole town’s on their feet.
He is dangerous!
What then to do about Jesus of Nazareth, miracle wonder-man, hero of fools?
I see bad things arising;
the crowd crown him King which the Romans would ban.
I see blood and destruction;
our elimination because of one man!
We must crush him completely!
So like John before him this Jesus must die
for the sake of the nation this Jesus must die
Hey J.C, J.C. Would You Smile For Me?
As Jesus rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday the crowds are there waving their palm branches and singing:
Hosanna, hey-sanna, Hosanna!
Jesus welcomes the praises of the people. He even smiles and looks happy. In many other Jesus films Jesus looks sorta’ constipated or bored. He smiles until he hears the people sing “Hey J.C., J.C would you fight for me?” His smile falters for a moment but he pronounces a blessing on the people. They continue by singing, “Hey J.C., J.C would you DIE for me?” The pain on his face at that moment is heart breaking. This Jesus has real full emotions – emotions we can understand. He is happy and joyful. He is frightened. He’s a real person.
The next song is an animated dance number wherein Simon the Zealot leads the crowd in shouting their admiration and devotion to Jesus as the leader of their revolution:
Christ what more do you need to convince you
that you’ve made it and you’re easily as strong
as the filth from Rome who rape our country
and have terrorized our people for so long?
Roman soldiers stand in the background watching. Judas stands off to the side trying to catch Jesus’ eye, as if to say, ‘this is very dangerous.’
There must be over 50,000-
screaming love and more for you.
And every one of 50,000
would do whatever you ask them to.
Keep them shouting their devotion,
but add a touch of hate at Rome.
You will rise to a greater power;
we will ourselves a home.
You get the power and the glory,
forever and ever and ever!
My Poor Jerusalem
But this is not what Jesus wants. As they fall down bowing around him he lifts them up to sing:
Neither you Simon nor the 50,000,
nor the Romans nor the Jews…
nor doomed Jerusalem itself,
understand what power is.
understand what glory is,
understand at all.
Jesus sings a lament over Jerusalem, “my poor Jerusalem to conquer death, you only have to die” But Simon, Judas, and the other followers don’t understand. “As he drew near and came in sight of the city he shed tears over it and said, ‘If you too had only recognized on this day the way to peace…” (Luke 19:41-2)
But you close your eyes
you close your eyes
Though the movie has very little of Jesus’ eschatology you do find his lament over the doomed city of Jerusalem which is echoed in a line sung by the crowds in the market in the Temple:
Live in me Jerusalem
Here you live Jerusalem
Here you breathe Jerusalem
While your Temple still survives
You at least are still alive.
Just Don’t Say I’m Damned For All Time
Judas’ betrayal of Jesus is a complex issue- and Jesus Christ Superstar deals with that complexity without dumbing it down. We aren’t told Judas’ motives in the gospels. The fact that he betrayed his leader and his friends is reported to us along with the disparaging comments that he was a thief (John 12:6) and that Satan took control of him (John 13:27). In Jesus Christ Superstar Judas is presented as Jesus’ friend – his “right hand man all along” He admires Jesus. He respects Jesus and his message – but is frightened by the chaos and turmoil of the times. He is fearful that they will be crushed by the Roman armies. He goes to Annas and Caiaphas to stop Jesus from going too far.
I came because I had to; I’m the one who saw
Jesus can’t control it like he did before.
And furthermore I know Jesus thinks so too.
Jesus really wouldn’t mind that I was here with you.
I had no thought about my own reward,
I really didn’t come here of my own accord
Just don’t say I’m … damned for all time.
Without having any explanation for Judas’ motives from scripture I find this explanation as plausible as any – and more plausible than that of those who insist that Judas was just evil from the beginning. Judas is a compelling character - not a one dimensional foil for Jesus. He is tormented by his conflicting emotions, and haunted by his guilt.
Christ I know you can’t hear me,
but I only did what you wanted me to.
Christ I’d sell out the nation
for I have saddled with the murder of you!
I have been spattered with innocent blood!
I shall be dragged through the slime and the mud!
How do we reconcile the idea that Judas was destined to betray Jesus? That he HAD to betray Jesus? This is a perplexing question. A terible question and Judas feels the terrible bite of that question. As he throws his rope belt around the branch of a tree he screams:
My mind is in darkness
God I’m sick
I’ve been used
and you knew all the time!
God I’ll never know why you chose me for your crime!
You have murdered me!
An angelic choir mourns his death. The scene is bitter and tragic.
In his solo in the garden of Gethsemane the Jesus of Jesus Christ Superstar reveals a Jesus filled with “terror and anguish” (Mark 14:33) Other film versions of Jesus’ passion move briskly over this scene. He casually prays, ‘if there’s any other way, but not my will…’ and then the soldiers come blah, blah, blah… But in Jesus Christ Superstar we really feel that terror and anguish with Jesus. His prayer is urgent and even confrontational. He struggles to accept the “cup of poison” that God has for him. Throughout the song he scrambles up the side of the mountain, clawing at the rocks with his hands and feet trying to get closer to his father in heaven – reaching out for him.
