Authors' Note: This article written in 1971 remains as relevant today. It reveals much concerning the deplorable catechetical approaches to youth that became popular and obsessive among all too many religion teachers in Catholic schools and CCD classes. The result was the loss of two generations of Catholic youth to the Church. A survey of the present catechetical scene indicates that the same serious catechetical weaknesses continue to exist, especially as "The Catechism of the Catholic Church" remains ignored or given mere lip-service. It is time that Catholic educators realize the grave harm they have done over many years in their substituting "Jesus Christ, Superstar" and "Godspell" and "Joshua" for the Christ of Catholicism. (7/21/2001)
The controversy over the 87 minutes rock-opera "Jesus Christ, Superstar" continues unabated. During last Holy Week, St. Louis' John Joseph Cardinal Carberry termed the rock-opera "distressing" and "Theologically they (the authors - Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice) place Our Blessed Lord in a purely humanistic role."
Fr. Joseph M. O'Brien, however, vigorously defended the Archdiocese of St. Louis' Radio and Television Office's judgment that the rock-opera was "not blasphemous" and was even "uplifting," quoting a Scripture scholar at the diocesan seminary who lauded the work as "a spiritual experience."
The Episcopal Bishop of the Western New York Episcopal Diocese included excerpts from the rock-opera during his Cathedral's "Three-Hour Good Friday Service." Episcopalian columnist Rev. Lester Kinsolving, noted advocate of liberalized abortion reform, took full advantage of "Jesus Christ Superstar" "being played on Vatican Radio - just as it was being played in churches throughout the United States." This was adequate proof to Rev. Kinsolving that:
"It is not irreverent. It is immensely moving... eloquently serious... thoroughly sincere and respectful... a legitimate effort."
Hi-Time, the widely used weekly religious text (prepared in the spirit of the decrees and documents of Vatican II) for Catholic high-school students, and which plays a large role in disseminating the errors of heterodox "New Theology" among our youth, gave Jesus Christ, Superstar its fervent blessing after candidly quoting composer Webber's statement:
"We're not trying to pull people's beliefs away, but I, personally, don't think that Jesus is God. We tried to put over what we think might have happened. Pilate tries to keep it cooler for the bosses in Rome, for instance. And I think that Christ as a liberal reformer was a huge success. Slowly the thing got out of control. People began to worship Christ and not the cause."
(Hi-Time-Awake, 3/12/71; p. 7)
Hi-Time which serves to alienate youth not only from their parents but also even more seriously from Holy Mother Church, praises this production for its:
- "many new insights and concepts (which) are straight from the Gospels. To see them put in modern words with a rock setting is exciting." And again,
- "Criticism (of the rock-opera) appears to be more an emotional reaction than an educated criticism.... The music will be hard to criticize."
Hi-Time may be said to be indeed wrong on both counts. There IS serious distortion of Gospel truth in the rock-opera (High-Time soothingly assures its youthful readers: "If the listener knows the difference - between the idea of faith and belief - he can overlook any straying away from the Divinity of Christ"). And then, there are many who would hasten to testify that the music often sounds like howls from Hell!
SUPERSTAR's curious phenomenon of enthusiasm and acclaim by certain religionists for Jesus Christ, Superstar "one of the hottest albums on the market", with sell-out audiences for its concert performances, and preparations already being made to present it on the stage and as a motion picture, merits close examination. This would surely be of great interest to those concerned with the spiritual state of American culture in general as well as those seeking to understand the strange adulation afforded Jesus Christ, Superstar by admiring Catholic priests, teaching Religious and lay catechists.
Such enthusiastic promoters of the rock-opera maintain it has significant value because it arouses the interest, of today's youth in Christ and poses good questions concerning the credibility of Christ's claims in a manner appropriate to their critical and inquiring minds. These "modern minds", we are told, are rightly disdainful of the blind-faith type of religion (allegedly) promoted by the pre-Vatican II' Church. They are immune to indoctrination, denigrate obsolete anathemas, and resent the dogmatic, authoritarian , Old Church's attempt to repress their intellectual freedom with unreasonable demands for unquestioning assent.
