Sunday, November 16, 2008

How Jesus Christ Superstar Changed My Life

Jesus Christ Superstar (1970)
By Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice

I grew up in a house that didn’t talk about Jesus. When my friends asked me if I was Protestant or Catholic, I had no clue what they were talking about. My parents didn’t talk at all about religion in my early years, to my recollection. I suppose they might want to correct me on that, but I can’t remember a single thing they taught me about Jesus or God. It just wasn’t important.

But my mom did influence me in one way. In grade school, she took me to a neighbor’s house, put headphones on my head and played for me a portion of Jesus Christ Superstar, with the original vocals with Ian Gillian. That album has haunted me for the rest of my life. The vocals are so piercing and dramatic. Sometimes the music is simplistic, but this is what a grade school kid needed.

My parents purchased the two-record set and after I got my own record player…. Yeah, so I listened to records, so what? Does that show how old I am? Well, just wait until your children finds out that you actually liked Brittney Spears before she turned herself into the latest Michael Jackson! Anyway, where was I?.... After I got my own record player, I took the album to my room and it was never seen again. I played those records, all four sides, until the grooves ran so deep that you could rest a nickel in them. I had all the lyrics memorized by the time I was in high school and I would sing the songs through from “Heaven on Their Minds” to the climatic “Jesus Christ Superstar” and I would meditate silently on the crucifixion as my mind played through the final, agonizing instrumentals.

In my early years, this was the only gospel I knew, preparing me for the real Jesus, when I finally met him. And while it wasn’t very accurate with the written gospels, it was certainly written based on it. It helped me see that the church in general doesn’t always see Jesus with a clear vision. The song “Poor Jerusalem” introduced me to the basic paradox of Jesus’ teaching, that to live and to succeed, one must die. For Jesus, this was taken painfully literally, as was made plain in Pilate’s final words to Jesus:
“Don’t let me stop your great self-destruction—
Die, if you want to, you miserable martyr.
I wash my hands of your demolition—
Die, if you want to, you innocent puppet!”

In Jesus Christ Superstar, Pilate isn’t the unjust dupe of the priests as portrayed in the gospels. Rather, he is the only one who see what is actually going on—Jesus has set himself up, manipulating the Jewish and Roman justice systems in order to have himself crucified so that he might change the world. While this is only part of the truth, Tim Rice captures one of the basic insights of the gospels: the answer to the question “Who Crucified Jesus” is Jesus himself.

The Jesus portrayed in the musical is not altogether unlike the portrayal given Jesus by the evangelist Mark. Jesus is the suffering servant, unable to meet his own needs because he is too active serving others and doing God’s will. Jesus wears himself out healing mobs of people. He deals with dissention and open arguments among his disciples. The high priests are in open opposition against him. And all throughout no one understands Jesus’ purpose of his life. He is going to suffer and die. He won’t be conquering the Romans as Simon the Zealot wants him to. He won’t be living the normal life of a teacher, as Judas wants him to. And he won’t live to appreciate his fame as the other disciples want to do. This Jesus is all about his death, which no one seems to appreciate or understand.

Finally, it comes to the final night, the appointed time of Jesus’ death. The disciples have fallen asleep in a drunken stupor after the Last Supper, Judas had an open argument with him and left to betray him (with Jesus’ sarcastic approval) and even Jesus’ best friends—Peter, James and John—have forsaken him. Then comes the most heart-felt, heart-wrenching song of the suffering man, “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say).”

The song is not completely accurate with Jesus. It tries to express doubts of God in general that Jesus never had. But it does demonstrate one difference between Jesus and the trumphalistic Christian martyrs of later centuries—Jesus didn’t want to suffer this way. He didn’t want to die this death.
“I only want to say
If there is a way
Take this cup away from me
For I don’t want to taste its poison
Feel it burn me…”

This Jesus, as well as the Jesus of the synoptic gospels, understands the suffering that is in store for him, and he frankly doesn’t want it. The “glory set before him” is shadowed by human frailty and emotional weakness. He doubts that this is the right path to take:
“I have changed
I’m not as sure as when we started….
But if I die
See the saga through and do the things you ask of me…
I want to know my God…
Why I should die?
Would I be more noticed than I ever was before
Would the things I’ve said and done matter anymore?
If I die what will be my reward?...
Can you show me now that I will not be killed in vain?”

