You Are What They Say You Are



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.”


Les Saints Miserables

Please don't sue.

Please don’t sue.

A well-loved cassette that resides in my car is the original Broadway cast soundtrack of Les Miserables (oh, dear, I’m showing my age).  I have no idea what I’m going to do when the tape finally breaks… it seems like every other cassette I play is that one.  And during the long car-trips, I have opportunity to think in varying degrees of detail about the musical.  One thought is particularly persistent, though… the religious aspects of Hugo’s magnificent octopus.

When I watched Cinema Sins for the new Les Mis movie, the narrator complained about the movie’s Christ imagery for Valjean (  I hadn’t noticed, honestly, but once he pointed it out, I agree with it as a quibble… but only because I see Valjean as a different early Christian figure.  To go into this further, I’ll go into Holy Week (out of season though it is).

Holy Week (Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday) features a lot of different characters in its story.  Two notable figures, besides Jesus, are Saint Peter and Judas Iscariot.  Both feature very prominently.  And the both betray Jesus.  Judas betrayed Jesus to the soldiers with a kiss (NRSV Matt. 26:14-16 and 47-56). Peter not only ran away with the other disciples, but denied Jesus three times before the cock crew twice (NRSV Matt. 26:69-75).  They’re both pretty major mistakes, but the big difference comes in their reactions.

Poor old Judas gives in to despair and hangs himself (NRSV Matt. 27:3-10).  Peter, however, only weeps, and lives to be forgiven by Jesus after the Resurrection.  It can then be argued that the major difference between the two of them was that Simon Peter, the rock on which the church would be built, had hope.  Judas, in the end, only had despair.

The outspoken St. Peter.

The outspoken St. Peter.

Now look at Les Mis… or more specifically Valjean and Javert.  It is established that both of them are devout Christians, probably both Catholic, since they are French.  They both have very strong ideas of right and wrong, and will defend them to the nth degree.  However, it becomes apparent just as early on that Valjean’s theology is that love and forgiveness, while Javert’s is that of condemnation and flames.  Their mistakes even illustrate this difference.

Valjean stole the bread to feed his family, and tried to escape from prison whenever he could.  He also tried to steal from the Bishop, who, like Christ did so often for Peter, forgave him and gave him another chance to do better (  Valjean kept his hope and took that chance.

Javert on the other hand, had only his obsession, which is a huge mistake.  He’s an inspector throughout most of the play, which is a pretty low-rank.  His vendetta against Valjean hurt his career.  And he later betrays the man who saved him (Valjean), by trying to arrest him in the sewers.  When he realizes that he is wrong, he gives in to despair and throws himself into the Seine (

It’s all debatable, of course, but worth giving the musical another look or listen to.  Poor Javert… won’t he be surprised to see who’s holding the keys to the kingdom!