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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Real Class

A while ago the great literary critic Paul Fussell wrote a book about class.  It described elements of status and sophistication.  In short, the book itemized what makes for class and status.  Some of the things we think are classy are wealth, sophistication, knowledge of wines, appreciation for art, going to opera, dressing well, eloquent speech, good manners, sporty cars, certain political opinions, biting wit, and other things.

A while back, I bought into that definition.  I even tried in my own way to become classy.  The trouble with that understanding of class, is that it depends on external things to make one classy.  So you need a symphony, you need fine wines, you need cars, you need artworks, and all manner of things that are outside a person.

I view things differently, now.  My new view is largely influenced by my partner.  She showed me a different aesthetic.  In fact, a different ethic.  Now I see class as integrity.  In the view I now hold, there is nothing classier than someone being up-front, honest, and sincere.  A person who can enjoy simple pleasures, such as going on a walk, playing a board game with friends or family, talking on a porch while watching the sun set, such a person knows the things that matter in life.  Now I value plain speech, direct communication, simplicity, and that priceless quality so hard to define: innocence.

Classy people in the Fullell sense may have a hard time with children.  Children see through affectations, and airs.  And caring for children can be undignified according to the Fussell view on class.  There is that scene in “As Good as It Gets” when the preppy suitor of Carol the waitress spurns her with the line, “Too much reality for a Friday night.”  He is referring to Carol’s asthmatic son who has vomited.  Her mothering was too real for the classy world view of her upscale suitor.  Class that can be vulnerable to life is shallow.  But if a person is simple, unaffected, direct, and sincere, children will love her or him, their class can’t be undone, and they are possessed of a lovable character.  That, to me now, is real class.