I was holding my breath Easter Sunday evening as the live performance of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar took the stage. Truth be told, I was prepared to be disappointed, fearful that this most recent adaptation of what, for my life, is a true classic in the telling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, would fall short of the 1973 film version and the Broadway production which preceded it.
I need not have worried. The multicultural cast was stunning in the energy and talent they displayed. Jesus was black, beautiful and soulful. Mary Magdalene was self-assured and provocative. The disciples included punkers and women, a depiction that I believe is probably more consistent with history than the all-male telling of the gospels. The multicultural Sanhedrin had flashy robes and incredible voices. And, as expected, Judas stole the show. More than any previous Judas, he was spectacular.
Watching the show took me back to my first encounters with the musical. My Jewish friend from my days at the National Science Foundation’s summer institute at Virginia Tech had first exposed me to the London version. After listening to the album together, she asked me, “Is this what you believe?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer then, and only slightly more capable of answering now. Beliefs have never been the focus of my spiritual life then or now. I just knew what I didn’t believe.
That would crystallize for me at an event in community college. I had gone with a friend to an outdoor Jesus festival at the bandshell in nearby Eustis. A local pastor had promised to speak about Superstar. I had just seen the film and I thought perhaps he could shed some light on the vibrant, enigmatic figure in the film who had emerged from the tepid constructions of “Jeeeeezus” whose last name was Christ and who had been reduced to the silver bullet for original sin that I had encountered most of my life and found wanting.
Such was not to occur that night. The pastor began by calling the film blasphemous. I wasn’t even sure what that meant, it just sounded nasty the way the Southern drawling preacher spit those words into the microphone. But it was what he said about Jesus that made me realize that this figure he described was a force to be reckoned with.
“My Jesus never screamed like a little girl. My Jesus was not effeminate. My Jesus was strong, masculine. My Jesus was the king of kings, lord of lords, not some whiny wimp.”
I was stunned. Indeed, 45 years later, I still remember his exact words. The unabashed projection of redneck machismo onto Jesus seemed so transparent that surely anyone could see it. This was well beyond the muscular Jesus so beloved by far too many male clerics insecure about their own masculinity given their profession. This Jesus sounded more like a trash talking professional wrestler than a first century Jewish peasant.
He wasn’t just angry and hostile. He was barely human.
As the pastor railed from the stage about a Jesus he found so objectionable, his vitriol punctuated by the blinking Christmas lights surrounding the bandshell, I realized that his condemnations really weren’t about Jesus.
Truth be told, some of that description applied to me, a college sophomore terrified that his dirty little secret might accidentally leak out. But I was even more terrified that should the Jesus the redneck reverend was describing be even remotely close to the actual king of kings and lord of lords, I could be assured that he could never ever love me, a man who kept four dreaded words buried deep in his soul: “I think I’m gay.”
It was a very long evening. But before the night was over, I realized that this man of the cloth - whom I prefer to believe had good intentions - had clearly elevated his own prejudices to the status of revealed truth. Ironically, in the process, he had unknowingly offered me the very key to understanding not only the film in question but to the means to make sense of its central figure, Jesus.
The pastor had begun each sentence with “My Jesus….” At some point in that diatribe a blinding light erupted in my head. Long before I would learn what words like “social construction” and “hermeneutics” actually meant, in that instant I realized that what I was hearing from this man was simply his take on this subject driven largely by the perceived needs he had brought to the process of understanding it. His use of the word "My" indicated ownership. And while the actual Jesus didn't belong to this man, his own construction of Jesus did.
As I would teach my students in later years, if something can be socially constructed in a given manner, it can always be deconstructed and constructed in a different manner as well. As of that night, my own deconstruction project was off and running.
It dawned upon me that what appealed to me about this Jesus was precisely what terrified this man. He was human. He felt pain and anger. He grew frustrated with stupidity (Let those with ears hear!) even as he demonstrated the patience of Job for those who suffered. He spoke truth to power clearly aware of the consequences he would pay. Yet even as he resolutely strode toward his fate, he demonstrated the fears and questions that any authentic human being seeking to live into such a calling would experience.
This was a Jesus I could relate to. This was a Jesus I could empathize with. This was a Jesus I could love. More importantly, this was a Jesus whose Way I would be willing to follow.
A Torrent of Celluloid Jesuses
Superstar proved the first crack in the dam through which a torrent of popular films would pour, all seeking to examine who this Jesus of Nazareth actually was. Within months of Superstar’s release, Godspell would move from Broadway to a made-for-television movie. Despite the meager quality of production, the lyrical music of this play combined with the simplistic but loveable characters of New York’s hippie population gave many fellow hippies like me a Jesus we could actually love.
