“Jesus Christ Superstar” and Some Easter Thoughts

My wife and I recently went to see a new performance — revival, if that’s the right use of the term — of the 1971 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar.  This was part of the show’s tour, so we were just lucky to see it so close to Resurrection Sunday, and it gives me the excuse to share some thoughts about it in this Easter post.

I suppose the main question is:  What should a Christian think of this opera?  To answer that, let me list some aspects of a opera to which some Christians might object, and then give my reaction to them.  And then I’ll conclude with a couple of broader points.


Mary Magdalene is portrayed as being romantically attracted to Jesus.  Yes, but why is that a problem?  We aren’t told that she felt that way in the Gospels, but we aren’t told that she didn’t feel that way either.  I don’t think a Christian has to reject as unacceptable any speculation about things that might be true even though they are not stated in the Gospels, so long as the Gospels are not contradicted by the speculation.  And in this case, knowing what we know about Mary, the speculation is not unwarranted.  I’ll add that, if her romantic feelings were returned by Jesus, that might present some additional issues, but there was no hint in the production I saw that they were.

Judas is given too central, and sympathetic, a role.  Let’s take the two separately.  He certainly is given a big role, but what’s wrong with, in this or that work, focusing on Jesus’ relationship with this or that apostle or disciple or other figure and really delving into it?  Would there be a problem, for example, with a work the focused on Jesus’ relationship with Peter, or how he got along with his mom Mary, or his back and forth with Pilate?  I don’t think so.  Is Judas portrayed too sympathetically?  I think reasonable people can disagree about that.  The Gospels contain hints of why Judas betrayed Jesus, but we are also told simply that Satan entered him.  The show here makes him appear mostly as just confused.  But is betraying a friend to his enemies and likely death because you are confused really a “sympathetic” portrayal?  Again, I don’t think so.

Jesus is portrayed as confused and anguished.  Well, some presence of the second part of that is okay:  Jesus was certainly anguished at Gethsemane.   But I don’t think He was ever portrayed as confused in Scripture, and I would have liked the opera better if there were more scenes of Him speaking and acting confidently, this Son of Man.  And there’s a troubling scene in which Jesus says He is unable to cure a group of lepers because He says there are too many of them.  Now, to be sure, Jesus does not always cure everyone, but the problem is people’s lack of faith, not their number.  On the other hand, if someone can supernaturally cure people, just not a whole bunch of people at once, that still sounds like a person to be taken seriously.

The opera’s lyricist, Tim Rice, is apparently not a Christian.  Well, if so, that’s too bad, but we are told to trust the tale and not the teller, are we not?  And, according to Wikipedia, it’s not clear that he isn’t a Christian, and he certainly seems not to reject Christianity:

Describing his religion, Rice stated in a 1982 interview, “Technically I’m Church of England, which is really nothing. But I don’t follow it. I wouldn’t say I was a Christian.  I have nothing against it.” Conversely, he also stated that he adapted the Biblical stories of Joseph and Jesus to musicals because “I’d always rather take a true story over an untrue one.”


On to a couple of broader points.  First, I must say that I was struck at how dark and brooding most of the opera is.  The only comic relief is King Herod’s song — which, by the way, is my favorite part of the show, and in which King Herod is portrayed in the production I saw as a drag queen, rather bold nowadays when I suspect that drag queens are not to be presented as villains.  But of course any serious portrayal of the passion has to be rather dark and brooding, does it not?

Second, I must say that focusing on the opera’s shortcomings can obscure the forest for the trees.  I think Christians can be happy that a major show was written about Jesus Christ, that there’s so much of the Gospels in it, that so much of the opera is consistent with the Gospels and so little contradicts it, and especially that Jesus’ supernaturalness is really not aggressively questioned.  And in the particular production that I saw, there was a wonderful bit of staging at the end (I don’t know how if this was done in the original productions or has been common):  After Jesus has died on the cross and been taken down, He pauses — and then He walks!  There were gasps in the crowd.

He is risen!


Another Easter thought:  Reading the Habermas & Licona book recently suggests that there are two broad strategies in convincing someone of the divinity of Christ.  The first is to persuade the person of the general veracity of the Gospels more or less as a whole.  The second is to select some specific facts about Jesus and use not only the Gospels but other historical material to persuade the person of the veracity of those specific facts; of course, those specific facts need to be of the sort that they are themselves evidence of Jesus’ divinity (that is, persuading someone just that Jesus existed is not enough; you must show that He had supernatural characteristics); the best candidate for that (and the one used by Habermas and Licona) is the Resurrection.

Of course, these approaches are not mutually exclusive, and indeed they reinforce each other:  The general veracity of the Gospels is bolstered by extrabiblical evidence, and the general veracity of the Gospels makes it much easier to argue that, say, the Resurrection actually occurred.

On last thought:  I read this week that the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is a good reminder that God’s silence does not mean God’s absence.

He is risen indeed!