Jesus Christ, Superstar on the other hand, speaks in exactly the language and idiom that is "meaningful" to our modern youth. The latter relish its fervid rhythms as a symbol of the intense honesty with which they approach religious studies and, therefore, they chide critics of the rock-opera as being less open, honest, and intelligent than themselves. Modern youth want to establish their own identity and distinguish themselves from their elders, we are told (note that youth are similarly so informed), and Jesus Christ, Superstar is justified as an ideal artistic medium heralding man's right to "do his own thing." While modern youth are not supposed to follow the ways of their elders, the latter are invited to sit at the feet of their young tutors to parrot the expected praises of that generation-gap Bridger Jesus Christ, Superstar, and, thereby, conclusively prove they, too, can be "with it."
Moreover, the modern tendency of secular scholarship to 'demythologize' the religious beliefs of the past, harmonizes perfectly with youth's insistence to "tell it like it is." Old religious thought-forms simply don't square with the world as modern youth have been taught to view it. The old truths aren't relevant to them, so the persistent questioning in the rock-opera (e.g., the antihero Judas' repeated refrain: "Don't you get me wrong - I only want to know") is something healthy and reflective of the dominant attitude of youth toward the learning process. How appropriate, then, Jesus Christ, Superstar is to our age; how suitable, therefore, it is as a good teaching tool for our modern teachers and catechists who are ever ready to embrace the latest Liberal theories of education! Don't you get them wrong - they, too, "only want to know?" Jesus Christ, Superstar's all for the good. It must be good; it has all the kids talking about Jesus Christ. Right?
Undeniably, the rock-opera has raised questions concerning Christ in the minds of young and old alike. Inasmuch as it may cause a degree of genuine interest in Christ, it could have a positive value. But, what precise sort of interest in Christ does Jesus Christ, Superstar itself represent? What sort of an image of Christ does it give? Is this rock-opera a proper medium through which a critical enquirer can make an honest investigation of the claims of Christ and really come to know Him better? Will its devotees (as one priest so pontificated on a recent TV panel show) really be able "to relate to Him better now" that the rock-opera has revealed Christ to be "more fully human" than the old-fashioned "Second Person-of-the Blessed Trinity-bit" could do? Furthermore, what is the potential outcome of Jesus Christ, Superstar's use in the hands of those modern questioners so disdainful of orthodox Christian teaching and the Magisterium of the Church?
An Attack On The Faith
Those Catholics who have retained an ecclesial sense (the "sensum fidelium") instinctively have realized that something is wrong with Jesus Christ, Superstar; they have been repelled by the rock-opera whose faults have literally shrieked at them. Such repugnance is founded on reasons which are much more solid than an alleged irrational reaction to something new, or purblind hysterical resistance to the utilization of a novel musical form to depict the Passion of Christ.
It would take too long to go into a discussion of whether a rock-style of music is appropriate or even possible for a sacred theme. Let it suffice to say that music also speaks a language and creates an atmosphere. Here, obviously to us, the atmosphere given is at antipodes with the world of the sacred. Can music utter blasphemy? It can. However, here the profanity is at times quite effective; for instance, in giving the atmosphere of the money-changers in the Temple, the crowds of earthy humanity, the mockers' laugh at the Crucifixion which turns into a cackle of geese, the psychedelic experiences of physical and mental pain at the Crucifixion. The psychology of non-faith in Judas is most cleverly depicted. The opera does effectively use techniques to overwhelm with an impression, though at bottom it is trashy. However, we will not argue that point here. It is a matter of artistic intuition and taste.
The true scandal of "Jesus Christ, Superstar" (and the main reason why it is offensive to the believing Catholic) lies in its blatant undermining of the motives of credibility for belief in the Divinity of Jesus Christ. It thus becomes an attack on the Faith itself.
