I can’t help it. In Lent I usually feel nostalgic for the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. One of my older siblings got it right after it came out in the early ’70s. I liked it. No, I loved it. Forgive me if I keep the nostalgia rolling through Easter.
I’m sure I went through a period where I was critical of such things, railing at Superstar’s Jesus, who wasn’t orthodox enough, and probably echoing the sentiments I had heard in earlier days. No “real” Christian should spend their time with such ungodly stuff, I thought.
Now, I think there are very good reasons to pay attention to this show that is over 45 years old. To anyone with a traditional view of who Jesus is (who recites the Creeds without fingers crossed, as the saying goes), and who wants to share that Jesus with the surrounding culture, Jesus Christ Superstar provides an excellent window on the ways that non-Christians view Jesus. It is not a case of “know your enemy,” for non-Christians are not the enemy; they are people Jesus loves; they are potential brothers and sisters, as St. Augustine put it.
In the two main characters, Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot, we most clearly see the value of Jesus Christ Superstar. We can use the lens of love: in Mary, eros; and with Judas, philia (friendship).
Let’s begin with eros and the Magdalene. Discussing Jesus and sexuality almost always proves controversial, but it is a repeated theme in modern-day retellings of the story of Jesus, and there is also something entirely appropriate in that. Jesus was fully human, a male Jew of a particular time and era. It is almost ridiculous to imagine that no one ever found him attractive or to deny that someone might have desired to love him romantically. It’s just not that much a stretch.
But just as romantic love between two people often hides more than it reveals, so does a love of Jesus that is only romantic. A line sung by Mary Magdalene in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” brings us up short: “he’s just a man.” It’s clear that Mary cannot shake the feeling that there is more to Jesus than just a man, but she cannot acknowledge that there is more, so she sings, “He scares me so/I want him so/I love him so.”
The lens for Judas is philia. The Bible points in this direction. The language in the Gospels of the two “dipping bread together” may suggest intimacy (e.g., John 13:26). There is also the note of conflict, including a suggestion of negative character in Judas, when Jesus is anointed at Bethany. This all suggests friendship, which may have been going awry.
This note of a change in friendship is strong in Judas’ “Heaven On their Minds.” He sings:
Listen, Jesus I don’t like what I see
All I ask is that You listen to me
And remember, I’ve been Your right hand man all along.
In Superstar, Judas has been a central part of Jesus’ mission. But things have changed, and he doesn’t like it:
My mind is clearer now
At last, all too well I can see
Where we all soon will be
If you strip away
The myth from the man
You will see where we all soon will be
Is there anything as corrosive as the bitterness of divergent expectations?
And all the good you’ve done
Will soon be swept away.
You’ve begun to matter more
Than the things you say.
This Judas comes to the conclusion that it is better for Jesus to be stopped with force. He really believes he is acting in Jesus’ best interests.
C.S. Lewis speaks of friendship as standing shoulder to shoulder, the friends attending to a common interest. While Judas can join Jesus in a common task, he remains a friend. For the “good you’ve done,” read “the good we’ve done together.”
Superstar plays Mary and Judas off each other. The “love” of Judas has no place for Mary’s. This is telling. As we think about these two sorts of love as they apply to people’s love of Jesus today, it is tempting to say that Mary’s kind is better. It seems to leave a door open to Jesus being more than meets the eye. The collapse of ego boundaries that occurs in romantic love allows us to “get out of ourselves” and, in the case of Jesus, focus on him alone. Sure, our vision is unclear, but this is an important step. This provides God with an “end around” our rational defenses. Perhaps eros leads to something deeper here.
Friendship is not a bad thing, of course. Jesus says to his disciples, “I have called you friends” (John 15:15). But friendship must be based on truth, and the vision of Judas misses the mark. The New Testament scholar Ben Witherington has written:
We live in a Jesus haunted culture that is Biblically illiterate, and so unfortunately at this point in time, almost anything can pass for knowledge of the historical Jesus from notions that he was a Cynic sage to ideas that he was a Gnostic guru to fantasies that he didn’t exist, to Dan Brown’s Jesus of hysterical (rather than historical) fiction.
We can say that our culture’s “friendship” with Jesus has gone awry. Our culture no longer really know who Jesus is, but still thinks of him as a “friend.” The Judas of Superstar is our most direct representative. For example:
- Note the relationship with “true believers” in the show. Judas sings, “All your followers are blind/too much heaven on their mind.” The culture looks at us with cynicism and sarcasm.
- In the title track, Judas says, “Jesus Christ Superstar/Do you think you’re what they say you are?” Our culture believes that someone as obviously wise as Jesus could not believe he was God (the “Lunatic” argument has some traction after all).
- “Tell me what you think/About your friends at the top/Now who d’you think besides yourself/Was the pick of the crop?/Buddha was he where it’s at?/Is he where you are?/Could Muhammad move a mountain/Or was that just PR?” The fact that there are many religions is often considered Exhibit A against the exclusive claims of Christianity. This was true in the ’70s when Jesus Christ Superstar came out. Not often noticed, of course, is that there were many religions when Jesus walked the Earth.
- “Did you mean to die like that?/Was that a mistake or/Did you know your messy death/Would be a record breaker?” Here we have a central point. In Jesus Christ Superstar, as in the Gospels, the death of Jesus is a central, climatic moment. Judas is baffled. Did you mean to die? he asks Jesus. And implied is the notion that Jesus could have avoided death if he had just followed Judas’ advice. For our world, death is meaningless, Jesus’ or ours, both equally devoid of purpose. All friendship (romantic love too) ultimately end the same way: sooner or later they die.
In the end of course, neither Mary’s eros nor Judas’s philia goes far enough, nor quite reaches a confession of Jesus as he viewed himself: “You really do believe/this talk of God is true.” And, as Christians, we know that Jesus himself is love and never dies.
The opera ends with an instrumental piece titled “John Nineteen Forty One.” It is a haunting epilogue, not unlike the text on which it is based: “Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.” For our world, that is the only possible ending.
Perhaps on Holy Saturday, that is a perfect place to contemplate where Jesus’ first disciples found themselves. It is the place our culture lives 24/7. For them, at best, Jesus is a “superstar.” Or better, a shooting star, dead and buried, haunting us perhaps with a friendly presence, but ultimately absent.
But we know these words: “Early on the first day of the week,” a new world dawned. He is risen.
Charlie Clauss teaches middle school math and science at Hand in Hand Christian Montessori in Bloomington, MN. He worked for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship for 18 years. His other Covenant posts are here.