The rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar combined emotionally wrenching music and lyrics employing contemporary idiom to speak to the post-hippie 1970’s generation in a radically new form that brought the story of Jesus alive for an idealistic, young, but largely secular and agnostic generation. Librettist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber daringly presented the story of Jesus’ final days in contemporary terms, raising doubt about a number of Christian assumptions.
The first of these is the divine nature of Jesus. Jesus’ divinity is questioned at several points, but the most powerful doubt is presented in the title song. Sung by Judas after that disciple returns from the dead, the song asks, sarcastically and with some vitriol, if Christ is really what he thinks he is, and, if he is the Son of God, why he let things “get so out of hand.” When asked by Pilate if he is what his followers claim, Jesus answers that he is what they say he is. All is doubt, but Jesus’ prophecies about who will betray him and who will deny him do come true. Obversely, though Judas is resurrected, the opera ends short of the resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, Christ cries from the cross as a suffering human, calling out that he is thirsty and pleading for his mother.
The question of the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene is raised throughout: Mary is seen comforting and caressing Jesus, but especially when she sings the powerful song “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” while Jesus lies sleeping in her arms. Some three decades after the Webber and Rice opera, the issue of sexual relations between Mary Magdalene and Christ was again explored in Dan Brown’s popular novel The Da Vinci Code (2003), as it was earlier in a serious scholarly work, Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1983), by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln.
A final issue is the matter of the character of Judas, who is really the costar of the opera. Often portrayed as a greedy coward who betrayed his friend, Judas here appears as a sympathetic victim of events, a sensible man with reasonable doubts who attempts to address the dangerous conditions being created by Christ’s followers.
In many ways, then, Jesus Christ Superstar can be interpreted as the story of Jesus the man—not Christ the Son of God. Certainly this emphasis on the humanity of Jesus—highlighted by the “hip” music, lyrics, and political themes that resonated with the opera’s first audiences—called traditional Christianity into question and thus created much controversy when the musical first appeared in the 1970’s. Such controversy has greeted other portrayals of Jesus’ humanity, from Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1960) to The Da Vinci Code. At the same time, however, Jesus Christ Superstar is a powerful dramatization of the real emotional, political, and social turmoil faced by Jesus, filling audiences with a sense of the dilemmas, struggles, pain, and finally betrayal and death endured by a man who gave his life to be true to God—and the very human responses to Jesus’ insistence on that truth.
God and Religion Jesus Christ Superstar is not simply a portrayal of the historical figure of Jesus a rabbi who promoted the idea of loving one’s enemy, but an exploration of the star status of Jesus, who gathered around him a following of devoted disciples and had a timeless, worldwide impact. According to critic James R. Huffman in the Journal of Popular Culture , works like this one ‘‘ask the right questions, but allow each individual to provide...
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his own answers.’’ One of the questions it asks is what kind of relationship one should have with God and/or Jesus. A range of responses is portrayed, from Mary’s loyal, personal devotion that threatens to border on physical passion, to Judas’s skepticism and betrayal. Mary’s relationship represents the person who embraces the values of Christianity and wants a personal connection to God but cannot achieve it: Mary doesn’t ‘‘know how to love him.’’ Judas represents the classic doubter, one who realizes too late what really matters. However, most of the followers are just part of the crowd, like the ‘‘over 50,000’’ that Simon Zealotes sings about. This crowd sees Christ as a fast track to salvation (‘‘I believe in you and God, so tell me that I’m saved’’). The disciples, on the other hand, are mere buffoons, more interested in their own glory than in appreciating the profound event taking place before their eyes. The line, ‘‘always hoped that I’d be an apostle, knew that I would make it if I tried’’ is an ironic comment on their misguided aspiration, and the lines that follow it drive the point home, ‘‘Then when we retire we can write the gospels, so they’ll still talk about us when we’ve died.’’ The apostles prove of little use to Jesus at the Last Supper, since they fall asleep when their leader needs them most, and then foolishly offer to fight for him once it is too late to save him. Significantly it is not the apostles or those closest to Jesus—Mary, Judas, Simon, or Peter—but the anonymous crowd whom Jesus helps, touches, and heals. Jesus thus is seen as healing others, confirming their beliefs, but not confirming those of the characters with whom the audience most identifies. Religious commitment seems simple, somehow, for others, but vexed with doubts and insecurity for oneself. In this way,Jesus Christ Superstar hits a nerve with its postmodern audience, many of whom share both Mary’s desire for a passionate connection to a higher power and also Judas’s jaundiced belief that such faith would be naive and, ultimately, misplaced. The fact that Judas later repents and discovers that Christ loved him too also resonates to the skeptic’s fear of ‘‘missing out.’’
Doubt Jesus himself provides an exploration of religious doubt. While his followers either accept his divinity blindly or, like Judas and the Priests, fear the political consequences of his impact while ignoring his mission, Jesus alone understands that his mission is serious and vital. In fact, he will undergo the ultimate test of faith, by willingly accepting his own death. This fate he seems to ignore until the time draws dangerously close. In this respect he is no different from any human who ignores or maintains a surface faith as long as things are going well. When Christ comes face to face with the fact that he truly must die, it shakes the foundations of his faith, and he asks himself ‘‘Why am I scared to finish what I started?’’ But then realizes in mid-sentence that it is not his plan he was following but God’s. Now skeptical, he demands proof and becomes angry with God when it is not given. ‘‘God, thy will is hard,’’ he accuses his heavenly father, ‘‘But you hold every card.’’ By the time he reaches Pilate for the second interrogation, Christ has mended his breach of faith and faces his trial with new resolve, telling Pilate, ‘‘Any power you have comes to you from far beyond. / Everything is fixed and you can’t change it.’’ Christ’s acceptance of his crucifixion dissolves his doubt.