By reason of the virtue of faith, we believe with complete confidence and certitude whatever God has revealed to His Church - including the dogma of the Divinity of the Only-Begotten Son of God. Our faith is a gift of God, a supernatural gift that is completely gratuitous - the gracious gift of a God Who is Truth itself, is All-Knowing and Loving, and Who cannot deceive nor be deceived. This faith in Christ (and in His Church) is not blind, however; it is eminently rational in that there are ample evidences for the credibility of Christ's Divine mission. Not the least of these evidences is the working of true miracles which the First Vatican Council defined as "most certain signs of Divine revelation, and suitable to the intelligence of all" (Chapter III of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith). And again: "Anathema to him who says.... that by miracles the Divine origin of the Christian religion is not rightly proved" (Ibid. canon 4).
But Jesus Christ, Superstar flagrantly belittles both Christ and His believers. The latter are assaulted in their belief that their acts of faith and continued commitment of Christ are supportable by credible reasons, and their Lord is stripped of His Divinity. Jesus Christ, Superstar's portrayal of Our Lord is a caricature of the historical Christ of the New Testament. The "Superstar" of the rock-opera is unworthy of the faith and love and total surrender Christians have given Him Whom the Prince of the Apostles first acclaimed (by a Divine revelation from the Father) "the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:16).
Judas Has His Say
What the modern authors of Jesus Christ, Superstar have served up to tickle the avant-garde musical palates of spiritually adrift youth is a contemporary rendition of the Gospel according to Judas. From the very beginning of the rock-opera, it is chiefly through the eyes of Judas that one sees the life, works, and teaching of Christ. The testimony of Judas (a frustrated zealot who saw his political kingdom going down the drain) concerning Christ is, thereby, set in opposition to the testimony of the other Apostles which has come down to us in the canonical Gospels and which serve as major motives of credibility for the Christian's belief.
In the canonical Gospels even the enemies of Christ testify to the fact of Christ's miracle-working. True, these miracles do not lead Christ's Pharisaic critics to faith in Christ; they credit His miraculous powers to the Devil because Christ did not live up to their expectations of a Political Messiah. According to Jesus Christ, Superstar, however, Judas, an apostolic eyewitness and Christ's "right-hand man," clearly denies the historic reality of Christ's miraculous works:
"Strip away the myth from the man ... Jesus. You've started to believe the things they say of you.... He's a man - he's just a man."
If the apostolic testimony of Judas is true (and as confirmed by the passionate conviction ascribed to Mary Magdalene, "He's a man - he's just a man"), then the testimony of all the other Apostles can rightly be discounted; the latter falls to the ground as myth. Jesus Christ, Superstar's pronounced emphasis upon the testimony of Judas is, in effect, equivalent to an implicit philosophical statement that there is no rational reason for belief in Christ as the Divine Son of God. This is corroborated by the fact that everything "Christ" says and does in the rock-opera testifies to the accuracy of Judas' judgement which is, in reality, the verdict of the composers of Jesus Christ, Superstar who have reduced Christ to the level of a dissenting Liberal reformer run afoul of the Establishment.
The Christ of Jesus Christ, Superstar is a pathetic, shrieking, howling misfit, a weak, despairing, confused, self-centered and hysterical sort of witch-doctor, though really quite a boring one at that (we wonder why all the fuss is made over him). He is ignorant of his mission and destiny, and is also by the way going through an identity crisis:
- "if you (the Apostles) knew the path we're riding, you'd understand it less than I";
- "I must be mad thinking I'll be remembered - yes, I must be out of my head";
- "I have changed - I am not as sure as when we started, then I was inspired; now I'm sad and tired";
- "There may be a kingdom for me somewhere - if I only knew";
- "Who is my mother? Where's my mother?"
Weary and exasperated with his role as faith-healer, he shouts to the crowd to "heal yourselves." In fact, he basically despises the crowd. Before the queries of Caiphas and Pilate concerning his messianic dignity and divine claims, Christ-Superstar strikingly eschews any such prerogatives, lamely replying, "That's what you say." Having been earlier the object of romantic interest by a prostitute who feels real human love for the first time and doesn't know how to cope with it, "Superstar" here refused the attributes of the Divine Lover.
