Jesus Christ Superstar

So it’s been three months since junior year began, which also means I’ve enjoyed three months of AP English Language so far. . . and I haven’t posted a single thing from it!? Not one?!

So, to remedy that, here’s a “thinking paper” on Jesus Christ Superstar, that most amazing of Rock Operas, written after viewing it in class and taking notes on it. “Thinking Papers” as described by my English teacher “are exploratory pieces. . . without the strictures of organization. . . [which] document thought as it is happening.” In my words: stream of consciousness, unedited thought vomit.

It was all one, veeeeeeery long paragraph before I stuck it up here, but I figured that would be pretty painful to read, so I’ve broken it up.

Here goes:

Jesus Christ Superstar is a product of its environment: the political and social upheaval of the 1970’s, a generation distancing itself from the already rebellious sixties. Seems obvious, considering its title, but it goes far beyond an analogy between Jesus and the rockstars who had just become so popular a decade earlier.

Jesus Christ Superstar is the voice of the new youth of the seventies questioning the Jesus story and asking the fundamental questions: “who do you think you are, Jesus?” and, more importantly, “who are you Jesus?” In this way it is not merely a new take on the character of Judas who has been for so many hundreds of years the hated betrayer of the messiah, but a way of putting us, the modern viewer into the story, as Judas.

All the questions people began raising in the the second half of the twentieth century are asked of Jesus by Judas in Superstar. Through Judas, modern sensitivities are imposed on a story dating back two thousand years and stuck somewhere that they really can’t be applied to. And so of course it feels jarring—the apostles shouting “Hey, Jesus!” and asking him “What’s the buzz?” can hardly be further from our image of the bathrobe wearing, “thee/thou” saying apostles of the gospels.

But where’d we get that idea? The King James Bible. And when was that written? In the 1600’s. So what were the translators of the Greek doing then but imposing their modern sensibilities on a text which was, for them, some 1,600 years old? Are not “thee” and “thou” anachronisms in and of themselves when heard from the mouth of Jesus? And yet that’s what we expect. Not rock, but thee and thou because to us antiquity equals authority and we just can’t take rock seriously.

So when Rice and Lloyd Webber are imposing anachronisms on the Jesus story they aren’t just “updating” it and trying to make it more accessible (though they are and do a very good job of it) they are proving that rock has the ability to be serious with the exact same justification that King James had—and let me remind you of how popular his take was at first.

The anachronisms in the film are representations of this imposition of modern sensibilities: reminders that we cannot just view what we are seeing as the same old, same old Jesus Christ story. This is the Jesus Christ story with a jaded, modern, and thoroughly political edge.

Jesus has begun a political movement, whether he likes it or not, which is seen as a threat to the establishment, something his best and closest friend, Judas recognizes early on and resolves not to interfere with because of his faith in his friend. However, once Judas realizes the threat that is posed to his homeland because of the growing popularity of Jesus and his lack of control over it, he makes a choice that is really not a choice and turns Jesus over to the priests.

“I came here because I had to; I’m the only one who saw./Jesus can’t control it like he did before,” Judas sings to the priests justifying his actions. And Judas asks the question “Why are we the ones/who see the sad solution-know what must be done?”

Everyone, Judas, the priests, eventually the crowd and Pilate, and even Jesus himself know that something must be done about Jesus: the question is, who will be made to take responsibility for his fate?

As the gospels tell the story, it is Judas who gets most of the blame—something Rice highlights with the ironic, repeated line “Just don’t say I’m damned for all time.” As the audience, we know he is damned for all time: by generations of Christians to follow, if not by God himself.

The priests want Jesus dead in order to protect their established religion and their country from the Romans, but are they the ones to do it? No, they default to Pilate.

The entire story takes shape as a political drama might, which makes sense considering that this Jesus story is a product of the seventies and not the 100’s. And in the political drama, Judas is the common man realizing the mistakes of the politicos and see(k)ing the solution.

Judas as played by Carl Anderson in the 1973 movie.

Judas was a Jew. He cared for his people and he was not about to sacrifice them all for one man whose ego had grown just a bit too big. And from Judas’s point of view (which is the entire opera) there is no reason to believe that Jesus is any different from the many other Jews who were claiming to be the messiah at that time.

To Judas, as he clearly states in his first song, Jesus is a man. A man who says good things but who began to believe all the rumors about himself (You’ve started to believe/The things they say of you) and has made himself into this all-important being which is not what he is at all. He’s made himself the most important piece of the puzzle and Judas recognizes that this wasn’t how it was in the beginning of Jesus’s movement and things are spiraling out of control. Not completely unlike a modern rockstar.

In Rice and Lloyd Weber’s take on the story, the apostles are nothing more than over-zealous groupies as they surround Jesus and sing with Simon “Christ you know I love you / Did you see I waved? / I believe in you and God / So tell me that I’m saved/ … / Kiss me, kiss me, Jesus” extending the superstar metaphor.

Jesus has inspired a fan base, which follows him around and pledges him its loyalty—such fanatic loyalty that they swear to overturn the government if Jesus wants them to, exactly what the establishment and Judas fear. These groupies don’t even understand the message of Jesus; they are merely obsessed with the idea of him. Simon evidences this when he asks Jesus to “add a touch of hate at Rome” to his teachings, which is completely opposite to what Jesus teaches just as the crowd crying “JC, JC, won’t you fight for me?” is.

But Jesus is too self-absorbed to notice that things have gotten out of hand; he likes center stage. Only Judas realizes what is happening and attempts to reason with Jesus. He points out to him that his actions are not in keeping with his word when he attacks Jesus’s relationship with Mary, saying, “She doesn’t fit in well with what you teach and say/It doesn’t help us if you’re inconsistent/They only need a small excuse to put us all away.”

Judas is acting a bit as Jesus’s PR man in what might seem like a confusingly contradictory plea to Jesus to both look out for his reputation and keep to his teachings, which have no regard for reputation. But Judas is just trying to salvage a situation he is already pretty sure is beyond saving. It isn’t too many scenes before Judas finds himself running from tanks being called in presumably against Jesus’s movement. His worry definitely isn’t baseless, not that he can get Jesus to see that.

The tanks bring me back to the question of anachronisms and their purpose in Jesus Christ Superstar. It makes sense for Rice and Lloyd Webber to have portrayed Jesus as this superstar-like figure and his apostles as like groupies. These are two very modern ideas used to illustrate a centuries old story, equating it with the present: Judas wasn’t really so different from any one of us; Jesus was a man who got carried away with fame, any modern person might do that; and his followers were pretty much hippies.

But maybe Rice and Webber aren’t just making a point about the characters of the bible being more than men in robes who are more similar to us than we think, maybe they are saying that we are more similar to them than we think.

So all the anachronisms—combat boots, yoga pants, postcards, mirrors (actually the mirrors which Jesus throws to the floor when he enters the table could be a representation of the vanity of the people along with the other sins that Jesus is condemning, which is ironic considering Jesus’s own behavior with regard to the expensive ointment and many other instances of vanity), tanks, bombers, rock music, language, sunglasses, scaffolding (again, this one could have a deeper meaning in that we encounter the scaffolding after seeing the ruins of the temple. The scaffolding is harsh and modern, juxtaposed with the ruin, but also a representation of reconstruction, whether by Jesus or the priests, we don’t know. The priests deliver their judgement from the scaffolding and Judas comes to the priests while they are on the scaffolding, so two major events take place on a symbol of reconstruction.), disco clothes, gogo boots—are lenses with which to view the Christ story, but also lenses through which to view ourselves.

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