This was a Jesus who emphasized love of neighbor, the importance of not judging others, a Jesus who invited the viewer to move from the surface to the interior to understand the Gospels. And despite its occasional sappy numbers and silly affect, it was effective at breaking through the shell of a cold, brittle religion which was obsessed with sin – and thus with control – to touch the heart and the soul, the place where G-d resided and where one was thereby connected to all of Creation.
Godspell was an unabashed love-in: Jesus meets Hair. For someone who was slowly falling in love with the Jesus he was finally discovering under all the suffocating theological constructions of so many centuries, it was a tonic for a bruised soul. When you’ve been told most of your life that G-d couldn’t possibly love you unless you repent from your very being, being able to sing Richard of Chichester’s prayer to see Jesus more clearly, love him more dearly and follow him more nearly held out hope that even I, too, could be loved by G-d and follow Jesus.
Gods Who Scare Little Old Ladies in Wheelchairs
There would be other celluloid Jesuses along the way to feed my passion for discovering more about this figure whose Kingdom of G-d I struggled to discern even as I regularly prayed for it to “come on earth as in heaven.”
In 1988 Nikos Kazantzakis’ provocative Last Temptation of Christ was brought to the big screen. Last Temptation employed a “What if…?” approach to the life of Jesus. That included his possible decision to avoid the cross for the comforts of ordinary family life. That possibility hardly shook my attraction to Jesus. If anything it deepened it. But it was a demanding film requiring nearly three hours of willingness to suspend judgment (as well as knowledge of how the story actually comes out in the gospels) to engage this film.
Clearly there were many unwilling to do so. My sister and her friend and I attended the showing of the film in Ocala that winter. It was a cold, drizzling day. A group of protesters stood out front of the theater holding signs whose majik marker words had long since begun to run down now soggy poster board.
One of the protesters was an elderly woman in a wheelchair. “Heaven is a wonderful place,” she said. Against my better judgment, I replied “Yes, I know.” “And e-e-e-everybody can go there,” she continued. “Yes, I know.” Then the kicker: “But you can’t go there if you go see that movie,” at which point I temporarily lost my mind and responded “And that is unadulterated horse shit,” my sister now pinching my arm and muttering under her breath “Let’s go before you get us arrested….”
In retrospect, I regret my lack of consideration for this woman. I can hear my Mother’s voice whispering in my ears even now as I write about this (Now, Son, don’t be ugly!).
What struck me about the woman’s comments was how brittle her construct of Jesus was much like that of the Baptist pastor so many years before. But, more than that, it was the fear in the woman’s voice that troubled me.
Here was a woman at the end of her life, incapacitated, feeling compelled to go picket a movie in the rain. What was implicit in her actions was an all-or-nothing approach to faith that posited that if her understandings were right, everyone else’s had to be wrong. And at this point in her life and the level of existential investment she had in that understanding this near the Pearly Gates, she had much to fear should she prove wrong on that.
But what kind of god feels the need to scare little old ladies in wheelchairs to death?
What kind of god drives otherwise reasonable men of average intelligence and educational attainment like the pastor to engage in frothy public displays of rage?
It was then that I began wrestling with a notion that continues to feature heavily in my thinking today:
These constructions do not portray a god worth worshiping or a way worth following.
Mentally Ill Messiahs and Theological Snuff Films
The Jesus of Last Temptation would be followed by a Jesus of Montreal which sought to place Jesus in the 20th CE North American context. It was a very fine though disturbing film in which Jesus appears to become mentally unstable. This raised troubling questions for me:
· Do we not presume that persons like Jesus who run around on our streets and subway systems talking about G-d, proclaiming that the homeless poor are blessed, are mentally ill?
· Don’t we slap them in facilities as quickly as possible to fill them full of chemicals to make them “sane” again?
· Do we not dismiss such persons as deluded zealots and ignore them so long as they stay out of our way?
· Could we ever take such persons seriously? Should we?
In 2004 the guardians of muscular Christianity would stage a cinematographic counteroffensive in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. A theological snuff film emerging from the dark recesses of the troubled mind of Mel Gibson known for bloody, macho filmmaking, this was Jesus in the Thunderdome. Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan would comment: “The question is not whether scourging and crucifixion were savage (of course!) or whether Jesus suffered terribly (of course!) but whether this film's unrelenting sadism is pornographic.”
Thinking I must see it to have an informed opinion to offer my students, it is the only film in my life from which I have felt the need to run from the theater to vomit.
Not only was the empire of atonement theology striking back, Gibson’s obsession with the suffering of Jesus was calculated. The point of this portrayal was clearly to induce the maximum level of guilt in every viewer deemed to have caused such suffering – Jesus was tortured because of MY sin (emphasis on MY).
Conversely, the film was designed was to evoke feelings of relief in the members of the tribe who presumed that they would be spared such suffering because they had gotten the theological formula right: *I* am blessed because Jesus has saved me from my sin! Along with this relief came a largely unrecognized but presumed right to look with condescending pity toward all those outside the tribe presumed to be headed for hell.