It just doesn’t seem as clear as it had in the past. Why give up the ministry, which seems so successful? Why not just live a normal life? Why bear all the suffering? Is it really worth it all? As to all humans, the future is clouded, and the promised blessings seem unsure. Will Jesus obtain everything that seemed so clear in the time of prayer?

But the faith of Jesus in this prayer is found not in bold statements of certainly, but in simple obedience, although regretted, although agonized through. Weber’s Jesus screams to God:
“Alright, I’ll die!
Just watch me die!
See how I die!”
And the music pounds, not with a gentle surrender into that dark night, but with a sorrowful, screaming, even regretful obedience to the One who knows better for all, even if we understand nothing. One can hear Jesus pounding the ground in terrible anger over the injustice against himself he is being asked to perform.

Finally, the music quiets as Jesus quits, exhausted. He reflects on his years of agony, that the crucifixion is only the climax of:
“Then I was inspired
Now I’m sad and tired.
After all, I’ve tried for three years
Seems like ninety…
Why then am I scared to finish
What I started?”

Perhaps the crucifixion isn’t an agony after all. Perhaps it is a release. It is a rest. All the years of sorrow and suffering and service are about to cease. And in this, Jesus fully surrenders to God:
“God, Thy will is hard
But You hold every card
I will drink Your cup of poison
Nail me to Your cross and break me
Bleed me, beat me, kill me…”

The anger is still there, but so is the surrender. And this is all that God expects

Again, this prayer doesn’t fully express Jesus’ thoughts before the cross. There is no twentieth century doubt of God’s existence. But it does express the regret that Jesus himself felt. And it ends with Jesus’ willing obedience, if reluctant. In four minutes we can experience the doubts and regrets and faith of Jesus in his all night prayer.

And the way I see it, this is not Jesus’ prayer at all. It is mine. It is expressing my surrender to the life of suffering God has required of me, of my family. Sometime I regret the all-nighters of prayer and worry. Sometimes I sorrow over the deaths of those dear to me. Sometimes I fear that the difficulties I put my family through will be required at my hand.

I am not as confident of being right as everyone thinks I am. Privately, I agonize and cry out to God, wondering why things are the way they are. Why won’t people just obey Him? Why do people turn to death every day? Why does a man have to surrender everything in order to offer an opportunity to salvation of others? Why does God’s offer of mercy require a willing sacrifice?

Just as in the musical prayer, however, there are no answers to the questions. We could give platitudes, but that doesn’t help anyone actually give up their lives to God’s purpose. Rather, it is simple faith and surrender.

It has been longer than three years for me. It has been ten, perhaps more depending on when you start counting. But I feel the thirty, the ninety years, just as Rice’s Jesus does. I agonize with him. Because perhaps this wasn’t precisely Jesus’ prayer. But it is mine. When I am agonizing over my ministry. When I want to just give up and live a normal life. When I am struggling to get out of bed so I can meet more people, and give what few words of comfort I have for them. When I have little for myself, then I pray with this artificial Jesus:
“Then, I was inspired
Now I’m sad and tired.
Listen, surly I’ve exceeded expectations…
Could You ask as much from any other man?”

And when I come full circle, offering my complaint, but still recognizing God’s sovereignty, God’s superior knowledge and love, even for me in my weakness, then I can offer myself to Him, even as Jesus himself offered himself for me. But this does not exhaust my anger at the injustice of being drained of all my energy for others and not having anything for myself. And so I cry in my mind the last line of Jesus’ prayer:
"Take me now, before I change my mind…”

Or perhaps, in my more gentle moments, I might reflect on Mother Teresa’s statement, reflecting on the same truth without being so testosterone-driven:
“God says that He would only give me as much as I can handle.
I wish He didn’t trust me so much.”

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