Being prevented by a kidney stone from presiding (let alone attending) the Good Friday Proper Liturgy with the reading of St. John’s Passion, the Solemn Collects and the Veneration of the Cross, I decided to listen to Jesus Christ, Superstar. I remember our Nazarene pastor scandalizing the congregation by listening to this with the youth group — you know, rock and roll came pretty close to being the devil’s music back then. And while I still enjoy the music, and find that it holds up pretty well as a rock opera (may have to listen to Tommy next), I find I’m no longer impressed by the theology.
Firstly, it is colored by a thoroughgoing Arianism. Jesus is portrayed primarily as a moral teacher, and reluctant political revolutionary. In Gethsemane, he prays to God, “Show me just a little of your omnipresent brain.” Of course, the Incarnation subjected Jesus to human limitations (or Jesus’ human nature was really human nature), but the portrayal shows little of Jesus’ relationship to God as portrayed in the Gospels. Judas hints at the difficulty when he sings, in “Heaven on their minds,” “You’ve begun to matter more than the things you say.”
Secondly, there is very little emphasis on the atoning nature of Christ’s life/death/resurrection, and what there is is Anselmian (if it’s there at all). In the song “Gethsemane”, Jesus finally comes to terms with his fate and sings, “Kill me, take me now, before I change my mind.” The death is something God exacts, and the resurrection figures not at all. The opera ends with an instrument (an underture?) entitled, “John 19:41,” a reference to the tomb in the garden where Jesus’ body was laid. And like Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, there seems to be a fascination with the actually suffering of Jesus, which the Gospel writers are reluctant to narrate. The trial before Pilate contains one of the most affective (yes, with an a) moments of the opera with the thirty nine lashes carefully counted. In “Crucifixion,” we hear the nails being pounded in. The Gospel writers simply tell us that when they arrived at Golgotha, “there, they crucified him.”
Thirdly, and not surprisingly, given the title of the rock opera, fame seems to be presented the antidote to death, the only hope offered. The disciples sing, “Always hoped that I’d be an apostle. Knew that I would make it if I tried. Then when we retire, we can write the Gospels, so they’ll still talk about us when we’ve died.” Judas, “Superstar,” asks the question, “Did you know you’re messy death would be a record breaker?” In “Gethsemane,” in answer to the question, “Why should I die?” Jesus sings “Would I be noticed than I ever was before? Would the things I’ve said and done matter any more?”
The opera does capture well the political background against which the events played out, particularly the aspect of empire. Simon Zeolotes encourages Jesus to keep the crowd yelling their praises, “But throw in a touch of hate at Rome.” It also captures Mark’s portrayal of the disciples as duh-sciples: “Look at all my trials and tribulations sinking in a gentle pool of wine. What’s that in the bread; it’s gone to my head.”
I listen to the rock opera sometime every Good Friday, but usually as background to preparing to marinate the leg of lamb for the lamb dinner after the Easter Vigil, and not usually paying such close attention to it. I’ll continue to enjoy it for its music, and as a period piece, but won’t be impressed with christology or theory of atonement expressed. Guess that’s one of the hazards of being a professional theologian.