I only want to say
if there is a way
take this cup away from me
for I don’t want to taste its poison
feel it burn me …
Can you show me now
that I would not be killed anyway?
Show me just a little of your omnipresent brain.
Show me there’s a reason for your wanting me to die
Far too keen on when and how but not so hot on why!
All right, I’ll die! Oh just watch me die!
See how, see how I’ll die
Just watch me die…
God thy will is hard
but you hold every card.
I will drink your cup of poison;
nail me to your cross and break me
bleed me, beat me, kill me,
take me now,
before I change my mind.
That’s a Jesus filled with sorrow to the point of death. That’s a real Jesus.
We Have No King But Caesar!
Pilate is a character caught between two conflicting choices. He recognizes that there is something extraordinary about this, “someone Christ, King of the Jews” but he doesn’t know what it is, or why the Jewish people should hate him so much for it.
The crowd shouts, “Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!” But Pilate doesn’t want to be used by the mob for their violent purposes,
What do you mean? You’d crucify your king?
--We have no king but Caesar!
He’s done no wrong, No, not the slightest thing.
--We have no king but Caesar!
What is this new respect for Caesar?
Up till now this has been noticeably lacking!
Who is this Jesus? Why is he different?
You Jews choose messiahs by the sack-full!
He attempts to find a way to save Jesus. He begs Jesus to give him a way out - for he knows from the dream that he had (yes, Pilate had the dream in Superstar and not his wife…) that “thousands of millions of people” would be crying out for Jesus and leaving him the blame. But Jesus tells him:
Everything is fixed. You can’t change it
Seeing that there’s no arguing with either Jesus or the mob who threaten to report him to Caesar, Pilate finally washes his hands of Jesus’ “demolition”, and turns him over to be crucified as Caiaphas and the mob have demanded.
Jesus Christ Superstar
Judas comes back from the grave – descending on a star - to sing the title song and to ask the question, “Jesus Christ – who are you? What have you sacrificed? Do you think you’re what they say you are?” Ultimately, I think this is the most important part of the production – the questions.
Who is Jesus? What did he do? Why did he do it? Is there anyone else like Jesus?
Tell me what you think of your friends at the top
now who do you think beside yourself was the pick of the crop?
Buddha? Was he where it’s at? Is he where you are?
Could Mohammed move the mountain or was that just PR?
Judas – who started the film by demanding that Jesus listen to him – now only seeks to understand who this Jesus really was
Don’t get me wrong.
I only want to know.
If Jesus Christ Superstar does nothing but prompt people to ask these questions then I think it’s a success.
The production ends with the crucifixion. Jesus is nailed to the cross by the soldiers and lifted up. In the background noise you can hear the devil laughing. Jesus prays for the people to be forgiven because they don’t know what they are doing, questions why God has forgotten him, and then commends his spirit into the hands of his father.
The actors then make their way back to the bus. They’ve removed their costumes and put away the props. You can see that for some of them this has just been an afternoon of play acting – but a few of them recognize that something truly spectacular has just occurred. They don’t seem to know what it was though – so they board the bus and drive away.
As the sun sets behind the cross on the hill we see that it is empty – but the actor who played Jesus never got on the bus. He’s gone. There’s no resurrection- just a sense of ambiguity.
Many Christians have complained about the ending, about the lack of a resurrection (except for Judas….) saying that it shows a Christ who was not God, and a Christ who was unable to rise from the tomb. I, too, was somewhat put off by the ending until I recalled that the original ending of Marks’ gospel is very similar.
“And the women came out and ran away from the tomb because they were frightened out of their wits; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8)
But the sense of ambiguity - the hanging question - is the appropriate ending for a movie that repeatedly asks the question: Who are you Jesus? What did you do? What do you mean to me? How is my life changed because of you?
As I said earlier, there is much wrong biblically in Jesus Christ Superstar: They consistantly call him Jesus Christ as if it's his last name... Mary Magdalene is presented as the prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume… Pilate flogs Jesus with 40 minus 1 lash which was a punishment used by the leaders of Synagogues not by roman officials… Pilate has the prescient dream about Jesus – not his wife… etc… But for all that is wrong with the movie – there is much that is right about it. King Herod mocks Jesus and asks for a miracle. The disciples are overly concerned about a national kingdom and about being remembered as Jesus’ apostles. Jesus is fiercely angry as he drives the merchants out of the temple. etc…
I enjoy Jesus Christ Superstar and hope that whether I get a part in the local production or not that it will prompt questions and drive people towards the true Jesus Christ Superstar.