Jesus Christ Superstar
As ITV calls for actors to play Jesus in the Superstar summer tour, the Bishop of Bradford considers the musical's potential for boosting the profile of the Church
"Who do you think you are?" might be the title of an excellent television series, but when I come across it my mind still detects the haunting melodies of Jesus Christ Superstar and the question they pose: who is this Jesus?
It is hard to believe that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice wrote the musical over 42 years ago. Since then it has enjoyed multiple outings on stage and screen and been the subject of many recordings. Somehow it hasn't outgrown its appeal. I wonder why not.
Well, it is about to hit the public consciousness again in July when, sandwiched between the Euro football championships and the long-heralded Olympics, Lloyd Webber will run a search on ITV for a new 'star' to play Jesus in a stadium tour through the late summer and autumn. The rest of the cast has already been announced: Chris Moyles as Herod, Melanie Chisholm as Mary, and Tim Minchin as Judas Iscariot.
When this was announced the response was varied. Tim Rice was up for the tour, but described the 'search for Jesus' as 'tacky'. You can see his point. After all, isn't this just another easy pop at an easy target - Christian sensibilities - or another rather obvious way for a very wealthy man to keep a show going and cash in a bit more?
Well, believe what you want about it (and the motives behind the project), but I think it has a lot going for it. Surely a church that is constantly mocked in the media for being unimaginative or obsessed with the wrong things could find the idea of 'the lord looking for the Lord' at least vaguely intriguing? Isn't the notion of 'searching for Jesus' in itself rich with potential for a bit of creative engagement with popular culture on its own terms?
In fact, when the original recording was issued the then Dean of St Paul's, Martin Sullivan, wrote in the sleeve notes: “There are some people who may be shocked by this record. I ask them to listen to it and think again. It is a desperate cry. ‘Who are you Jesus Christ?’ is the urgent enquiry, and a very proper one at that… The singer says ‘Don’t get me wrong, I only want to know.’ He is entitled to some response.” If he was writing today, he might make the same plea.
We know that most people find their imagination engaged not by propositions, but by visual or musical presentation. In other words, a musical can reach parts a lecture can't; a good tune haunts the imagination and hangs around at the back of your mind. In the same way, the questions provoked by Jesus Christ Superstar might well reach people who have no intention of listening to a sermon or reading a theological book.
Christians often complain that it is hard to capture the imagination (let alone the attention) of vast swathes of people; yet, here - like John the Baptist's head - it is offered on a plate.
For starters, how about asking what to my mind is a really intriguing question: if you are looking for Jesus, what sort of Jesus are you looking for? A charismatic 'star' with good looks and a personality to die for? Or, looking back at the hard description of Isaiah's 'servant' - familiar to most people through Handel's Messiah - should we be looking for someone to challenge our assumptions and prejudices? Is our mental image of Jesus shaped by Victorian stained-glass windows or by some other source? Is it Robert Powell or Mark Wallinger's Ecce Homo on Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth?
This is a serious point. Just as Isaiah's Servant was one whose appearance turned people away from him, so Jesus was a bit of a disappointment to those who had been praying and searching for generations for the one who, in God's name, would liberate the people and vindicate their identity as God's own people. Rather than re-configure their preconceived image of what 'messiah' might look like, they condemned him for not conforming to their preconceptions of how he should look, sound and behave.
Of course, one other shocking aspect of the gospels is the fact that Jesus didn't see himself belonging to - that is, being the possession of - the religious establishment. He was criticised by the clergy of his day for mixing with the 'wrong' people, for touching the 'unclean', for breaking religious laws, and for partying with outsiders.
Musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar offer another way of capturing popular imagination and engaging another generation with the questions the gospels raise. They might get Jesus talked about in the pub and in places occupied by people who don't find their way into church.
When the cast list was announced there was some surprise at the names. But, surely a reformed Spice Girl isn't misplaced as Mary Magdalene, trying to understand her love for Jesus? And isn't Radio 1's Chris Moyles perfect to play a Herod whom we know to have been loud and paranoid? Perhaps the most surprising choice was Tim Minchin as Judas. But, why not cast a controversial and avowed atheist as the one through whose eyes and experience Jesus is explored in the musical? Anyway, they are acting.
This goes to the heart of the gospel conundrum. The followers of Jesus were not the plastic saints we see in stained-glass windows with plates around their head. They were normal people who struggled to understand Jesus, constantly getting the wrong end of the theological stick. Even after the resurrection James and John were still thinking in terms of status and power - precisely what Jesus challenged in his living and dying. These were real people - that's the point.
So, just as Denys Arcand's wonderful film Jesus of Montreal (1989) puts the story of Jesus into the hands of some unusual and morally compromised people, so does Jesus Christ Superstar take a sideways look at who Jesus is... through the questioning experience of Judas. Judas remains the most intriguing of characters in the gospel narratives. Enigmatic and motivated, it is entirely possible that he betrayed Jesus in order to force his hand, revealing himself to be the liberator of Israel from Roman oppression. Feeling betrayed by Jesus for not 'doing it right', he betrayed Jesus and gambled wrongly. It would also explain his suicide.
But the point is that the questions Judas raises enable us to come at Jesus from a different perspective. Monty Python's Life of Brian came at it brilliantly through... er... Brian. The German academic theologian Gerd Theissen did the same in his brilliant Shadow of the Galilean - we never meet Jesus directly, but see his effect on those around him. A sceptic like Tim Minchin seems like perfect casting to me.
Just as Jesus engaged with real people in the real world, so Jesus Christ Superstar might even provoke unlikely audiences to engage with him. It might even ask audiences who think they know all there is to know about Jesus to take a second look. After all, the gospels seriously challenge those with fixed preconceptions about God to think again.
Nick Baines is the Bishop of Bradford and author of Scandal of Grace (The Danger of Following Jesus), St Andrew Press, 2008
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