Tuesday, June 28, 2016

'jesus christ superstar'

The thing about the gospel of John is, it's got great theology but it makes for really bad music.

See? It really is about a bunch of dirty hippies.
I make this observation after somebody else has characterized "Jesus Christ Superstar" in the opposite manner; which is to say, the music is great but the theology is lacking. This assuredly is true, but then I was unaware that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice ever intended to write a work of theology. Rock operas generally are meant to entertain rather than to convey a seminary education, though doubtless there is some undergirding philosophy that may be understood if one listens closely enough to the music.

Another commenter correctly diagnoses the musical as 1970s eisogesis; that is, it foists 1970s thinking onto the gospel story. Eisogesis, incidentally, is a nice word. I must remember to use it in church some time. "Preacher, that's an eisogetical reading of the text. Learn to read the passaage correctly!" (Not that this is often a problem at my church. Sometimes, but it's rare and usually only happens when one of the elders is preaching.)

There is an irony in this observation about "Jesus Christ Superstar," namely that many if not most reactions of Christians to the show are themselves essentially eisegetical in nature. Believers typically see the musical through the lens of belief and thus regard it as either essentially faith-affirming or essentially hostile toward faith, without actually stopping to consider the motivations of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.

That is, the musical uses the language, symbols and even the stories of Scripture to convey tell its own story. Because it draws so heavily on the gospel, we often see it either as a presentation of the gospel ("It's about the Passion!") or as an attempted repudiation of the gospel ("It denies the Resurrection!") Both these interpretations are eisegetical in nature, relative to the text of the musical, without regard for the motivation of the show's creators or how its original audiences were meant to understand it.

A more exegitical interpretation would view the show through the lens of the 1960s, with Jesus as a representation of the highest aspirations of the sixties movements, and the Sanhedrin and Pilate representing authority and the status quo threatened by the rise of the flower children and peace movement.

Like any other piece of dramatic literature, of course, "Jesus Christ Superstar" is subject to reinterpretation through new productions that will reflect the values, beliefs and intentions that the director, producer and performers bring to the show.

Some of those reinterpretations are more authoritative anid compelling than others; but honestly, the worst are usually the ones that try to make it a gospel appeal. I saw one of those about five years ago, where they actually added brief snippets of dialogue to harmonize it with the gospels. It was a major disappointment.

But at least the music was pretty good.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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