Posted by: smstrouse | April 2, 2018

The Theology of “Jesus Christ Superstar”

“Jesus-Christ-Superstar-Live-in-Concert”First let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed last night’s airing of Jesus Christ Superstar Live. The staging was great and some of the performances were simply outstanding. It’s been 48 years since I first fell in love with the rock opera, and maybe 20 years since I saw a stage version. But I’m proud to say that I remembered most of the words. 

However, some things have changed since 1970.
On the plus side: a black Jesus. It’s always bothered me that the only person of color in the original cast, the movie and every production I’ve ever seen has been Judas. So it was a welcome improvement to see the diversity of last night’s cast.  

The ending was also changed.
One of the more controversial issues when Jesus Christ Superstar was released in 1970 was that there was no resurrection. It ended with the crucifixion. Last night saw John Legend’s Jesus on the cross fading into cosmic light. I guess one could argue that it was an appropriate ending for Easter evening; the original was more suited for Good Friday. So I have mixed feelings about this one. Theologically speaking, the message of the cross is not that transformation or new life comes immediately after a loss (whether it’s the ending of a relationship, the loss of a home or  job, or the death of a loved one). The need to dwell in the grief and pain is a lesson that most of us do not want to learn, but it is the reality of death and resurrection. Most of us want to fast forward quickly to resolution. The original ending didn’t let us do that. 

Other issues I had last night, though, had nothing do with this production but with Rice and Webber’s original script.

  1. The crucifixion was not God’s plan.
    Judas was not set up (“God, God I’m sick. I’ve been used, And you knew all the time. God, God I’ll never ever know why you chose me for your crime.”). Some even argue that Judas was not an actual person, rather a literary myth. Here is a good overview of this position. In any event, Jesus was not killed to satisfy some sadistic need of God. He was killed by the Roman Empire, with the collaboration of the religious establishment. Which brings me to #2.
  2. Pontius Pilate had to keep order in the empire.
    Pilate was not the angst-ridden ruler so wonderfully portrayed by Ben Daniels (a much better performance than Alice Coopers, imho). Granted, the gospels themselves started it, letting the Romans off the hook and blaming the Jews. Here is an interview with biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan that has some good insight into this. Crossan also has a book entitled Who Killed Jesus: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus – which gives you a good idea of where that direction led us. So, while I can’t blame Jesus Christ Superstar for telling the story this way, it disturbs me to see that message propagated.

  3. And then there’s the trouble with Mary.
    Let me say this as forcefully as I can: MARY MAGDALENE WAS NOT A PROSTITUTE!  And portraying her as such was never, ever biblical. Here is a group that advocates for Mary – and for “all women who dare to work among men as equals (and) get sexualized and marginalized.”
    Yes, Sara Bareilles was lovely as Mary. But I cringed at the words: 

He’s a man he’s just a man41ZW3FNWJ6L._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_
And I’ve had so many men before

In very many ways
He’s just one more

Puh – leeeze! You know, if they can change the ending to include the resurrection, why can’t they change Mary from a prostitue to an apostle?

All in all, I loved last night’s performance. I just hope we remember that this isn’t biblical scholarship or theological correctness (whatever that is!) And it’s a darn sight better than The Ten Commandments or The Greatest Story Ever Told – imho.


  1. Thanks Susan for your always appreciated insight


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