We’ve heard what the Gospel writers said about Jesus in Gethsemane. Now it’s time to examine a Hollywood perspective. In 1973, the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar hit the big screen, with actor-singer Ted Neeley playing Jesus. One of the most tension-filled scenes in the movie is the scene in Gethsemane, during which Jesus expresses his bitterness, anger, and confusion toward God the Father. (The lyrics can be found here.) This movie is definitely worth watching, if for nothing else, then simply to consider the contemporary portrait it paints of Jesus.
First, a few notes to my Christian readers:
On film-watching: Some of you may be thinking, “Pah, I already know what that blasphemous film says about Jesus, and I refuse to watch it.” To that, I’d like to say that to automatically boycott a film (or any other artistic work) that you’ve heard say contains elements that conflict with your worldview is just immature. To go through life reading and viewing only that which supports your own ideology is a sad way to live—you will never be challenged that way, which means that your faith will always remain shallow. God has graciously blessed us with critical thinking faculties, which enable us to sift through material and separate what is good from what is bad. Stop accusing artists of misrepresentation if you’re not even willing to give their representation a total viewing! You can’t think critically, you can’t say what’s bad and what isn’t, until you’ve actually watched a film in its entirety.
Odd as it sounds, I actually enjoy watching films that contradict my perspective, because it forces me to reexamine my view of things, to dig into God’s Word and see whether my view is really rooted there, as I claim it is, or whether it is rooted in culture, or my own preferences, or on what I’ve heard preached. It also gives me the opportunity to have meaningful theological discussions with my husband, as we go back and forth debating and challenging one another and looking up verses of scripture as we try to arrive at truth.
One thing I appreciate about Jesus Christ Superstar is how it raises questions that I had never even thought to ask. For example, the film put me in Judas’s shoes, a pair of shoes in which I had never before stood; it forced me to ask questions about Judas’s relationship with Jesus and about the nature of his betrayal, and it took me to the Gospel of Judas (a pseudoepigraphical Gnostic text, certainly not historically reliable, but interesting nonetheless). I can’t say that I was able to answer all the questions that came up, but that’s not the point. The point is to ask them, and to see if they can bring you any closer to your understanding of who Jesus is.
On imagining, or filling in the gaps: John writes at the end of his Gospel, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” It’s more than permissible (for Christians, it’s obligatory) to imagine what Jesus might have said or did, as long as you realize that’s what you’re doing—imagining. Just because it’s not recorded in the Bible doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t think it, do it, feel it, say it. The Bible is perfect and whole, telling us everything that’s necessary for developing a saving knowledge of God, but there are gaps, and since it is the Christian’s duty to know and love Jesus with heart, mind, and soul, that means that Christians should be trying to fill those gaps by asking questions and doing research and conversing with other Christians on the topic of who Jesus is. Of course, our imaginings need to be consistent with what we already know of Jesus, i.e., what has been written in the Scriptures.
On artistic license: An artist (literary, visual, or performing) is supposed to take creative liberties; otherwise, what he/she creates wouldn’t be art, because it wouldn’t be original, it would be regurgitation. That’s why filmmakers like to reinterpret the gospel story in a unique way, either by telling it from the perspective of a minor character (Jesus Christ Superstar, seen from Judas’s eyes), placing it in a different cultural/historical context (Godspell, set in 1960s New York), building an alternate reality on top of it (The Last Temptation of Christ), or by doing a number of other things. It is the artist’s job to make things new and relevant.
I felt it necessary to digress with these notes because I want you to understand my take on controversial religious art, as I plan to continue featuring and commenting on such pieces in the future.
But now, back to Gethsemane . . .
The Jesus of Jesus Christ Superstar bares scant resemblance to the Jesus of the Gospels. His resemblance is much closer to a 1970s rock star—and that was the point. When lyricist Tim Rice created this character (it’s a rock opera, so there’s no connecting dialogue—the story is told wholly through song), he knew that a meek and mild Jesus just wouldn’t work in that genre. The opera would have sounded totally different were Jesus’s personality toned down and cleaned up; “Gethsemane” would have sounded something like this instead of the loud, raw, earthy song that it is. The spirit of rock ’n’ roll is one of anger and rebellion, so the central character necessarily had to be one who was, well, angry and rebellious. A person with real “issues.” Enter Jesus. (I’m sure that Rice’s personal religious views also contributed to the film’s portrait of Jesus, but since I haven’t seen or read any of his interviews—I can’t seem to find them anywhere—I can’t comment on that.)
