Some people have suggested to me that “Jesus Christ Superstar” (JCS) should not emotionally affect an atheist. But my response is that listening to JCS centers me. A friend asked me to explain how. He also implied that JCS is not “Christian music”. (He’s a Christian Fundamentalist.) I almost didn’t respond to the request, because it is a complicated question, requiring a lengthy response, and also because it is so personal. But I feel that a response is necessary and appropriate, for this friend and for others, and also to help me think through a few issues myself. So here goes.
First, I believe that it is absurd to think that JCS is not Christian music. JCS is a “rock opera”, which places it squarely in the realm of music. It is the story of Jesus’s rise to influence, his capture, and his execution. It is told from the point of view of a few of the major characters, including Pilot, King Harrod, Mary Magdalene, Judas, several others, and of course Jesus. The fact that the lyrics are at times comical or disrespectful of Jesus, does not take away from its Christian origins, and actually adds to its realism.
I grew up with this music. At a time when I was wrestling with my emerging atheism, there was JCS. Rebelling against going to church (I was raised Catholic), I did not want to read the New Testament (NT), nor could I have adequately understood the NT at my age then. Even now, the NT is a patchwork of stories, contradictory, inscrutable, with many possible interpretations. Somehow from these writings a religion emerged, with more than a billion followers on the planet, who often fight among themselves about the meanings of the words written in the NT. It is no wonder then that an analytical, thoughtful, scientific, skeptical young man would reject the NT, and all of its various followers, out of hand. And that is exactly what I did.
But JCS was there all along, a popular, yet complex and somewhat controversial opera. It is not widely known that JCS was published as a vinyl album even before the stage play was produced. Such was the financial situation of Andrew Lloyd Webber at the time he wrote it, and the uncertainty of the success of the project. So, even to this day, I regard JCS as a musical creation, even if some might think of it as a stage play. A second (and possibly others) recording was made years later (in the 1980s, I think). I have heard this second recording, and, quite frankly, it is almost identical to the first recording. But there are subtle differences, and so I prefer the first recording.
JCS succeeds in telling the story of a portion of the NT in a form that is palatable to my generation. Sure, there is comedy and irreverence. But what is wrong with those? Even though I grew up Catholic, was an altar boy, attended Catholic grade school for the first five grades, and knew quite a lot of the story of Jesus, JCS taught me about the geopolitical situation at the time of Jesus, that the Romans ruled the Israelites, that Jesus was a Jew. And when the Jews in power wanted Jesus dead, they found that they had no law to put a man to death (or so we are told in JCS). So they turned to Pilot. And then there are the controversial aspects of the JCS rendition of the story, that Jesus was a reluctant messiah, and that maybe there was something going on between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. For a budding atheist, JCS was palatable, a believable story about a man who could somehow have become identified with the Jesus that is known today, after two thousand years of rewritten history, and faulty interpretation. But a palatable interpretation is better than none.
So why would a guy like me continue to gain meaning and comfort from an opera that was written in the 1960s? Indeed, what does Christianity have to offer anyone? I believe that this is a vitally important question, worthy of investigation by both Christians and atheists, and not a question to be dismissed quickly. I will give only a partial answer.
In JCS, Jesus seems to wrestle with God about whether and/or how he should die. On Side 3 of the vinyl album is the classic song that occurs right after the Last Supper, in which Jesus questions God about why he should have to die. We are led to believe that Jesus has known all along that dying at the hands of the Jews was his role, the main (?) purpose for his life on earth, that initially he was on board with the mission, but that as the end approaches he’s not quite as enthusiastic about going through with it.
Juxtaposed throughout the opera is Judas’s struggle. Before the Last Supper, Judas meets with the Jewish high command. He doesn’t want their money, he just thinks that Jesus should be stopped for some reason. But they insist, and Judas takes their money. Then at the Last Supper, Jesus seems to know of Judas’s plan, and in fact *encourages* Judas to carry it out. Judas leaves, and later brings the Romans, and plants the famous kiss on Jesus. Afterwards, Judas cannot live with what he has done. In JCS, Judas’s singing fades, while we know that Judas has hung himself.
So, in JCS we see that there are two ways to die. There are many possible lessons of Christianity, and maybe even of JCS. But for me, the death question is where it gets relevant and personal.
Some of us decide to take our own lives: death by swallowing pills, by putting a gun to our heads and blowing our brains out, by hanging. Some of us wrestle with this on a weekly basis, sometimes on a daily basis.
But JCS shows us that Jesus has the courage to face his death at the hands of his enemies. We also have the choice of facing our death at the hands of our enemies: Cancer, heart disease, and too many other causes to name.
As I was initially struggling with my atheism as a child, there were forces trying to pull me back. JCS was, and is, one of the forces that still pulls on me. And as I face death (as we all do), JCS, along with the presence in the world of a few key people, continue to pull me toward the courageous path.
Some will say that Christianity offers resurrection, love, and other things. While these may be important to some, I say that they are of lesser importance. For some Christians, the questioning of the resurrection is NON-Christian. Fine, believe that if you wish. But I say, let whatever Christianity may have to offer provide what it can, to those who can use it.
As JCS closes on Side 4 of the vinyl, Jesus has died, and there is a final beautiful orchestral piece. It is interesting that it is exactly the same theme that was used in Jesus’s lament after the Last Supper and before his capture. The use of the same theme at the end is my best evidence that Andrew Lloyd Webber thought that Jesus’s struggle with death is actually the right and best theme for JCS.