When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, `Why are you doing this?’ just say this, `The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
- Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
- Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
- Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
I have a bit of a tradition every year. It’s something I like to call “Holy Week Superstar.”
Since I started going to seminary, every year around the week of Easter, I find videos on YouTube from the 1973 musical “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and throw them up on my Facebook account, in celebration and remembrance of the Passion of Christ, in all their magnificent 70s hippie glory.
I guess the only thing to ask then is, why? Why this movie, out of all the movies about Jesus? Why Jesus: the Musical?
Because it’s amazing, and you know it.
I’ve loved “Jesus Christ Superstar” since I was a little kid, to be honest. I can’t remember how old I was, but I remember quite vividly plopping down in front of my parent’s turntable and vinyl collection, rifling through the myriad time capsules of the musical interests of my progenitors, and stumbling upon the soundtrack to JCS. I asked quite innocently, “What is this?” Little did I know the genius that lay hidden within those ridges.
With a wry smile, my father lovingly placed the record on the turntable, handed me the album cover and let me listen while reading the lyrics. I was instantly enthralled as soon as I hear Carl Anderson as Judas sing “Heaven on their Minds.” For the next hour or so, I eagerly listened to the rest of the soundtrack, drinking in every word of this strange little musical about a story I had heard so much in church, but never understood completely.
In a way, JCS brought me closer to Jesus.
Perhaps it was because I was a child raised on musicals, cartoon and live action. Perhaps it’s because I’m a musically minded person. Or perhaps it’s the power of the narrative itself given new vision in the hands of a modern interpreter. Probably, it was a mix of all three. For some reason, the musical spoke to me, and spurred me on to read the biblical accounts again in a different way. It introduced me to the tension between text and interpretation. It might have even planted the seed that would sprout later as a call to ministry, to interpret and drink in the scriptures in new and exciting way for a living, to teach the story that formed me so much.
I’m not going to make excuses for the film; yes, they take liberties with the film. Yes, if watched today, it can seem a bit dated musically, but what musical isn’t? Yes, the make some controversial choices in casting (WHY DOES JUDAS GOTTA BE BLACK?). Yes, the Herod scene is thoroughly ridiculous.
All that said, it remains an emotional artifact for me. It also is a powerful reminder as the power of music to interpret a story, a story that is a part of a larger group’s identity. The film itself is artfully made in many moments, poignant in some moments, subtle in others.
However, the most powerful part of the film for me, and perhaps the whole passion narrative, is the trial with Pilate. The casting was pitch perfect for Pilate in the film. The emotions were raw, and it fully realized the tragedy of the whole thing. I’ll post it here, so you can see what I mean. (I’ll warn you, it may be hard to watch.)
I love this film, because it looks at Jesus from an outsider’s perspective. It can’t understand what Jesus was thinking fully, as none of us can. It very much understands that we are 2000 years or so removed from the events that take place, but it tries to interpret it as a modern person might. Some of it’s conclusions I think are erroneous, and I disagree with the entirely humanistic portrayal of Jesus, but that was the vision it wanted to portray, and I think for a very good reason:
We tend to sanitize Jesus.
That’s one of the goals of this blog, that I take the scriptures and try to faithfully interpret them from my perspective. For me, that means removing some of the pomp and circumstance that surrounds the person of Jesus, and remember that as much as he is God, he is also human. A lot of other films about Jesus, especially at this time, would present Jesus as some kind of staid, calm, and utterly aloof British Jesus, that doesn’t act very humanly at all. This film demystifies it a bit, and while it might go too far sometimes, I can’t help but respect it’s aim.
We need to take Jesus and this narrative of suffering, death, and resurrection seriously. We begin Palm Sunday with pomp and circumstance, and we end it with the realization that at the end of the week, we’ll see the death of an innocent man, a man dedicated to peace and holiness. We also need to remember, come Easter, there will be resurrection as well.
I encourage you to watch the film. It’s one of my favorites, because it begins a conversation. How human was Jesus? Why did he come when he came? What do we do with it?
As for me, I shall continue to enjoy it, and perhaps break into song every once in a while. Perhaps I’ve just got too much heaven on my mind.