So Confession time, part II: the two "rock" albums (yes, 33.5 speed--the real deal, y'all) I listened to growing up were Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge over Troubled Water and the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar. While my elementary and middle school friends grooved to disco or rocked out to Led Zeppelin or Nazareth, I memorized the words to "Keep the Customer Satisfied," "Cecelia," "What's the Buzz?" and "This Jesus Must Die." The Southern Baptist kids in our little Missouri Ozarks town never quite got used to me singing, usually unprompted, "CEEEEEELLLLya, you're breaking my heart..." or, much worse, "Ah gentlemen, you know why we are here. We've not much time, and quite a problem here..." <<OTOH, I now realize why my dating life was nonexistent. LOL>>
Confession time, part III: I recovered in 1983. Def Leppard's Pyromania will do that. Ditto for Van Halen's 1984.
All of this background to say this past Holy Week a friend's Facebook post prompted me to seek out Jesus Christ Superstar. For the first time in thirty years I listened again to Murray Head and Ian Gillian belt out the songs I still knew by heart. I also thanked God I hadn't admitted my familiarity with this while studying with Bill Placher.
ANYWAY...here's the point: the old soundtrack still has something to say, if we would hear it. First, dispense with any sense of apostolicity; besides Jesus the other main character is Judas Iscariot. We actually hear his voice first with the upbeat yet neurotic "Heaven on their minds." Judas lists several reasons why Jesus should throttle back on his ministry's popularity: politics, loss of original spirit/mission, messenger becoming bigger than his own message, and, in a sharp Marxist turn, "too much heaven on their minds." This leads Judas to claim "All your followers are blind." Turns out, of course, that Judas indicts himself. Jesus answers throughout the soundtrack "if you only knew..." John's gospel plays a similar theme--clear knowledge standing amid willful ignorance--but the trick, of course, is that by reading John's gospel we ourselves come to know what is already true.
This bring ups a second point. The Judas-centric narrative recasts the various accounts of the apostles we receive from the Gospels. What's the Buzz?/Strange Thing Mystifying then groups the rest of apostles as a bunch of group-thinking feel-gooders who really don't "get" Jesus' message. What's the buzz? And tell me what's a-happening? "Why should you want to know?" indeed....What's the buzz? also introduces Mary Magdalen who comes within a word or two of answering the age-old seventh grade theology question: Did Jesus have sex? (Actually the clearest allusion to that comes with "I Don't Know how to love him") Judas again provides the main narrative: "It's not that I object her profession....but she doesn't fit in well with what you teach and say. It doesn't help us if you're inconsistent." Again, Judas winds up indicting himself along with the rest of the disciples he so desperately seeks to distance himself. Jesus responds consistently: "Why do you want to know?" A great question in light of Genesis 2 and the synoptics' accounts of the greatest disciple. When Judas concludes "they only need a small excuse to put us away" reiterates his own secular concerns: maintaining power and good vibes. Another side of the myopia surrounding Jesus (not His own, but that of His followers) immediately follows with "Everything's Alright" wherein Mary Magdalen offers Jesus needed, albeit temporary, respite. Judas surfaces again with concerns about message purity. The song implies, though, that Mary only partially gets the point; she repeats the lyrics while Jesus responds "there will be poor always, pathetically struggling. Look at the good things you got.....You'll be lost, you'll be so sorry when I'm gone."
This past Sunday, btw, offers the Gospels' response. With Pentecost the Church now enjoys the gift of the Holy Spirit. Catholic Memes has the appropriate image here.
MEANWHILE, the Jewish authorities get in the act with "This Jesus Must Die." The tune revolves an inverted "shout and response" between the rabbis who trade the recognition "He is dangerous" with the crowd's "Jesus Christ Superstar." Suffering under the same secular--this worldly--view that confounds Judas, the rabbis simply cannot figure out the source of Jesus' power and attraction, but they are darned sure his continued popularity spells nothing good for them. If you listen carefully, you'll catch at one point Caiaphas channeling Creedence Clearwater Revival's classic "Bad Moon Rising." "Our elimination...because of one man." So they decide he must die. Their fears are born out in the next song "Hosanna." Caiaphas grumpily tells Jesus to shush the crowd but, with a prophetic nod towards Pentecost, Jesus refuses. Instead the song concludes merrily. The following song "Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem" returns to the misunderstanding with Jesus' own disciples. Simon Zealotes voices precisely the eschatological impatience that Judas fears. Jesus' popularity is clearly the sign that the time has come for Rome's rule to end. "Keep them yelling their devotion, but add a touch of hate at Rome. You will rise to a greater power, we'll win ourselves a home." (Released just three years after the revolutionary Six Day War of 1967, that last lyric carries perhaps a certain anti-Zionist barb.) But again, Jesus responds that no one really "understand what power is, understand what glory is, understand at all."
That thread is picked up later with the trials before Pilate. JCS depicts Pilate as an unwilling potentate, quite ready to push the entire matter in Herod's lap. Herod, though, is depicted as a sybaritic weakling unworthy of the deference he's given. The 1973 movie version depicts this especially well. The Crucifixion prefigures Mel Gibson's 2004 The Passion of the Christ by conflating all four gospel accounts into one account. This itself is a problem as the Church has resisted this simplifying move since Tatian.
JCS spends so much humanizing Jesus, but in so doing also attests to Christ's divinity. A rock concept album shouldn't be expected to reassert classic Nicean Christology, but it also doesn't completely deny it all, either. No, rock n roll can't become an ersatz church; we still need the reality and care of the one, catholic, holy, and apostolic one. But amid that we can find ad hoc, piecemeal affirmations of the same faith. In that context, Jesus Christ Superstar accomplishes more than its creators and performers probably ever intended.
h/t Marty and Matt for kick-starting the memory train again