The problem is, Jesus was not angry at the Father, nor did he have a rebellious disposition. In Rice’s lyrical interpretation of the Gethsemane episode, however, Jesus basically tells the Father that he is cruel and uncaring, and he blames him for his suffering. He also demands a reward for his self-sacrifice, and he challenges God to “show me,” “tell me,” “beat me,” “watch me,” etc. So sure, a rock ’n’ roll Jesus makes for a great album, but the image is incompatible with what the Gospel writers reported. For example, Mark indicates that in his prayer to the Father, Jesus addresses him as “Abba,” an intimate term of endearment, similar to the English expression “Daddy” (or “dear Father”). This is a tender moment, not an accusatory one. I don’t think that Jesus was bitter at all, because he understood that his Father’s action, as hard as it was to accept, was rooted in love.
The movie’s Gethsemane scene also portrays Jesus as confused and unaware of his true identity and purpose:
Show me there’s a reason / For your wanting me to die. / You’re far too keen on where and how / But not so hot on why.
But Jesus wasn’t confused at all. He knew exactly why he had to die! Surely he could see the eternal value of his sacrifice. Throughout his entire earthly ministry, he worked toward a clearly defined goal: fulfilling the will of the Father. So in everything he did, he acted intentionally, purposefully. He told his disciples that he has come to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17)—that is, to be lifted up on a cross, so that men might be given the opportunity to live eternally with the Father (John 3:14-15). And he made repeated references to his “appointed time” (Matthew 26:18). God became incarnate in the person of Jesus for the express purpose of saving mankind from sin and death. This mission was determined before the beginning of time, and Jesus had consented to it.
The problem with Superstar Jesus is that he thinks God’s primary purpose for him is simply to heal people and feed people. He can’t understand why God would expect anything more of him:
Surely I’ve exceeded expectations. / . . . / Could you ask as much from any other man?
Because Superstar Jesus doesn’t see the cross as his ultimate goal, he accuses the Father of being ungrateful for all that he had already accomplished, and because he doesn’t see himself as God, with a divine power all his own, he accuses the Father of holding impossible expectations. Perhaps the most egregious misrepresentation of all in this song is the portrayal of Jesus as a mere man, instead of the all-knowing, all-loving God-man that he was.
So what lines ring true in these lyrics?
- “I’m sad and tired.”
- “Why then am I scared to finish what I started?”
- “God, thy will is hard.”
Did the real Jesus feel less sure at this point than when he began his ministry? Did he lose inspiration? Did he consider changing his mind? Perhaps. (I think that to say so would be neither biblical nor unbiblical—it’s just simply not specified.) Did he wonder whether his death would be all in vain, i.e., doubted whether anyone would understand and respond to the significance of his sacrifice? Probably. Did he ever ask, “Why do I have to die this way?” I don’t know. Was he sad, scared, tired, frustrated? Definitely. But of course, he put his confidence and faith in the Father’s word, which gave him the strength he needed to go to the cross, to “drink [His] cup of poison.”
While Hollywood directors and popular culture are keen on seeing Jesus as all-man and nothing more (it makes him easier to identify with, and more sympathetic), conservative Christians can sometimes be too keen as seeing him as all-God and nothing less. Jesus was both: all-man, and all-God. He is the only person in all of history to have ever had this dual identity, and because of the complicatedness of it all, it’s hard to answer all these questions and say definitively what Jesus was or was not thinking in Gethsemane. (How can a single mind be the mind of both an unlimited God and a very limited human being?) But I do believe it’s important to speculate. Many would say it’s pointless, since we can never know, but I say it’s productive, because sometimes asking these questions can lead us to a fuller knowledge of Jesus and a deeper appreciation for what he went through on our behalf.
As a throwback to my elementary school education, and by way of summing up, I’ve created a Venn diagram to compare and contrast the Jesus that’s depicted in Jesus Christ Superstar with the Jesus that’s revealed in the four canonical Gospels (whom I believe by reasoned faith to be the “real Jesus”).