Jesus Christ Superstar Revisited

I remember hitch-hiking to the lake my uncle lived on, one summer in 1970.  I got picked up by a car with four girls in it.  As a male adolescent, I couldn’t believe my good luck, riding in a car with four girls in it.  They had the car radio tuned to the FM rock station (back then there was AM radio, which played “bubble-gum” pop music, and there was FM which played acid rock like Hendrix, Clapton, Ten Years After, and Jethro Tull).  “Jesus Christ Superstar” came on the radio.  I asked the girls, “Is this Jesus Christ Superstar that everybody’s talking about?”  They didn’t know.

The fact is, everybody was talking about Jesus Christ Superstar in 1970.  It was one of the most popular rock-operas next to Tommy, by The Who.  And it launched Andrew LLoyd Webber’s illustrious career, who wrote the music for Jesus Christ Superstar.  Everybody had to have an opinion about Jesus Christ Superstar–stoners, clergy, church-goers, theater buffs, everybody across the board.  It was that much of a sensation.  Life Magazine devoted a whole issue to it.

Jesus Christ Superstar challenged religion, which happened a lot in the late ’60’s/early ’70’s.  The very title, calling Jesus a superstar, was a challenge.  And Jesus Christ Superstar was good rock music.  We listened to it over and over again because we liked the music.  But this rock-opera also took the Jesus story seriously, and engaged with the story seriously.  I remember one evening while there was a social event at our church’s divinity school.  One minister offered to listen to the whole rock-opera with any church goers who wanted to do so.  Then, after we heard the piece, he opened up the floor for questions and comments.  We took it that seriously, and the minister took it that seriously.  Some thought it was sacrilegious; some thought that it brought the Jesus story into the modern world; some thought it was a holy opera; some thought it was too strange a mixture of religion and rock.  But everyone had something to say about it.  Godspell came out later, but it wasn’t the musical masterpiece nor as sensational as was Jesus Christ Superstar.

What occasions these reminiscences is my TV.  On the retro channel, due to the Christmas season, they just played Jesus Christ Superstar.  Watching it so many years later, I had many feelings.  But I was mostly struck with the thought that they could never make this album and movie today.  Back in 1970, religion had a strong enough influence in society that you could make an album about religion, and it would mean something.  There is so much religious apathy today that Jesus Christ Superstar would largely be ignored.  And Andrrew Lloyd Webber’s career wouldn’t be launched by it today.  Consider two films, The Passion of the Christ in 2004; and The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988.  I thought I should see The Last Temptation of Christ.  It was a  shocking movie in its day because it depicted Jesus and Mary Magdalene in a sexual relationship.  I didn’t see The Passion of the Christ, and didn’t think I needed to.  These films came and went but weren’t the sensation that Jesus Christ Superstar was.  And they were only movies, they weren’t music and film and theater all, as was Jesus Christ Superstar.

It would largely be ignored today because religion is largely ignored today.  An opera that engages seriously with the Jesus story wouldn’t catch on because of the so few people who also engage seriously with the Jesus story.  Or with religion itself.  W. H. Auden writes, “But on earth indifference is the least/We have to dread from man or beast.”  I think today’s indifference to religion, though, is indeed something we do have to dread.  If we still can dread anything–other than something that threatens self-interest.  Apathy and indifference is more of a threat than we may credit it to be.  I’m glad that the abuses and ridiculous and hurtful ideas from religion are being denounced and done away with.  And if apathy is the remedy for this, well and good.  But by the same token, the bland world I am finding myself in today, is still frightening.  To me, it is a deafening silence.

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Strong Decades and the Other

I lived through the eighties.  I didn’t like the eighties when I was living in that decade.  But one thing I will say that I do like about the eighties is that the decade had a theme, a core, a strong culture to it.  I can list the prime values of the eighties:

  1. preppy–there were actual t-shirts then that said, “Preppy and Proud.”  Movies were made about prep schools.  The prevailing fashion of the day was preppy.  Part of this trend was the drive to attain Ivy League Schools.  The plot of “Risky Business” was the hunger for Joel (Tom Cruise) to go to Princeton.  The world’s most notorious preps were married in 1981–Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles of Wales.
  2. money–when I graduated from Harvard Divinity School (1985), the Business School had its largest graduating class in Harvard’s history.  Again referencing “Risky Business,” Joel wants to major in business and most of the movie is about his successful prostitution business.  “Working Girl” was about working-class Tess (Melanie Griffith) climbing the corporate ladder of the business world and competing with preppy Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver).  “Wall Street” was all about money, wealth, and power.
  3. cocaine–the drug of choice in the eighties for everyone, especially business-oriented, success driven executive types.
  4. technology–Bill Gates and Steve Jobs started their huge empires in the eighties.  The script of “Ghostbusters” was replete with techno-sounding jargon.
  5. lastly, the eighties had a distinct style of music.  We called it techno-pop.  But it was distinctive enough for my present TV music channels to have a station devoted to eighties music.

I didn’t like the eighties because all this was a rebellion against the values of the late sixties/early seventies.  Peace and love, back to nature, contempt for materialism and money, contempt for authority, dropping out of society, and love of art dominated the values of that generation.  Woodstock, where 500,000 young people all gathered for music and fellowship WITH NO POLICE OR LAW ENFORCEMENT, in peace, happened in 1969.  I think of song lyrics like those of Jethro Tull–“I didn’t care if they groomed me for success (yukk), or if they said that I was Just a fool,” “I’m sitting in the corner feeling glad/Got no money coming in but I can’t be sad.”  And that famous song from Pink Floyd that is still being played today, “Money, get away/Is the root of all evil today.”  The strong culture of the eighties seemed to be the opposite of all that the apocalyptic ’60’s and ’70’s were about.

But after the eighties, culture faded away.  There was a lack of gravitas to the succeeding decades.  By way of documentation, my TV movie channels have no station dedicated to ’90’s music, or 2000’s music.  There are indeed channels that are called “Clubbing” and “Urban” but these sounds are not likely to be memorable decades from now.  There may be a cause for this apparent cultural vacuity.  The ’60’s and early ’70’s were a rebellion against the strait-laced family values of the ’50’s, which, in turn, were a retrenchment from the horrid whole generation of war the early 20th century lived through.  And in the ’60’s and early ’70’s, the Vietnam War was spewing out carnage printed in living color in Life magazine each week.  But after Vietnam, there was no war or other strong ferment in society.  The ’50’s were the product of the World Wars; the ’60’s and ’70’s of the Vietnam War; and the eighties were a rebellion against the “Flower Children” of the ’60’s and ’70’s.

By no means am I wishing war upon society so that I might enjoy a strong culture again, and find memorable contributions to western history!  This blog is only an attempt to account for the apparent cultural vacuity I now live in, compared with the strong cultures I lived in when I was young.  I expect I will offend readers who are young now, as what I am writing may seem to be criticism of their world.  Elders criticized my generation when I was growing up, and it is a perennial fact of existence that elders criticize the young–it’s in the Renaissance Book of the Courtier.  But we rebelled against our elders, and their disapproval was a kind of badge of honor.  I am not criticizing young people.  As an olding man, I enjoy the company of the young.  But I’m not happy with the blandness I see around me in society.  It’s an easy way to live, but growing up in a world steeped in philosophy, with strongly held values, the world in which I now find myself is as bland as bread without gluten.