The Portrayal of Jesus as a Rock Star Phenomenon

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1715

In a recent interview Tim Rice admitted that from an early age he was fascinated by the character of Judas. Without Judas, he said, there would be no Christianity since it was Judas who directly caused Christ’s martyrdom and thus gave the world a tragic heroic figure around whom a whole religion would coalesce. Rice wanted to put Judas on the stage, by taking the sketchy, known ‘‘facts’’ about him and hypothesizing a set of logical reasons and a psychological make-up that could have led to his devastating betrayal. That Rice succeeded in his endeavor is without question. His Judas has a clear, if not forgivable, motive, and his tale of emotional remorse and suicide ring truer to life than the dispassionate reporting of the Bible, which merely states that Judas repented and hung himself. Rice’s Judas realizes that his soul is forever tarnished with his act, that his name will forever be ‘‘dragged through the slime and the mud.’’ Jesus Christ Superstar begins from Judas’s point of view and ends with his observations on the Christ phenomena; however, to make Judas the character come to life, Rice also needed to create a viable Jesus as his protagonist. Rice eschewed the persona of Jesus familiar in Biblical stories and the art these stories have inspired over the ages, since that persona of pure goodness makes any opponent appear foolhardy and heinous for martyring the messiah. The Jesus of familiar artistic renderings is a ghostly, divine figure, whose perfection and goodness exude through his otherworldly bearing and patient suffering with eyes confidently cast heavenward. Rice needed a different kind of Christ, a flesh-and-blood saint, an imperfect martyr, whose activities would not be above reproach. Therefore, to suit the Judas of his imagination, Rice created a Jesus complete with doubts and frailties, a worldly saint far removed from the ideal figure of Renaissance paintings. The Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar is a fallible human.

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The story of Jesus’s anger at the sellers in the temple market is a commonplace; Rice has him shriek, past the edge of self-control. Rice also portrays a healer who runs out of patience with the endless demands of the sick and poor, who claw at him and enclose him, chanting, ‘‘Won’t you touch, will you heal me Christ?’’ The superstar Jesus also regrets having accomplished little in his life, and feels show-stopping doubt when faced with sacri- ficing his own life and can only rouse himself through spite and anger, ‘‘Alright, I’ll die! See how I die!’’ Although fallible, Jesus is a charismatic leader, who draws to him an immense and loyal crowd. To this crowd and to his disciples, he is the messiah, the savior for whom the Jews waited for centuries, whose coming was prophesied in Isaiah and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. Being a charismatic savior who nevertheless grapples with human faults made Rice’s Jesus a ‘‘flesh-and-blood human being,’’ as Clifford Edwards of Catholic World observed. Those closest to this human Jesus, such as Judas, see that he has faults and that he is not a blameless god. Mary Magdalene even momentarily wonders about falling in love with him, a speculation that seems impossible to have about the Jesus of, say, Michaelangelo’s ‘‘Pieta’’ or Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘‘Last Supper.’’ A flawed Jesus then, raises the possibility that he is yet another false messiah, who will lead the Jews to destruction, not heaven. His very popularity increases the risks for the Jews if Jesus is not what he thinks he is, since, as Judas points out, the crowd is ‘‘getting much to loud’’ and ‘‘they’ll [the Romans will] crush us if we go too far.’’ It is in this way that Rice’s version of Jesus provides Judas...

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