Upon close inspection, watching a film like Jesus Christ Superstar as a part of Easter celebration might be deemed a bit blasphemous. While I cannot find concrete documentation on why Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber wrote the musical as they had, there are a lot of questionable aspects about it. This is outside of the Church calling to question Judas Iscariot as a sympathetic character, or labeling the film as Anti-Semitic due to the role the Pharisees and others play in the downfall of Christ.
Yet there’s more than that. One such quote from writer Tim Rice states “It happens that we don’t see Christ as God but simply the right man at the right time at the right place.” Some of the lyrics were also changed from the original stage play, where Jesus was written as questioning whether he was truly the Son of God. He was a lot less certain of his fate, though the film changed some of this around.
That line, combined with the role of Judas Iscariot, is enough to communicate a lot of thoughts going on in this film. It is not about Jesus Christ as a savior, but as a movement. Oddly enough, this is part of the reason I’ve come to really like this film. I grew up with it, certainly, but after I started to really dig deep into the New Testament did I notice some of the small details that this musical picked up on.
The entire film is set up in the very first song Heaven on Their Minds, as sung by Judas.
Everything you need to know about the film is here. Judas wants to help people, and believes in following Christ to do good. However, things are getting too big for him. People are beginning to call Jesus the Messiah, and are starting to believe he’s there to save the Jews. This worries Judas, as rocking the boat too much could put everyone’s lives in danger.
This is almost prophetic, as this is precisely what happens. The Pharisees share the same concern, worried that Rome will catch on to everyone’s talk about a Messiah and will come to put the Jews down for good. The Pharisees are worried about genocide.
That the crowd cries “Hey J.C., J.C., would you fight for me?” and “Hey J.C., J.C., would you die for me?” followed by the Apostle Simon telling Jesus that his followers would do anything for him only illustrates the concern of Judas and the Pharisees. It illustrates that no one actually understands why Jesus is there, or his mission.
These are all elements that, to me, set this film apart from most stories about the crucifixion of Christ. All the years I’ve gone to Church for Easter and most often the focus is on “how amazing it is what Christ did for us”. Everything is about putting Christ on a pedestal.
While the reasons are understandable, I feel Jesus Christ Superstar is, oddly enough, closer to what makes the resurrection of Christ so important. Naturally, it does not surprise me that this is the part of the story that is left out.
Towards the end of the film is the title song, Jesus Christ Superstar, where I cannot help but wonder if Judas is actually speaking on the part of Tim Rice.
“Why’d you come to a backward time in such a strange land? If you’d come today, you could have reached a whole nation. Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication.”
This is an interesting quote from the song, especially with Tim Rice noting Jesus was a man in the right time at the right place. The song continues to ask if Jesus thinks he is “what they say you are”. Does this mean does he believe he is the Son of God? I do not believe the term “Superstar” was used carelessly, either.
I cannot answer as to the intentions of the writer, but I find it interesting that the answer to such a question of “why didn’t you come today?” is the resurrection itself.
Throughout the film Jesus claims numerous times that, without him, all of his followers would be lost. Before his crucifixion they sing out this has gone too far, can we start again please? At the end, once Jesus has died, all the music stops. Everyone packs up, heads back on the bus, and leaves. The last actors to board the bus are Mary Magdalene and Judas, each looking back in a pensive manner. Then there is a shot of the cross with a shepard leading his flock, and silence as the credits roll.
This entire idea is meant to emphasize the idea that everyone was lost. Indeed, reading through the New Testament this is the idea I got after Christ had died. The Apostles were disbelieving when Mary told them Jesus had rose from the dead. Thomas, from whom we get the term “a doubting Thomas”, exclaimed that he would only believe it if Jesus stood before him with a hole in his hand where the nail had dug through.
In other words, even after his death no one understood why Jesus had come.
The Resurrection is, perhaps, the most important aspect of Christ’s life. Just as Jesus Christ Superstar illustrates, Christ’s followers did not understand his purpose, what he meant by salvation. It was only once he returned that he was able to illustrate to his Apostles what salvation truly meant.
This is why Christianity had lived on. If Jesus Christ had died and never returned, he would have been just another martyr. He would have been lost in time. This also answers Judas’ question of “why such a backward time in such a strange land?” They needed the confusion. Jesus would not have been a martyr now like he was then. Everyone needed to be desperate to reclaim a Kingdom for the Jews. There needed to be this desperation to fight back, and also this confusion as to why Christ was there.
It all comes together so perfectly, and it is tied together by the Resurrection of Christ.
While Jesus Christ Superstar does not focus on the Resurrection, and much of it is intended to question whether Jesus really was more than a man (not to mention deviations or “filling in the gaps” of scripture), I still find it to be the most fulfilling portrayal of the events leading to Christ’s death.
Which is what Easter is all about, is it not? It is more than just Christ bearing our sins. It is an acknowledgment of God’s mission, a mission that only came about because of how perfectly events led to the sacrifice of Christ.
So I shall watch Jesus Christ Superstar every Easter, now, as a reminder of just how important those events, and how perfectly they came together, are.