JC Superstar

So I like the album Jesus Christ Superstar alot. At this point it’s the only Easter tradition I repeat every year. I was listening to it all holy week, culminating in divvying up the parts and singing the entire thing through with an atheist friend who also loves the musical. It’s basically a passion play disguised as a rock opera. Or a rock opera disguised as a passion play. Musically I find the thing pretty outstanding. Spiritually speaking its a good way to connect me to the story of Easter.

You get to feel the rawness of the emotions coming from Jesus as he struggles with his impending destiny, the anger of Pontius Pilate as he deals with this nuisance of a ‘king’ who won’t even defend himself in the face of death, and the openness of Mary Magdalene as she encounters a man who is complicated far beyond the usual men she has dealings with.
I could muse at length upon her story. The bible doesn’t say much about her; popular cultural belief is that she is a reformed prostitute. JC Superstar hints at the latter and that is how I tend to think of her. I wonder about her untold background. How did she come to her profession? Was it a choice or out of necessity? Does she long for a way out or is she using her self-employment as a shred of independence which most women would have no access to? Obviously she is important to Jesus, perhaps closer than the other apostles. Considering Jesus in more human terms, it’s possible he was in love with her. She seems to wonder so herself. But they do a good job making Jesus an enigma. Does he love her or is he on another plane she cannot quite touch?

JC Superstar does an incredible job fleshing out the story of Jesus and Judas. Written off in the gospels as merely a thief, Superstar paints Judas as a worrier, concerned that Jesus is going to doom them all. He sees the way the priests take notice of Jesus-rabble-rouser and he fears for all their lives. He seems to believe turning Jesus in will result in a slap on the wrist for him. He is shocked that they plan to have him killed. The Judas of JC Superstar is convinced he’s doing the best thing available to him. It’s interesting how this means Judas could actually be the closest one to Jesus. I seem to remember this being the plot of the gnostic gospel of Judas- that Judas is really Jesus’ closest friend. In the gnostic version of the story Judas is the only one who understands that Jesus needs to die so he can rise again. This makes Judas a more heroic figure. In JC Superstar he is more tragic, not understanding the terrible consequences turning Jesus in would have. You really feel for Judas, wondering if it all could’ve happened some other way that wouldn’t have destroyed him.

But my favorite interactions by far are those between Jesus and Pilate. Pilate is intensely angry, perhaps because the Jewish leaders put him in such an impossible spot by demanding that he punish someone whose crime is iffy at best. Perhaps Jesus’ sense of calm determination is too much for Pilate to fathom and pushes his frustration to the limit. Pilate has some of the slickest, suavest, and evilest lines in the musical. He is charmingly terrible, almost as if he’s toying with Jesus, until he snaps and shouts out “Die if you want to, you misguided martyr!” Pilate’s part is always the best to sing; first because it is musically awesome, and second because it allows one to act very nasty and not actually cause harm. It gives me something of an excuse to feed impulses I might have to be mean. But hey, I’m doing it for Holy Week so God has to be cool with it!

I think pretending to be Pilate also brings us back to our humanity- that same humanity that Jesus took onto himself. That same humanity couldn’t handle Jesus’ ideas and had him put to death. Sometimes I think Jesus died because of our sins, simply in that our impulses to kill and have power were the reasons he died. That’s in all of us. Jesus died to show us it’s time to take that away. We can stop being terrible to each other and we can help each other more than necessary. I think that’s a decent way of looking at it.

Thoughts on Gnostics, martyrdom, etc

So, a friend of mine loaned me a book called The Gnostic Gospels. The gnostic gospels are a set of writings about Jesus and early Christianity, but they were not placed in the canon of the new testament. For one reason or another it was decided they did not jive with Christian belief and should not be considered true gospels. This type of writing is called gnostic from the Greek word gnosis, meaning knowledge, because many of them deal with obtaining inner knowledge or enlightenment.

One of the chapters in this book deals with the death of Jesus and what it signified for early Christians who themselves suffered torture and death. Back in the day, you could be executed for admitting you were a Christian. Mostly this was about worshipping the wrong God, but also about rumors that Christians drank human blood, did magic, and committed sexual atrocities- same as the other weirdo fringe groups. Well anyway, it was pretty darn dangerous to be a Christian and talk about it. The early version of the church we know today, put forth writings to encourage Christians. They said being killed for confessing Christ was actually a good thing because it was a way of becoming pure and attaining God. It mirrored the very death of Jesus. Gnostics felt a bit differently. They saw Jesus’ death as split between the suffering of his body and the triumph of his spirit. Gnostic writing talks about confessing Christ through one’s actions. Confession aloud is of lesser importance because it is only words and therefore shallow.

So Christians had the issue of persecution and torture, and they were split into disagreeing factions on how best to address this. Gnostics never came right out and said to lie. But they did seem to favor an approach that let them keep quiet and avoid death when possible. The predecessor group to the modern church said that being martyred was good, even glorious and led the way to God. And martyrdom was becoming a way to gain more believers to the church, as many wondered what these Christians had that let them face death willingly.

It kinda struck me that this disagreement is a bit like some of the early ideas surrounding the civil rights movement and work towards black equality/advancement. There was a school of thought following Booker T Washington, advocating that blacks show through actions that they are intelligent and model citizens. Confrontation was to be avoided when possible. On the other hand, W E B Dubois led a more direct approach which involved being vocal- the type of thing likely to incite violence.

The reasons for Christians to speak out and incur violence were different than the aims of the civil rights movement though. The Gnostic Gospels points out that Christians were not after recognition to drive acceptance. They were after a closeness to God which probably did drive both recognition and eventual acceptance of Christians.

All of this makes me wonder about my own world. I have no point of reference for expecting violence or death for being myself. If I was in a different time or place and had a reason to fear torture, what would I do? Would it be more important to keep quiet and live, passing on my ideas as secrets? Or should I speak out who I am and take the consequences? I don’t think I will ever have to decide. But I do wonder.