Category Archives: Jesus Christ Superstar

Was Jesus Homely?

There was a piece in a Times Union blog written by high school student Allison Moss a few weeks ago, addressing the question “Was Jesus Gay?” This was based on something singer Elton John reportedly said. Well, Jesus Christ Superstar suggests that he (or He) was bisexual. Of course, as much as I adore JCSS, I never considered it theologically authoritative.

It was that question that prompted me to revisit the notion, “Was Jesus homely?” As I understand it, we really have no idea about the physical characteristics of Jesus. He was not depicted in art until decades after walking the earth. Looking in the Bible, there appears to be no description whatsoever, except an interpretation of Isaiah 53:2, which says, “He has no form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him”. If this is in fact referring to Jesus, and the subsequent verses of the chapter are used in Messiah (Handel) as Jesus verses, then this Jesus fellow was rather plain-looking.

There’s a lengthy Wikipedia description about the depictions of Jesus, which I don’t treat as gospel either, but it IS interesting. My favorite section is on this point: “But when the pagan Celsus ridiculed the Christian religion for having an ugly God in about 180, Origen (d. 248) cited Psalm 45:3: ‘Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, mighty one, with thy beauty and fairness.’ Later the emphasis of leading Christian thinkers changed; Jerome (d. 420) and Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) argued that Jesus must have been ideally beautiful in face and body. For Augustine he was ‘beautiful as a child, beautiful on earth, beautiful in heaven’.” So humans, using their own sensibilities, created the appearance of Jesus in their own image of what he (or He) must have looked like. The beard and long hair was copped, ironically, from the image of competing “gods”.

In other words, early depictions of Jesus suggested that He was plain-looking, but other religionists stuck their thumbs in their ears, wiggled their fingers, and chimed in a sing-songy voice, “Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah, nyah, nyah, your God is ugly!” So Christians made THEIR manifestation of God look more like OTHER people’s manifestation of the gods. Given the Biblical directive way back in Genesis that God made humans in God’s image, it seems as though people feel compelled to return the favor.

Moreover, He was probably short. How else does he evade the madding crowd that wants to throw him over a cliff?

So eventually, Jesus started looking, more or less, like this guy:

Theologically, it would make more sense to me if Jesus was less than handsome. It is now well documented that tall, handsome people fare better in social interactions than others. What would be the theological point if Jesus were physically appealing? One might ask if people were following Him for shallow reasons based on His countenance rather than for his message.

When images of “black Jesus” became popular four or five decades in some households, people were shocked, SHOCKED. “THAT’S not what Jesus looked like!” Maybe, maybe not. He probably looked more like that than this, given the geography:

I think this Time magazine cover is a fairly accurate representation of what Christ, and indeed Christianity, looks like; it depends on the point of view.

Yes, this is a rewrite of a post from six months ago. It just felt like a Holy week piece.


Jesus Christ Superstar: An appreciation

My friend Ellen has one of those turntable thingies that transfers vinyl into digital recordings. She recently made a couple recordings for me, both of Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice collaborations that I’ve long had on LP, Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar. Dreamcoat, which was written first but recorded after Superstar, was OK, but Superstar had a profound affect on my way of thinking; perhaps it still does.

I originally got this album for Christmas in 1970 and played it so often, I can STILL tell you where all the skips are on my recording. I found it to be a great jumping off point for great theological discussions, rather than the anathema that some religious folks thought it was, especially with my friend Pat Wilson, a good Catholic woman who was the wife of my dentist. (For context, think of the controversies that Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film “Last temptation of Christ” or Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie “The Passion of the Christ” engendered in certain circles.)

