How Jesus Christ Superstar, the Movie, Influenced my Theology
Recently, my 15 year old daughter expressed an interest in renting the movie, “Jesus Christ Superstar.” She first showed an interest in the music after the Andrew Lloyd Webber week on American Idol with Carly Smithson singing Superstar and then her school choir started learning a medley from the Rock Opera. Since she was interested in the music, I thought she should know the whole story – not just bits and pieces of the favorite songs, so we rented the movie and watched it. I’m not sure when I last watched the movie, but I do know that I saw it in theaters when I was 9 or 10 and then we owned the album and my sister and I memorized all the songs. It was hard for me not to sing along with the movie, but whenever I started to sing along my kids would shoot me a disapproving glance and I’d keep the singing inside my head.
Wow, what memories came flooding back and I realize now how much this movie has influenced my theology over the years. First of all, while the Jesus is portrayed as a white man with pretty hair and a beard, this movie does not portray Jesus as a bland, boring, always meek and mild person – rather, Jesus is portrayed as a passionate person who loves, cries, gets angry and gets his feelings hurt. While the meek and mild aspects of his personality are not neglected, neither are they elevated and portrayed as his primary emotion in all situations. Though my kids were surprised by the range of the Ted Neeley’s voice when he got angry in the Temple, Jesus was not portrayed as an angry-and-out-to-get-you person either. The passionate portrayal of Christ in this movie has definitely shaped my view of Christ, and I believe helped me not to fall into the trap of viewing Christ as a one dimensional Savior.
One of my favorite songs from the movie is, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” This song in the movie reminded me how many of the people following Jesus did not recognize or understand who he was. The line from the song that says, “He’s just a man” rubs some Christians the wrong way because from our vantage point we believe Jesus is more than “just a man.” But from a historical point of view, this song portrays both Mary and Judas struggling with understanding who Jesus was and how to relate to him. We struggle with the humanity of Christ – how human was he? How was he tempted in every way? What does it mean that Jesus emptied himself? As “just a man” Jesus became truly human to show us the way to be truly human too.
I’m not sure if my kids got the political themes of the movie, just as many Christians are clueless about the political climate of the day. Sure, some preachers may mention it in passing and some Christ followers may study their Bible and history and have an understanding of the times, but for me, this movie helped me as I grew up and read the Bible to read and understand the politics of the day. While we will never know with certainty whether Herod was actually as much of a buffoon as the movie portrays, it is certainly worth thinking about.
I remember a time when the movie was banned in certain places because it did not portray the resurrection but I’m glad it was not banned in my family when I was growing up in Woodstock, NY with a Jewish step-dad who could almost hit those high notes with Ted Neeley! After 35 years, I still love the movie – even if my kids laugh at Ted Neeley’s screeching voice. And you can be certain I won’t ban the movie in my house – as a matter of fact, I’m adding the movie and the soundtrack to my birthday wish list – only 23 shopping days left!
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