If my life were a movie, popular music would be its soundtrack. It would be an eclectic release as my tastes are rather expansive, including classic rock, heavy metal, folk, punk, funk, classical, and even a show tune or two when the occasion calls for it. There’s a tune for every moment and a playlist for every season.
During Lent, however, I’ve made it a tradition to limit my listening to music that helps fix my eyes on Jesus, him being the reason for the season and all that. My seasonal playlist brims with classic hymns, CCM favorites old and new, Aretha, and the like. Last year, I even sampled some EDM-laced songs courtesy of Kevin Max. You could say I give up non-Jesus music for Lent.
A few years ago, while looking for something new for my Lent playlist—and being in a show tunes kind of mood—my thoughts turned to Jesus Christ Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s trippy rock opera about the carpenter who would be king. I had been aware of Jesus Christ Superstar for a long time but had never actually listened to it, due in large part to my devout parents’ vocal disapproval of the material. But it did not take long for this groovily operatic take on the Messiah to become a Lenten favorite and a staple of my Holy Week worship.
Like my fundamentalist parents, worship probably isn’t what comes to mind when one thinks of Jesus Christ Superstar. That certainly wasn’t the case when it debuted in 1970. Unable to get backing for a stage show at the time1, composer Webber and lyricist Tim Rice released Jesus Christ Superstar as a rock opera concept album, a new genre popularized by The Who’s Tommy, which had been released the previous year. The album became a hit, charting in the US and UK with popular singles “Superstar” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” leading the way2. This success led to a Broadway run in 1971, an even more successful West End run in 19723, and a movie in 1973.
Despite its success, many in the religious community did not take a shine to the album’s conception of Jesus as a young firebrand suffering at the hands of a repressive government. BBC Radio found the album sacrilegious and banned it from its broadcasts4. Christian groups picketed the Broadway opening5 and no less an authority than Billy Graham worried that the show “bordered on blasphemy.”6
When I finally listened to the album, though, I was surprised to find that once you got past all the counterculture posturing, it got one crucial thing right about the gospel accounts. Like those narratives, Jesus Christ Superstar preoccupies itself with one question, the question as it turns out: Is Jesus the Christ?
As the refrain from album’s climactic song, “Superstar,” puts it:
Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ Superstar,
Do you think you’re what they say you are?
Halfway through the gospel of Mark, Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27, ESV) “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets,” the disciples respond (Mark 8:28, ESV). Everyone, it seems, had their own take on Jesus. And so it is in Jesus Christ Superstar.
The album does not give a panoramic view of Jesus’ life. It picks up the story as he prepares to enter Jerusalem and follows him through a very eventful week that ends with him nailed to a cross where he breathes his last. Along the way, we hear from those around him, friend and foe alike, as they struggle to make sense of this most enigmatic figure. Think of it as the rock opera version of Mark 8.
In the opening song, “Heaven on Their Minds,” Judas sees Jesus as a man in danger of believing his own press. (“You’ve started to believe the things they say of you,” Judas laments.) In “This Jesus Must Die,” the religious establishment sees him as a dangerous provocateur who will bring the wrath of the Roman occupiers down upon them. (“Our elimination because of one man,” declares Caiphas.) To the anti-Roman insurgents in “Simon Zealotes,” Jesus is a celebrity who can be exploited to “win ourselves a home.” And in “The Trial Before Pilate,” Pilate tries to reassure the assembled mob that Jesus is “just misguided, thinks he’s important.”
Back in Mark 8, Jesus follows up his initial question to his disciples with another. “But who do you say that I am?”
“You are the Christ,” answers Peter.
Jesus Christ Superstar does not go as far as Peter. As a product of its time, the album’s portrait of Jesus reflects the prevailing romantic counterculture view of him as a political martyr, a victim of the Man. (For proof of this, look no further than Norman Jewison’s film adaptation, which renders the story as an anachronistic “Age of Aquarius” fantasia that’s more Hair than The Chosen.) One can also detect a whiff of biblical criticism as Jesus Christ Superstar eschews any depiction of Jesus’ supernatural feats, most notably the resurrection. This has led many Christian detractors to accuse the album of denying the divinity of Jesus altogether.
Upon closer listening, however, that accusation does not hold—or it’s at least superficial.
It is true that, by their own admission at the time, Lloyd Webber and Rice were not believers in Jesus’ divinity. In an interview after the Broadway show’s debut, Rice said that “Christ has more relevance for me as a human being than He does as God.”7 And yet, the words out of their characters’ mouths confirm that Jesus’ unique appeal stemmed from his claim to divinity.
Take Herod’s words to Jesus upon meeting him for the first time in “King Herod’s Song (Try It and See)”:
Jesus, I am overjoyed to meet you face to face.
You’ve been getting quite a name all around the place.
Healing cripples, raising from the dead.
And now I understand you’re God,
At least, that’s what you’ve said.
In the final accounting, no one will ever mistake Jesus Christ Superstar for a “Christian” album. Keith Green, it most certainly ain’t! But while Jesus Christ Superstar’s creators may not have believed that Jesus was God, they were faithful enough to the gospel narratives to acknowledge that Jesus certainly did. Like the proverbial blind men describing the elephant, they were feeling their way along the contours of the truth. And there is value in that.
In chapter 17 of the book of Acts, the apostle Paul encounters an odd sight in Athens. Among the temples of the various Greek gods, he finds an altar with the following inscription: “To the unknown god.” Being the good evangelist that he was, Paul used this altar as a conduit to introduce the Athenians to the divinity of Jesus. In Jesus Christ Superstar’s ambiguity on the matter of Jesus’ divinity, I also find an altar to an unknown god that, every Lent, becomes a conduit to the real thing as the music leads me to meditate on that most crucial of questions: “Who do you say that I am?