The elements of farcical Hollywood comedy are clearly in evidence. How prophetic the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Soeren Kierkegaard was when he wrote:
"When secular sensibleness has permeated the whole world, as it has now begun to do, then the only remaining conception of what it is to be Christian will be the portrayal of Christ, the disciples, and others as comic figures. They will be counterparts of Don Quixote...."
Jesus Christ, Superstar is thus a travesty of the ineffably holy Picture of Christ that the written Gospels and unwritten Apostolic Tradition transmitted by the teaching office of the Church have given us. It is an impious caricature. All holiness, all majesty are not only absent, but the very opposite is portrayed. It is blasphemy by definition. According to the dictionary, blasphemy is "evil or profane speaking of God or sacred things...."
Jesus Christ, Superstar is, in fact, no more theologically and historically sound than the apocryphal gospels that circulated in the early Church. It is interesting to realize that in the second century an apocryphal gospel - the "Gospel According to Judas Iscariot" - seduced a small number of dupes who formed an heretical sect - the Cainites - who quickly became extinct. The third-century Roman priest, Hyppolytus, in one of his writings makes a brief allusion to this weird Gnostic sect whose antinomian cultists venerated and admired all the reprobates of the Old and New Testaments. These - from Cain to Judas - and especially Judas, were regarded as the anti-heroes of that day, the hapless victims of the "cruel God of the Jews."
Jesus Christ, Superstar is contemporary apocrypha with a beat, written by twentieth-century myth-makers whose writings engage in similar blasphemy. It is a counterfeit, similar to all counterfeits in that it presupposes and reflects something true and real. A thing is recognized and judged to be counterfeit if it:
- distorts something,
- adds something which does not belong, or
- omits something which does belong.
The apocryphal Jesus Christ, Superstar is no exception. While it undeniably reflects many truths and events of the real Gospel message concerning Christ, such as the weakness of His followers, and the attacks of His critics, Jesus Christ, Superstar also makes much of that one moment of utter desolation Christ certainly experienced in a mysterious way on the Cross. In this rock-opera it is made the pervading theme of His Life.
Moreover, something is judged to be counterfeit if it lacks that which is supposed to give it value. A counterfeit dollar is worthless because it has nothing of value to support it. So too, an apocryphal or counterfeit gospel denying the Divinity of Christ lacks that which gives the authentic Gospels of Christ their value, i.e. the sanction of the Divinely guided and guaranteed Apostolic Magisterium (the Universal Episcopate in union with the Chair of Peter).
Jesus Christ, Superstar fails miserably in presenting the real historical Christ. It is not only a counterfeit, "it is a poor counterfeit". It is counterfeit because as with the Rationalists and Liberal Protestants of the past, the rock-opera attempts to separate Christ's Humanity from His Divinity. It presents Christ as a mere man - "just a man" - who at one point made fantastic claims and thought fantastic thoughts, a hapless religious utopian who was misunderstood by both his credulous, deluded followers and his scornful critics whose scorn is presented as justified, if not a little unkind. Such a person is not the product of science, but skepticism, prejudice, and over-heated imaginations. It is a poor counterfeit, moreover, because it presents not only an impious, but a truly grotesque caricature of Christ's Humanity. It is not far-fetched to consider the rock-opera as but the latest attempt (and probably the most ludicrous to date) of Rationalist critics to separate the Jesus of History from the Christ of Faith.
Messrs. Webber and Rice are engaged in essentially the same process that has occupied more scholarly Rationalists, i.e. conjuring up ways and means of picking out through "Form Study" and "Higher Criticism" some "sociologically meaningful" portrait of Christ's Humanity. Thus Jesus was transformed into being a pacifist, a capitalist, a Socialist, an anarchist, a Marxist, a Rotary Club Babbbit, a union sympathizer, a lover of democracy, a Maoist revolutionary, a utopian visionary, a madman, a genius, an eccentric, etc., etc., depending on the philosophical, cultural, and political predilections of the critics. Nowadays they call Him a "Superstar." And who is this shocking "Superstar"? Basically, the 19th-century apostate-priest Renan's ungodly Christ viewed through the distorted reflection of an Age of Aquarius Amusement Park mirror.
