Non-Catholic Catholicism: Jesus Christ Superstar

Jesus Christ Superstar I am not Catholic. So on the occasion that my fiance sees me pop Jesus Christ Superstar into the DVD player, he is always skeptical and mildly horrified. Because despite the fact that I am very much not Catholic, I still adore this seventies rock opera. I’ve seen it performed live twice during the nineties revival, both times starring the little man with the big voice—Ted Neely—the same actor who played Jesus in the film.

And actually, I’m not alone. A lot of non-Catholics, agnostics and downright atheists are fans of Jesus Christ Superstar too. The film came out 1973, two years after the first broadway staging of the Andrew Lloyd Webber / Tim Rice musical. Jesus Christ Superstar appeared on the heels of the sixties, an era when creative people began exploring religious themes within a more progressive artistic structure. Joan Baez—liberal even by today’s standards—was chaste but un-creepily-so when she sang “Virgin Mary (Had One Son)” in the early sixties. And many people of varying faiths or no faith at all agree that Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is one of the most beautiful songs in recent music history. Cohen himself is Jewish and now practices Buddhist meditation, but oh-so-sensually sang “Jesus was a sailor&mdash:when he walked upon the water” in the song “Suzanne” in 1967. Of course, not all marriages of religion and hippie or post-hippie ethics were so smooth. There was a degree of creativeness and subtlety necessary to make it palatable, and a definite line that could be crossed. Bob Dylan’s born-again gospel period in the late seventies—wherein his religious performances were prefaced by hours-long, evangelical sermons about Christianity—was off-putting to many.

Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene and Ted Neely as Jesus

Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene and Ted Neely as Jesus

Jesus Christ Superstar is more of a hippie musical than a religious one. In the rock opera, Jesus is a pretty nice guy—if a bit insufferably yet delightfully martyrous—who is all about the rights of poor people, and who hangs out with a prostitute. Jesus and his followers versus the Romans almost parallels liberal radicals versus the establishment; versus “the man.” It’s a Jesus through a 1970s lens, minus the rhetoric. Additionally, Catholicism in the seventies was not as value-specific as it is today. People were beginning to try and find ways to integrate their old faith or religious upbringings with newer, more progressive ideals. Even though strict fundamentalism still widely existed, the religion itself had a large variety of faces across the board, and was less politically-synonymous with so many of the issues that cause people to turn away from it today. Over time, the tweaking of Catholic mores to try and accommodate liberal ideals has become less and less realistic, particularly from a political perspective. It’s normal to feel reticent about giving up the religion in which you were raised, but when you have to move so far from a doctrine’s core manifesto to make it fit with your current values, perhaps it may be helpful to examine why you are clinging to a religion that you no longer agree with on a fundamental level. Is it so important to claim one creed or another when sifting it through so many different sieves renders calling yourself by that faith more of a name-only technicality, rather than a realistic representation of what the religion is?

The Webber/Rice telling of Jesus’ life is smartly noncommital (much like their Jesus), so that it can be enjoyed as both a secular and religious story, by non-Christians and Christians alike.
The Post-Punk Cinema Club

Carl Anderson as Judas Iscariot

Carl Anderson as Judas Iscariot

Jesus Christ Superstar effectively straddles this very delicate tightrope, and does so by leaving out all the faith-based “miracle” stories attributed to Jesus in the New Testament. There is no walking upon water in Jesus Christ Superstar, no loaves and fishes, and in the scene where Jesus is rushed upon by the lepers, there is no actual healing shown. All the things that Jesus does in the rock opera—like trashing the Temple—are things that could be done by an actual human man. There is very little mention of sin, original or otherwise, and the “Superstar” song that could’ve possibly been about the resurrection—but is thematically included more as the inception of Christian faith—appears before the crucifixion, not after. We never see Jesus again after he is crucified, and “Superstar” is sung by a post-death Judas (marvelously realized by Carl Anderson in the film) who had hung himself in the previous act, and who I don’t think appeared anywhere in scripture after his death.

The Last Supper


The narrative behind Jesus Christ Superstar is well-researched, with some interesting ideas on the stories told in the bible, and thoughtful spins on peripheral characters’ potential motivations—like King Herod’s initial admiration and jealousy of Jesus’ renown (“King Herod’s Song” was one of my favorites as a teenager), Pontius Pilate’s weak snobbishness and ineffectual attempt at steering the madding crowd away from targeting Jesus for crucifixion, and of course a lot of introspection and rationalization by the character of Judas as he carries out his betrayal. Historically, and religious significance aside, there is debate about whether Jesus was a real person who actually lived. And Jesus Christ Superstar remains watchable regardless of one’s stance on that front: The way the story is presented coincides with passages that appear in the Bible, but can also be taken in the same way one might watch the retelling of any story about a Greek god, or a “tall tale” like that of Paul Bunyan. In this way, Jesus Christ Superstar sets itself distinctly and absolutely apart from Christian-driven entertainment that has a clear, conversionist agenda. There is none of that here and no agenda at all—except to portray Jesus and the apostles as really, really hot.

7 Responses to “Non-Catholic Catholicism: Jesus Christ Superstar
  1. Jason McCaffrey says:

    I have a similar secular love for JCS. I just saw the theatrical production a year or two ago starring who? You guessed it, Ted Neeley. I have to admit that while it was cool seeing the original Jesus, it was a little weird having a dude who is pushing 70 playing a man who didn’t live that far into his 30s. Also, it made me wonder what a conversation with Ted Neeley would be like. Playing Jesus and being known as “that Jesus guy” for more than half of one’s life has to do something weird to one’s psyche, right?

  2. Jenny says:

    I grew up in the south and saw the traveling show sometime in the seventies. We had protesters in front of the auditorum saying we would all burn in hell for seeing such a hateful view of Jesus. The south hasn’t changed much but neither have I. I enjoyed reading your article

  3. Jenny says:

    Sometime in the mid to late 70’s the tour version came to Birmingham, Alabama which is where I lived. The night I took my younger sister and brother to see the play we had to walk through protesters that felt the musical was a slap in the face to Jesus. It is interesting how something that people protest later becomes something they swear they embraced,just to mention another President John Kennedy. People in the south seemed to love or hate him no middle of the road. I am sure in another thirty years people will wonder why they ever disliked President OBama.

    I always look forward to reading your articles, I get to actually think for a little bit

  4. Johnny Bergman says:

    Is it possible to get permission to publish the photo “the-crucifixion.jpg”? Who owns the copyright?

    • rosemaryvandeuren says:

      The Idler does not own the photos in this piece. You would need to contact the people who are in charge of the Jesus Christ Superstar film copyright.
      Thanks for reading!

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