My son’s school does an annual spring musical, as mine did years and years ago. He has the theater bug bad, and even though he is not in the show he bought the CD (or did he download the itunes? I forget) and has learned all the songs by heart. The musical, quite apropos of his catholic high school, is Jesus Christ Superstar.
Talk about memories. I remember when I first heard this, thanks to my friend Andy. It was late high school, maybe my senior year. Andy was almost a year older than me, far wiser and way more cool. He had a moustache! And he wanted me to hear this daring and heretical album. It was just a record at first, not a show.
I was floored by the whole thing – earthy, human, funny, and more than a little caustic in its commentary on conventional ideas about Jesus and company. It was a little over the top here and there, but overall I thought it was a daring remix of the Passion Week.
Now I am hearing it all again as the music blares from my son’s room. I had forgotten how clever it was that the apostles got tipsy and sang "Always thought that I’d be an apostle. Knew that I would make it I try.” King Herod’s mocking song is still a hoot, right up there with Country Joe and the Fish singing “And it’s one two three what are we fighting for…”
Then I had a chilling thought. And as I pondered it, the awful truth became even more apparent. Andrew Lloyd Webber is an evangelist. He may not think so, or even intended to be so, but he turned on a few of us hippie types and counter culture kids to JC as a fellow traveler. He made Jesus kind of cool, hip, current.
And not just him. In a few years, maybe seeing the commercial potential of remixing Jesus, we also got Gospell and Cat Stevens' “Morning has Broken,” and Judy Collins resurrecting “Amazing Grace” with that now mandatory bagpipe skirl.
You forgot about that, I’ll bet. That Amazing Grace was a song associated with southern backwaters and backward towns with Waltons and all. But now everyone sings it, and every funeral has a bagpiper playing it as though the Queen herself made it a law. You forgot that until Cat Stevens created that cool piano riff you had never heard of “Morning Has Broken,” and that when you sang it in church it is his version you’re hearing in your head not the choir or the organ in your church.
Until Superstar and Godspell came along Jesus was a postcard image hopelessly wrapped in lace and lavender, as interesting as your grandmother’s dresser drawers. Then the laughing, wisecracking, long haired guy with veiled political meanings and eyes that looked, well, a little bloodshot if you know what I mean, walked in and Jesus was now one of us.
I remember the Jesus Freaks of the 1960s and beyond. Can’t say if they are still around in the original form, but I am sure the new improved Jesus, the hippie Jesus, helped more than a few of my generation toward the evangelical and fundamental Christianity of today. That’s really gotta bother Cat Stevens who is now Yusef Ibrahim and rather hostile to the Christian mindset. I also doubt that the other artists back really imagined that making Jesus cool would be helping Pat Robertson and Jimmy Swaggart and all those folks do so well.
Think about it. Making Jesus into a rock star, making Christian hymns into pop songs, changed the way we were thinking about religion back then. It was a protest against both ossified faith and ossified doubt. Those were good things, but the law of unintended consequences applies universally. Once you make something cool, it becomes OK. I just hope Prince or Kanye West isn’t doing covers of the Horst Wessel Song or the Internationale.