The long-running rock opera asks questions that challenge us to revisit our ideas about Jesus, writes David Goodwin.
If you look at the musical resumé of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, it reads like a list of some of the most popular productions Broadway has ever seen. Between them, their credits include The Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, Cats and School of Rock—and that’s just working separately!
But alongside their other collaborations such as Evita and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, this power pairing was responsible for one of the greatest rock operas of all time—Jesus Christ Superstar.
In the 45 years since its Broadway debut, it has become a staple of production companies around the world. Its combination of clever lyrics, catchy melodies and spiritual musings continues to capture the imagination of performers and audiences alike.
Superstar has had a number of Broadway revivals, as well a couple of cinematic adaptations. Many Australians will have fond memories of the 1992 production that featured a veritable who’s who of Aussie rock and pop royalty—including John Farnham, Jon Stevens and Kate Ceberano. As recently as this Easter, American television network NBC broadcast a live staging that featured a perfectly cast Alice Cooper as King Herod.
For those who aren’t familiar with the musical, the story is loosely based on the biblical Gospels, and follows the events of the last week of Jesus Christ’s life—from his arrival in Jerusalem to his crucifixion. It’s a very different retelling than you’d get in Sunday school, with modern terms mixed in liberally and historical accuracy less important than telling an entertaining story.
From its debut, it has attracted controversy, with many Christians seeing it as blasphemous, particularly in its allusions to a romantic relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, its emphasis on Judas over Jesus, and its omission of the resurrection. Jewish groups have also levelled charges of anti-Semitism against it because of its reinforcing of the idea that it was the Jews who were to blame for Christ’s execution.
But perhaps the biggest point of difference with the traditional church versions is that this is the life of Jesus seen through the eyes of Judas Iscariot. For 2,000 years, the name Judas has been synonymous with betrayal, and Judas is remembered as the disciple who sold Jesus out to the authorities and—for the price of 30 pieces of silver—sent him to his death.
Understandably, Judas’s version of the story gives a contrasting perspective to the one we might be familiar with—painting him in a much better light. We’re shown a man who has been with Jesus since the beginning, gradually becoming disillusioned with what he sees as Jesus losing sight of their original ideals and increasingly believing his own publicity.
Judas regards himself as the voice of reason, trying to protect the Jesus he loves from himself. Whether it’s his criticism of the other disciples as having “too much heaven on their minds”, or his pleas with Jesus to avoid behaviour or associations that might damage his reputation, or bring him to the notice of authorities, Judas believes he is doing what is best—even when he betrays Jesus.
It’s a reminder that we all have our own stories. From Christianity’s beginning, Judas has been portrayed for the most part as evil to the core, possessing no redeeming qualities. But, in Superstar we meet someone with doubts and flaws—just like us. Perhaps we can see a little of ourselves in Judas, and it gives us something to think about.
This is true in our daily lives—sometimes taking the time to try to see the world through someone else’s eyes can change the way we see them. As with Judas, it doesn’t necessarily justify people’s behaviour or actions, but it can help us see them as human beings, not unreal cartoon villains.
Just like Judas, we have often been guilty of measuring Jesus against our own agendas and expectations, selectively interpreting his teachings to support our existing beliefs, and discarding the ones that are inconvenient—or difficult.
Even in the traditional Gospels, we can see this happening. Some of Jesus’ followers believed that he had come to overthrow the Roman occupiers with sword and fire, and were disappointed when he started preaching about loving your enemy and about the kingdom of heaven.
Others expected a holy man to condemn sinners, and were shocked when he spent his time hanging out with prostitutes and tax collectors (who were even less popular in his day than they are now!). They all saw Jesus’ refusal to align with their expectations as proof that he was at best a fool, if not a fraud.
But when it comes to Judas, perhaps the real tragedy of Judas lies in what is left out of Jesus Christ Superstar. The musical finishes with the death of Jesus and the disciples mourning as they reflect on his life. However, the crucifixion is not the end of the story, it is only the beginning. It’s in Christ’s resurrection that the answers to all of Judas’s questions can be found—sadly, he isn’t around to see it.
In the title track, Judas sings:
Every time I look at you I don’t understand
Why you let the things you did get so out of hand.
You'd have managed better if you’d had it planned,
Why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land?
If you’d come today you would’ve reached a whole nation,
Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication.
In the end, we see that Jesus did have a plan; it just wasn’t one that Judas understood. Jesus knew that he was going to his death, but went anyway because he knew that was required of him. He ended up reaching more than a nation—in fact a whole world for century after century—because he was born in exactly the right time and in the right place. There was perhaps no other point in history that was better suited to the rapid spread of the Gospel than the Roman Empire of Christ’s time.
Again and again, though, the Judas of Jesus Christ Superstar misses the point of much of Christ’s ministry. The things that he sees as distractions from the important matters are actually at the heart of the Gospel—whether that was spending time with the people society writes off as worthless instead of seeking out the rich and powerful, putting spiritual truths above political allegiances, or transforming lives of individuals rather than treating people as less important than causes.
However, while we may take exception with some of its theology, or disagree with some of its conclusions, there’s plenty of value to be found in Jesus Christ Superstar. We can learn from Judas’s mistakes and, whatever our faith might be, it challenges us to ask some of the same questions that Judas did.
Ongoing assessment of our beliefs is healthy. As we evaluate them, and as we explore who Jesus is, we learn, we grow and we develop as people. And I know that an encounter with the real Jesus can inspire us to follow his example of transforming the world by transforming lives—one life at a time.