We saw Jesus Christ Superstar this past weekend. It is being promoted as a 50th anniversary tour while it is closer to 53 years old (dang Covid-19). This prompted me to realize that there are a lot of adults whose entire lives have included rock ‘n roll being a medium for biblically based stories. As one who remembers when that was not the case, allow me to share some memories of when Jesus Christ Superstar was first released.
I was a junior in high school when the original 2 disc LP was released (also available on 8-track and cassette). This was a time when many adults still viewed rock ‘n roll as “the devil’s music”. So Superstar was wrong in their eyes right off the bat.
Then Jesus is being called a superstar. This was different, therefore threatening.
There’s no resurrection! At least not of Jesus, although Judas sings “Superstar” after he has died, speaking for the “modern man”. Including the resurrection would have come from either a position of faith, or a desire not to offend. It’s rock ‘n roll, offending somebody was going to happen.
The story deviates a lot from what a cantata at Easter or Christmas would be in a worship service. There are characters that are much more prominent in Superstar; especially Judas and Mary Magdalene, but also Pilate and Caiaphas (the high priest). Therefore, threatening.
There’s the idea of a possible romantic connection between Jesus and Mary Magdalene! It shouldn’t be unusual to think that Mary might have wrestled with trying to understand her feelings toward Jesus. And if Jesus is tempted in every way yet without sin like it says in Hebrews 4:15, then the possibility that Jesus may have also had questions about his relationship with Mary or anyone else shouldn’t have been threatening, but it was seen that way by many.
My favorite song from Superstar is “Trial Before Pilate (Including the 39 Lashes)”. There’s the increasing intensity of the lashing due to the music, the mob chanting “Remember Caesar – you’ll be demoted, you’ll be deported” getting to Pilate, and at the end when Pilate is yelling, “DIE! IF YOU WANT TO, YOU INNOCENT PUPPET!” it captures what Pilate may have been thinking. Overall, I think Tim Rice did a good job with characters like Pilate, the priests, Judas, Mary, and Herod.
When the movie (1st movie) came out in 1973, I was involved with a student Christian group at KU that passed out tracts to those waiting in line. There were 2 of us, and my friend commented to one person as he handed him the tract, “the book is better”, using a classic comment about moves based on books. The person in line responded “Is it out in a book now?” and then immediately realized that the Bible was the book, so he then acknowledged that by saying something like, “Oh. You got me. Good one.”