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.

Poetry Lives!

Prose about poetry.  A few years back, my church held a celebration of the arts.  We were invited to bring personal art works for sale at our national gathering.  I brought some CD’s and some booklets of poetry.  I sold some CD’s but hardly any poetry booklets.  By way of consolation, one minister told me that people just aren’t reading poetry anymore.  He told me that poetry is a lost art.  About a year ago, I placed 3 of my poetry books on the “local writers'” shelf at a bookstore near where I live.  One book is gone, to date.  I sadly had to agree with the minister, that poetry is a lost art.

Then I noticed other evidence.  In my own blogging, I usually get a better response of likes when I post a poem, rather than when I post prose.  I visit the sites of the likes I receive, and, to my surprise, there are a lot of people out there also writing poetry.  Good poetry.  I also used to go to a late night coffee shop which held a poetry night once a month.  There was usually quite a good turnout for these poetry nights, and there were a lot of local poets sharing their verses.  I found out that there are other coffee shops in town which do the same thing.  And I have to mention hip-hop.  While some of the rhymes are simple, there is strong rhythm, and solid rhyme.

Then there are those university poetry journals.  Wallace Stevens started the trend to write verse that an ordinary reader can’t understand.  I am an educated reader, otherwise ordinary, and I can’t understand these poems.  I don’t mean that the ideas are complicated, or that they use big words–like T. S. Eliot, whom I do understand.  Rather, the verses are not ordinary sentences, with subjects, verbs, and objects.  The poets I’m talking about deliberately craft sentences in which the words don’t go together.  Why they would want to do that, I don’t understand, don’t care to understand.  But the poetry I read online, that I listen to in the coffee houses, that I hear in hip-hop songs I do understand, care to understand.

Robert Frost said that strong feeling is the beginning of poetry.  With the cultural apathy we seem to be surrounded by, I find strong feeling in the poetry that I encounter.  Underneath the political rhetoric, the apparent nonchalance of people you run into, the apathy to organized religion, there is strong feeling.  One poet writes, “Indifference is by far the least/I have to fear of man or beast.”  I disagree.  Indifference is a virus that infects the human spirit and leads to spiritual death.  But if poetry lives, humans live.  Poetry lives because humans live.  And that minister wasn’t right.  Poetry isn’t moribund.  It is alive, lively; it lives.