I sat with my feelings about The Passion for a long time after finally escaping the darkness – both actual and spiritual - of that showing. What had disturbed me so deeply? To paraphrase Superstar’s doomed Judas speaking to Annas and Caiphas, I found myself saying “It’s a film, it’s just a film.”
But I was not the same young man who had stood quaking in fear at the bandshell in Eustis so many years before as a bombastic Baptist ran out all his insecurities about his masculinity in critiquing the Jesus portrayed in Superstar. That night I had been teetering on the edge of simply walking away from a Christianity that seemed to have little room for people like me. But Superstar and Godspell had lit a fire in my soul. While I found very little to appreciate in the theologies which constructed a Christ who only dimly resembled the Jesus of history, who saved us from a tyrannical punitive deity, the figure of Jesus had become inordinately important to me.
Who was this man who ate with prostitutes and tax collectors, who wept openly at the death of a friend, who confronted the injustices of the Roman Empire which crushed his people and called out the Temple vassals who collaborated with them? How does a poorly educated carpenter’s kid come up with parables that induce such cognitive dissonance, drawing our understanding of reality into such question? What kind of man demonstrates compassion as the predominate way of relating to a suffering world, focusing on those at the bottom of the social pyramid most in need of hearing their humanity affirmed, in the context of a soul crushing empire?
Finding Jesus in Unpredicted Places
My search for answers to these questions would lead me in the late 1980s to two years of diaconal training in the diocesan Institute for Christian Studies before realizing I could never trust those leading the diocese to actually ever serve under them. Yet, my soul was restless and I began to suspect that I might actually be called to priesthood. Within three years I had closed my law practice, left my home, my family and five generations of roots in Florida and moved to Berkeley to begin seminary there. By a miracle I connected with a parish in San Jose who agreed to sponsor me for ordination and a bishop who agreed to ordain me.
Once there I would spend hours in the Graduate Theological Library where I did my work study reading everything I could get my hands on about Jesus. I would discover the world of Jungian depth psychology and how the Jesus story was a gold mine of symbols and life-saving archetypes. I would spend weeks of my life in Central America at the end of Reagan’s Contra Wars observing first hand what little ones crushed by empire looked like. The gospels seemed so alive there.
In graduate school I would discover Jesus in the developmental schema of ethicists from Lawrence Kohlberg to M. Scott Peck to James Fowler whose systems spoke of authentic, autonomous figures whose name we remember often because they were martyred. Fowler spoke of the universalizing compassion figure who, ‘[h]eedless of the threats to self, to primary groups, and to the institutional arrangements of the present order that are involved… become a disciplined, activist incarnation -- a making real and tangible -- of the imperatives of absolute love and justice.”
Yep. That sounded like the Jesus I’d been seeking all my life.
Before it was over, I would connect with the Westar Institute whose scholars of the Jesus Seminar were trying to ferret out the actual Jesus from the voices of the developing Christian church of the next three centuries before anything remotely resembling a New Testament would be assembled. There I learned two important lessons.
The first was that the Jesus I sought to follow was concerned with a way of being human called the Kingdom of G-d, a way which reversed the wisdom of his – and our own – patriarchal world, focusing on its weakest, suffering members. The second lesson was at least as important. Convener Bob Funk repeatedly reminded the Seminar scholars and attendees at their annual meetings: Beware of a Jesus you find too agreeable. Funk knew only too well that the same tendency to construct Jesus in our own image that afflicts Baptists in bandshells and fearful elderly women in wheelchairs outside movie houses also affects those who would seek to know the “actual” Jesus in our own ways.
I have amassed a library of several thousand books (most of them at least partly read) in my search for this Jesus who sprang from my television set last week. On my walls are diplomas from seminary and grad school, ordination certificates and the sacred folk art I’ve collected across Central America from liberation theology spawned collectives. My computer files are full of papers, sermons and commentaries on various online sites about this figure over whom I have obsessed now nearly 50 years.
I cringed as I saw the very troubling images Easter night of a black Jesus being whipped by an empire who saw his people as the raw materials for exploitative production - much as my own countrymen and women have historically seen persons who shared the racial heritage of the star of this show. But I also found myself feeling something new: gratitude.
Like Judas, I still don’t know how to love him. Indeed, I’m still not sure who he was or what he was really about. And, like Bob Funk, I am cautious about any presumptions I’d make about either question.
But I am grateful for avant-garde artists, writers, musicians, lyricists, choreographers, playwrights and film producers who bring to life imaginings of a Jesus not defined by stifling theologies based in guilt and fear. I am grateful for the Jesus marked by complexity, humanity and compassion that they have allowed me to see. And I am only too aware that my life long search for Jesus - to know him more clearly, love him more dearly and follow him more nearly – began 50 years ago with a superstar, a hippie and an angry Baptist pastor.
That search continues today. Deo gratias.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston 2018