A full 75% of my household loves the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. It was a tradition to play the record, and later the CD of the original Broadway cast several times during Holy Week, and sometimes even on Easter, as well. My mom, brother, and I know the words to all the songs included on the soundtrack, and our favorite is without a doubt “King Herod’s Song.” (Who doesn’t like a bit of levity before the torture starts?) But my dad doesn’t like the musical. He doesn’t mind the fact that they’re mixing rock with the New Testament, or the Mary Magdalene subplot, or the fact that when the show premiered Pilate’s costume included a silver jock strap… his problem with the musical is that he thinks it’s “too agnostic.” Because the highlight of the musical is “who are you/do you think you’re what they say you are?”
Fair enough, I guess, except he’s the only person who’s brought that up. Most people I know who don’t like JCS got their underwear in a bunch over the Magdalene subplot. But that’s a different argument.
The musical takes place in the last week of Jesus’ life, more or less. It begins right before the events of Palm Sunday and ends after 3 PM on Good Friday. This past Good Friday, the pastor offered this thought after station 7… on that first Good Friday, probably no one present at the Crucifixion be they Peter, James, John, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, or Joseph of Arimethea were thinking about the theological implications of the days’ events.
They were scared. They were confused. They were horrified. They were devastated. The last we see of Peter on Good Friday, he was weeping bitterly after the cock crowed twice. Mary the mother of Jesus had to witness her son being tortured and subjected to the humiliating and excruciatingly painful death that kept the Pax Romana going. That he rallied to tell the Beloved Disciple to look after her like he would his own mother (that was huge– a widow without a son was screwed) must have been like a knife through the heart.
And Judas was going through the mental turmoil that led to his suicide.
With all that in mind, the question “do you think you are what they say you are?” Makes that much more sense. In a traumatic situation confusion and doubt happen. That’s how Peter came to screw up. That’s why the other disciples ran away when Jesus was arrested. And that’s why poor St. Thomas was slow to believe after the Resurrection.
But after Jesus rose from the dead (and first appeared to the women– who very notably did not run away), he forgave them all. He would have forgiven Judas, but because the former disciple gave into despair, that encounter went unrecorded by the authors of the New Testament.
The journey to faith is not smooth-sailing. There are many stops and starts, and bumps in the road. That Jesus Christ Superstar spends so much time on the biggest, and arguably most important bump in the journey of Christianity does not make it agnostic. It makes an otherwise incredibly stylistic musical realistic. What would any of us done had we been with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane or standing outside Pilate’s balcony while he offered to release either Jesus or Barabbas? Would we have been hiding with the disciples? Would we have shouted “Crucify him!” “Would we have been with the Marys?” We’d all like to be in the latter category, but it’s statistically unlikely, and if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that. For God’s sake.
We spend our whole lives asking that question, “Jesus– who are you?” Or “God– who are you?” And we are dealt with patiently and lovingly… every time. It makes Jesus’ sacrifice all that much greater… we humans are still stiff-necked a millennium later. Such love is truly beyond our comprehension. Awesome music helps remind us of that… and we should say “Hallelujah.”