Movie of the Week: Jesus Christ Super Star by Norman Jewison 1973
Old Testament: Genesis 18:10-14
New Testament: 2 Corinthians 10:1-6
Producer/Director: Norman Jewison
Premiere: August 15, 1973
Running Time: 106 minutes
Parent Guide/Rating: G
Watch Jesus Christ Superstar:Rent onAmazon Prime $3.99
Potential link: https://ok.ru/video/219056769698
While the earlier movies based on the life of Christ had differences, as the sexual revolution and free love spirit of the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, movies based on the life of Jesus stylistically and willingly strayed further from the biblical story than had been done before. This was on display nowhere more poignantly than in two movies that began as musicals on Broadway before adaptations brought them to the silver screen: Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. This week we are going to focus on the former, more popular and commercially successful musical-turned-movie.
While most Jesus-inspired movies tend to expand the roles of some of the characters who appear in the Gospels to help with the overall flow of a full-length movie picture (ie. Mark in The King of Kings and the devil and Lazarus in The Greatest Story Ever Told) the whole premise of Jesus Christ Superstar is rooted in the broadly expanded and embellished role of two characters: Judas Iscariot and Mary Magdalene. Andrew Lloyd Webber, who composed the music said the basic questions underlying the musical are: “Did Judas Iscariot have God on his side? . . . How much was the whole thing in the end an accident or what was necessary given the politics of the day?” W. Barnes Tatum describes the film this way: “Indeed, the film projects not only the passion of Jesus but also the passions of Judas and Mary.” This directly parallels Ignatius’ imaginative prayer exercises of the 1500s.
Anytime a filmmaker has undertaken the task of creating a movie based on the life of Jesus, controversy always seems to be not far away. Perhaps as you’ve worked your way through this devotional guide, you’ve been made uncomfortable from time to time by some of the interpretations of Jesus. Admittedly, cultural mores and traditions vary greatly which can make interpretations of any Jesus story relative to a particular culture at any particular time. There is often a fine line between being creative and being sacrilegious when the subject matter is Jesus. (Remember, Jews refuse to even utter God’s name, for fear it would be taken in vain.) Jesus Christ Superstar was the product of a culture that was undergoing major revolutions in music, civil rights, and sexuality. The challenge of any artistic project involving Jesus Christ is the tendency to inject one’s own culture into the projected image of Jesus. It does beg the question: is there any other way to see Jesus?
An important perspective foundational to this entire Lenten project is the early 16th century spiritual practice originating from St. Ignatius of Loyola known as the Spiritual Exercises. The Exercises include a structured process that guides one through meditation, contemplation, application of the senses, and the examen (examination) of consciousness. While I would encourage you to read the full Spiritual Exercises sometime (plenty of information can be found by a simple search online), our concern here is for the type of prayer known as Ignatian contemplation.
Professors Robin Maas and Gabriel O’Donnell describe the prayer this way:
“In contemplation, as Ignatius understands it, the imagination is used as a source of prayerful understanding of the gospel message. The one praying enters into the scene, sees the images, smells the smells, hears the discussion or words spoken, and takes part in what is happening, either actively or passively, according to what is desired.”
Essentially, Ignatian contemplation is about creatively entering into the story, allowing ourselves to take an active (or a passive) role in the story, and allowing our senses to take in everything our imagination can as it is guided by the text. David Fleming creatively describes what it looks like.
“We become onlooker-participants and give full rein to our imagination. Jesus is speaking to a blind man at the side of the road. We feel the hot Mediterranean sun beating down. We smell the dust kicked up by the passersby. We feel the itchy clothing we’re wearing, the sweat rolling down our brow, a rumble of hunger. We see the desperation in the blind man’s face and hear the wail of hope in his words. We note the irritation of the disciples. Above all we watch Jesus—the way he walks, his gestures, the look in his eyes, the expression on his face. We hear him speak the words that are recorded in the Gospel. We go on to imagine other words he might have spoken and other deeds he might have done.”
Fleming goes on to say, “Imaginative prayer makes the Jesus of the Gospels our Jesus. It helps us develop a unique and personal relationship with him.” That is essentially the task before us this Lenten season. We want to know Jesus. We want to know him ourselves. This guide through the movie Jesus Christ Superstar does exactly what the Ignatian contemplative prayer has encouraged for the last five hundred years: put yourself in Judas’ shoes. Consider the story from Judas’ perspective. What if you were in the story as Judas?
Of course, these movies aren’t the Gospels, but we never have the perfect, complete picture of any biblical story as we read them. We do our best to imagine what it was like and use that experience to help inform and shape our faith. Ultimately, we want to find ourselves among the Samaritans who proclaimed in the shadow of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well, “Now we believe, not just because of what you told us, but because we have heard him ourselves. Now we know that he is indeed the Savior of the world” (John 4:42 NLT).
Clip: 5:00 – 9:50 “Heaven on their Minds”
Jesus Christ Superstar begins with the upbeat song “Heaven on their Minds” sung by Judas. We immediately are drawn into Judas’ world of doubt and skepticism. What must his journey from trust to doubt been like? How gradual was it? How deep was it? These are the kinds of questions that the entire musical explores. The lyrics say he can see “where we will all be if you strip away the myth from the man,” and he is worried that Jesus has “started to believe the things they say of you; you really do believe this talk of God is true.” Judas is playing out the very decision that is before each of us.
C.S. Lewis’ famous reasoned argument is relevant here. In Mere Christianity, he sees the following as options for understanding Jesus.
“’I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things that Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman, or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open for us. He did not intend to.”
It’s a decision that we all face, really, every day. Will we live each day as if Jesus really is the One he said he was? Sure, it’s easy for us who have been Christians for the better part of our lives to give mental assent to the fact that Jesus is Lord and that he wasn’t crazy or a conman, but in our honest moments we have to fess up to the fact that we spend a good part of our lives living as though Jesus wasn’t actually who he said he was. If he was, and if we professed him as Lord, surely our daily practices need some improving.
And just when we think that we’ve got a good handle on our faith and a good understanding that we are who God wants us to be, we read Paul’s desire to “take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5 NIV). We fall so short. For too much of our lives we live as though Jesus was just a good moral teacher and a good inspiration. If that’s as far as we get with Jesus, inevitably we will be singing this song with Judas. Spend time right now confessing your sins to Jesus. If this isn’t already a regular practice, it is an important part of our relationship with Him. For us to move forward and grow in our faith, we must regularly acknowledge our struggles and shortcomings – and much of our hesitancy to do so comes from not trusting that Jesus is who he says he was.
 Quoted in W. Barnes Tatum, Jesus at the Movies, 3rd ed. (Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2013), 126.
 Ibid., 132.
 Robin Maas and Gabriel O’Donnell, Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), 175.
 David L. Fleming, What is Ignatian Spirituality? (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2008), 57.
 Ibid., 58.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 11th printing, 1979, (New York: McMillan, 1943), 56.