Musical Jesus

I grew up in a musical family – meaning, we loved musicals. We performed in them, we watched them, we sang them, we bought the cast albums. I grew up in the country, the youngest by 13 years, only a couple of other children living nearby, with a performer’s spirit. And… a large 6-foot by 6-foot mirror prominently displayed in the living room, next to the cabinet where the stereo lived. Many afternoons were spent in front of that mirror, acting out the musicals I played over and over. While I had intimate knowledge of musicals like My Fair Lady, Carousel, Camelot, and Hello Dolly, it was the modern rock musicals that attracted my attention. Let me correct that: it was the modern religious musicals that attracted my attention.

Simply put, I was hooked on Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

While Joseph holds a special place in my heart (both from my youth and the performance we gave at UUCSS in 2005), it is the first two that are driving this post today. It is those first two that I realize have shaped, more than anything else, my understanding of who Jesus was and is.

I don’t know if this is a fact or something I made up, but I think it may be true that no matter what we learn as adults, our initial impressions and ideas about religion are formed before puberty. We may reject those ideas, but they are our starting point. Now if that’s true – and I will make the case that at least for me, it is – then I learned about an incredible man with incredible things to say about how we live.

From Godspell, I learned parables – the sheep and the goats, the prodigal son, and the good Samaritan. I learned how he treated the least among them (the adulterous woman). The Jesus in this show is warm, funny, loving, insightful. He dislikes hypocrisy and greed. He feels deeply. He teaches with patience, humor, and honor. He remembers his people and their past – during the last supper scene, they sing Psalm 137, a lament from the days of the Babylonian exile.

From Jesus Christ Superstar, I learned about his final days – the burdens of celebrity, the difficulty in teaching and reminding his fellow Jews the lessons of the prophets (Amos, Hosea). I learned of his patience, and of the political situation he was teaching in. The Jesus is also warm, but detatches in very human, somewhat Zen ways, when he needs distance. He is forthright and stallwart in the face of those who would be his enemies, but he is not combative (the moneychangers scene excepted).

Both representations of Jesus end with the crucifixion. We hear the pain of those final moments – sung heartwrenchingly in Godspell, desperately spoken in Superstar. And this is where it ends. We are left to accept or reject the resurrection, to make up our minds whether we buy it.

As a child, despite the lessons from the Methodist Sunday school my parents sent me to to learn about religion, I did not buy the resurrection. It wasn’t part of the story I knew, but it also didn’t make sense to me. I know it didn’t make sense to my Unitarian parents.

As an adult, I spent many years not even thinking about Jesus, no less considering the resurrection or the divinity of Christ. It’s only been in the last couple that Jesus has been in my sights again – and I admit to truly struggling with what I believe, what I think is true, and how to parse my childhood understanding of Jesus with my adult spirituality. And I don’t know. Believing in the resurrection seems a long stretch, one that contradicts other things I hold to be true about Jesus, his life, his divinity. I am deeply Unitarian in that sense… so parsing an understanding of Jesus and the resurrection in that paradigm becomes a bit of a struggle. It is even more so as I am now attending a Christian seminary, where in order to understand some of the theologians we read, we must understand that they take the resurrection event as a given circumstance, not a point for debate. And so I struggle – and I just don’t know.

What I do know is that the portrayals of Jesus being pushed by some of the more conservative and fundamentalist preachers is not the Jesus I know… theirs is certainly is not the Jesus whose most important sermon was the Sermon on the Mount. The Jesus I know is the Jesus who washed John the Baptist’s feet, who hugged the leper, who spoke with the Canaanite woman, who loved and laughed and cried.

I don’t know if I’ll ever know for sure what I think. But I do know that Stephen Schwartz and Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice were wonderful teachers and gave me a picture of Jesus that feels true for me.

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Read my thoughts about congregational life at Hold My Chalice


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