Overture – Ensemble
It starts with that insistent theme that appears in the next song, hits the high point with the “Superstar melody, and ends with the mournful last piece.
“Heaven on Their Minds” – Judas
I happen to think even today that there are those who worry too much about heaven and not enough about treating God’s people on earth.
“What’s the Buzz/Strange Thing, Mystifying” – Jesus, Mary, Judas, Disciples
While Jesus is a tad snarky here, it is consistent with his frustration with his disciples that after three years, they still didn’t get it.
“Everything’s Alright” – Mary, Judas, Jesus, Disciples
The religious elite were often complaining about the lowlifes Jesus hung around with. But I DO think we have the resources to “save the poor from their lot”, if not the political will.
“This Jesus Must Die” – Caiaphas, Annas, Priests, Disciples
Always loved the deep voice of Caiaphas voice.
“Hosanna” – Caiaphas, Jesus, Disciples
It has always astounded me about the mood of the crowd from the cheers of Palm Sunday to the rejection on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
“Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem” – Simon, Jesus, Disciples, Roman Guards
Simon and others thought that Jesus was going to be the second coming of the warlike Maccabees, which was not the plan. “To conquer death, you only have to die” was not, in the Biblical context, a reference to physical death but rather death to a sinful life.
“Pilate’s Dream” – Pilate
This is the same tune as Poor Jerusalem. Initially, i thought this was a mistake, but it’s performed so differently that this has become one of my favorite songs.

“The Temple” – Jesus, Profiteers
There was a second century philosopher whose name escapes me who thought that Jesus was pure love. But this is an angry Jesus. This is the first time, save for the Overture, that the Gethsemane theme appears.
“Everything’s Alright” (reprise) – Mary, Jesus
“I Don’t Know How to Love Him” – Mary
Not the first and certainly not the last to suggest a sexual/romantic relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus – see, e.g., Dan Brown. I didn’t believe it, but this suggestion did not bother me.
“Damned for All Time/Blood Money” – Judas, Caiaphas, Annas, Priests, The Mob
Judas’ conflict, though not exactly as written, does speak to the greater truth about fulfillment of Scripture.
“The Last Supper” – Jesus, Judas and Apostles
That the disciples STILL didn’t entirely know who and what they were dealing with is evident.
“Gethsemane” – Jesus
Possibly the most controversial song. That Jesus was, in part, human made his resistance to dying much more real.

“The Arrest” – Jesus, Judas, Peter, Apostles, Caiaphas, Annas, The Mob, Roman Guards
If I were to play one of the roles, I’d like it to be Peter; NOW we’ll fight for you.
“Peter’s Denial” – Peter, Mary, Apostles, The Mob
I was once in a Bible study and one member said she’d NEVER have denied Jesus, that she’d gave gotten the message right away; I never believed that.
“Pilate and Christ” – Pilate, Jesus, Annas, Mary, Apostles, Roman Guards, The Mob
The singular funniest thing on the album is a fellow with a distinct British accent saying, “someone Christ, king of the Jews.” Featuring an ironic restatement of Hosanna.
“King Herod’s Song” – Herod and his Court
High camp.
[“Could We Start Again Please?” – Mary, Peter, Simon, Disciples, Roman Guards
NOT on my album; it was only from later versions.]
“Judas’ Death” – Judas, Caiaphas, Annas, The Mob
Reiteration of Damed for All Time. was Judas’ betrayal preordained? Yeasty stuff.
“Trial By Pilate” – Pilate, Caiaphas, Annas, Jesus, The Mob
Really gets to the core issue about predestination -“Everything is fixed and you can’t change it.” But if it’s all predetermined, what of free will, which allowed for the Fall from grace?
“Superstar” – Judas, Soul Girls, Angels, Paparazzi
Israel in 4 B.C. DIDN’T have mass communication. Why did Jesus come THEN? And if he came NOW, would he be on radio or TV? Would we believe in Him if he were? Bringing it to today, would he be our Facebook friend? Would we follow him on Twitter? What would He feature on His MySpace page or His YouTube videos?

“Crucifixion” – Jesus, Disciples
The seven last words.
“John 19:41” – Jesus, Disciples
The final controversy, on an instrumental track, no less. The citation is to the burial plot for Jesus. What, no Resurrection? Sacrilege! But I never thought it was Lloyd Webber and Rice’s job to complete the story the way orthodox Christianity does. It’s THEIR telling. And it means a great deal to me, just as it is.

The videos, BTW, were primarily from the not-well-received 2000 Broadway performance which my wife and I actually saw in previews. Not having seen a Broadway musical since Raisin nearly 30 years earlier, I enjoyed it at a certain level, though some of the videos now seem a tad overwrought.
Another appreciation of Superstar.