When I was in high school, I was a member of a youth Sunday school class which consisted of my brother, my two best friends, a Cameroonian girl, and a Venezuelan girl. The girls tolerated us at best and didn’t come very often. Our teacher was a very sedate and patient man who nurtured us in quiet ways. We enjoyed his dry humor, but otherwise ignored everything he said.
One spring, he brought in a tv cart and put in a video called Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s a 1973 film based on a “rock opera” from 1970 by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice. The film opens with hippies in a middle eastern desert getting ready for the show. The music is hard-driving rock with full orchestra. The four of us boys laughed. They looked so funny to us in their hippy clothes and the music was all so dated to us. We made fun of Judas, arguably the main character, as he sang his opening song in a crazy costume. But as the film progressed, although there is humor, we began to take things more seriously. It was the story of the Passion told in a way that we had never known.
Jesus had never been presented to me as a man. The focus of my childhood teachings of Jesus was of a perfect divine being who spoke in dulcet tones. But that’s not how Jesus is portrayed in the film. He’s a Jesus who is subjected to the whole array of human experience: anger, frustration, fear, joy, weariness, companionship, remorse, suffocation, and perhaps even romantic love. The characters and stories of the scriptures came together in a powerful way for me in this film. It all seemed to make more sense.
The story is told from the perspective of the misunderstood Judas, the disciple who ultimately betrays Jesus. Judas sings:
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.
Judas loves Jesus dearly. He’s terrified that Jesus is going to be killed and that his cause of social justice will be lost. He thinks that if he turns him in they will stop him from taking it too far. He never imagines that he was betraying Jesus to his death. As the movie progresses, we see a Jesus struggling with his humanity, grappling with doubt, and enduring increasing pressure to shut down his ministry and renounce what people are saying about his royalty and divinity. It’s a train wreck and the only two people that know it are Jesus and Judas.
Both Judas and Mary Magdalene love Jesus profoundly and in ways that they cannot understand or reconcile with who they are and who they think Jesus is. They sing “I don’t know how to love him.”; first Mary, late at night feeling conflicted about falling in love with Jesus, and then Judas, before he hangs himself to death out of grief and remorse. They love him so much that “it scares [them] so”. They both try to convince themselves that he’s just a man. In Judas’ version he sings
He’s a man. He’s just a man. He is not a king. He’s just the same as anyone I know. He scares me so.
This Jesus may not be a true scriptural depiction. From Judas’ perspective he performs no miracles. He is no more than a teacher and a friend to the outcast. A movement forms around him, but it is not his movement. But the film takes the scriptural notion that Jesus is fully human and fully divine and explores the humanity in a way that no film had ever done.
The emotional centerpiece of the movie is Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. This is when the Jesus of the film and the Jesus of the scriptures come together with striking clarity. He weeps and pleads with God to let “this cup” pass by him. This is Jesus’ most human moment in the scriptures and most powerful moment in the movie. He sings
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
I’ve never heard those words without shedding tears.
After Jesus is dead, all of the characters put their streets clothes back on and drive away…except for the actor who played Jesus. He’s nailed to the cross, a casualty of an authentically told story. There is no Resurrection in this film; only a shepherd and his flock walking in front of the cross as the sun sets. I think it leaves the possibility for belief.
I could write volumes about this show; about Pilate’s struggles, the high priests’ fears, Mary’s romance, Herod’s cowardice, but I’ll leave that to the critics.
Although this is a very secular portrayal of the Passion story, it does something very powerful for me, something very spiritual. How is it that the portrayal of a man from over 2000 years ago affect me so profoundly every year? There are lots of films with martyrs and deaths and tragic heroes, but they do not affect me like Jesus Christ Superstar does. Ultimately, faith is about choices. What do we choose to conclude from what life brings us? I mourn Jesus’ death every year in this movie. I mourn him no less than anyone who has ever died in my life. I conclude from this, that Jesus lives and that he is connected to me in a very real way. I know of no other way to explain this anomaly, nor do I want another way.