The Bad-Guy Ecclesiology of Jesus Christ Superstar

For the last 20 years, whether or not I’ve been deeply involved in a church, a significant part of my Holy Week reflection has been centered on listening to the original Jesus Christ Superstar. This musical interpretation goes back to my pre-teen years, when every girl with a guitar or anything approaching a voice did her best Yvonne Elliman imitation on the two big songs featuring the Mary Magdalene character.  (We had no idea what half of what she was singing meant, nor that by tradition, she was a notorious whore–or why “whore” was something we should not aspire to be. Even if that whore loved Jesus.  Oopsie.) High school choral groups performed the large crowd numbers before it became politically incorrect to allow religious expressions (most especially those marginally connected with Christianity) in state-funded education. Community theatre groups staged performances of the entire musical. My church youth group had an outing to see the movie and go for pizza and discussion afterwards. One of my persuasive writing projects in school involved a fake ad campaign for the American Bible Society, featuring the brown-and-gold logo of what appeared to be a horseshoe with angel heads at each end, that appeared on the US release of the album and piano score. We had to say something persuasive with one image and less than ten words. My thought was posters (even on the sides of New York City buses) with the horseshoe laid on top of an open Bible, and the words, “You liked the show.  Now read the book.”

Superstar is possibly one of the most compelling musical dramatizations of the Gospel narrative that takes the Christian community from Palm Sunday to Easter.  What makes it more compelling to me now than it was over 40 years ago is that it does not approach the story from a particularly pious/devotional standpoint.  Oddly, the more I listen to it, the more I realize that Jesus is not the central character of the story. Jesus is an object, not a subject.  Jesus does not really do anything.  Jesus does not act–he is acted upon.  At least, by the point in the overarching narrative of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ where Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice pick it up, with the exception of clearing out the Temple, all of Jesus’ doing is. . . done.

What is going to be done with, to, and about Jesus is the concern of the real main character of Jesus Christ Superstar.  And that character is so complex and rich it cannot be played by a single actor, a single musical voice. The main character of Jesus Christ Superstar is not a particular person, but the religious community–the “nation” of Israel–to which Jesus was sent as Messiah. The community is represented by the religious leaders (Caiaphas, Annas, the priests), those in the “secular” Roman government with whom they collude (King Herod; Pilate, the Governor of Judea), and the infiltrator Judas. The main character is really all of what Christians would consider the “bad guys”–and together those “bad guys” are the character of the Church.

Now, before we get into discussions about whether Superstar is anti-Semitic (because the religious leaders are “Jews”), we need to remember that Christian anti-Semitism is a much older issue, and it’s been a problem for centuries.  I would think, rather, that the critique is not against Jews as Jews, but against the leaders of any legitimate religion who are over-protective of their positions of prestige and privilege.  This is as much a problem in the 21st century Christian churches–and my interpretation of the musical is that it is more a critique of ecclesial resistance to necessary change now than it is any denigration of Judaism.

Because, that’s exactly what is happening in Superstar. High-ranking religious leaders (and their minions a couple of levels down) realize the threat to their cozy positions–and they have to do something to maintain the status quo.  Think about the words of Caiaphas early in the libretto:

Fools, you have no perception!

The stakes we are gambling are frighteningly high.

We must crush him completely, so like John before him,

This Jesus must die.

That is the entire plot of the story. Someone emerges who gains popular support, threatens their position, and the immediate response is not to investigate the claims of the people that this might be the long awaited messiah. The immediate response is to eliminate this man–silence him, kill him, consign his memory to oblivion.

By whatever means available. Get a friend to betray him, because everyone has a price. Force it into secular law:

We turn to Rome to sentence Nazareth.

We have no law to put a man to death.

We need him crucified.

It’s all you have to do.

And secular law might just do it, because making sure the religious loudmouths are happy keeps the peace.  Sort of, anyway. Until there’s a backlash.

Christianity, and its leaders of all denominations, should see Jesus Christ Superstar not just as a compelling dramatization of the story of Holy Week. It’s a cautionary tale of what happens when the leaders of a moribund and oppressive religious institution become over-concerned with their prestige and privilege, and kill off those who would bring it new life.

Caiaphas and Annas are the cipher for the Church–co-opting anyone who has a stake in the status quo. Government becomes an instrument of religious control, friends cannot be trusted. And innovation is crushed.

People leave. They follow something with a bigger vision, a broader horizon. It just can’t be killed. That’s what resurrection is about.  When what is oppressive and moribund tries to stifle new life, and it just won’t stay quiet.

That was the Holy Week sermon I needed.  The one I wouldn’t get in any church if I were to go. It’s also the one most church leaders need, but won’t have the courage to preach.

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