History According To Webber And Rice
Such a perverse Christology is not rooted in true history. Nor is it "new" or "modern" in terms of its philosophical or theological content. It is nothing more than the warmed-over theological hash of previous centuries of Rationalism served boiling hot - the musty errors of the Modernists jazzed up. An honest inquirer will scarcely come to know the God-Man better through the portrait of Him presented in the rock-opera, but he can gain appreciable insight into the mentality of both those who produced Jesus Christ, Superstar and those - young and old - who heatedly defend its "relevance."
The composers of Jesus Christ, Superstar have created a false, mythical Messiah according to their own image and likeness. It is not the real Christ who stands trial before Pilate; it is, rather some of today's realistic but confused, searching and questioning youth who stand before him in the court of an Establishment they heartily despise. For today's youth do not encounter the real Christ in the rock-opera; instead, some have the dubious pleasure of encountering themselves in the figure of "Superstar."
"Jesus had long hair, too" they rationalize with gusto. Unfortunately for them, this comforting analogy breaks down upon close scrutiny. "Superstar" never comes close to relating the reality of that awesome confrontation when Pilate asked the historic Christ his famous question, "What is truth?" and Truth stood before him, having already laid full claim to Divine dignity and authority.
And what of the priests, ministers, religious teachers and catechists who have loudly defended the theological validity of Jesus Christ, Superstar or its suitability as a catechetical instrument to stimulate youthful interest in Christianity? It is surely not to their credit that the blasphemy, irreverence, and not-so-subtle undermining of Christianity's motives of credibility contained in the rock-opera have been disregarded in favor of wishful thinking and a pathetic eagerness to reach the young. Their composure undisturbed by blasphemy, they become upset at the suggestion that the rock-opera is not suitable material for the critical, inquiring minds of modern youth or that it might well constitute a formidable obstacle to faith on the part of those who are not yet believing Christians.
It is apparent that the proper scope of the questioning method has been inflated beyond due measure. It is a marvel that the process of religious questioning, questioning, questioning for the sake of questioning is lauded by the same priests and Religious who denounce the study of Catholic apologetics (the systematic and scientific study of Christianity's credentials) as passé, pre-conciliar, [as] providing "packaged responses", a threat to ecumenism, and as "indoctrination".
"How could Christianity be an honest religion if it did not allow questions?" blurts Hi-Time at the conclusion of its favorable review of Jesus Christ, Superstar. The New Breed writer appears oblivious of the fact that Catholic apologetics has always made use of the technique of methodological questioning (it was part and parcel of the demanding scholastic method). The primary purpose of Catholic apologists, however, was to provide the right answers to the questions raised by critical minds.
A Christianity which cannot give answers to youths' most basic and fundamental queries deserves only their scorn and disdain. Hi-Time's writer is, moreover, surprisingly unaware that the questions raised and provoked by Jesus Christ Superstar are treated in a manner suited primarily for raising doubts about the credibility of Christ rather than serving as reasonable starting-points in the search for truth - for viable answers. The Catholic Church has always urged people to make an honest, factual and objective examination of the claims of Her Lord. In so doing, the Church follows the example of Jesus Christ, the first and foremost Catholic Apologist. Anyone expecting the real credentials of Christianity to get a fair deal in Jesus Christ, Superstar should be far more cognizant [that] he is playing with the stacked deck of an antagonistic skepticism that is deeply ingrained therein.
Classical Apologetics VS. Modern Inquiry
As has been noted, traditional Catholic apologists, though they too raise methodological questions, are far more intent upon providing answers based on objective and factual truths. And these truths are suitable to the understanding of any reasonable man - answers that are suitable for all. On the other hand, it is clear that many modern youthful questioners and their religious mentors often harbor a profound aversion to the concept of truth-binding-upon-all, especially dogmatic religious truth; their questioning is directed at seeking opinions which happen to complement their own preconceived and subjective fancies.
Such clerical promoters of Jesus Christ, Superstar are lacking in simple academic honesty and fidelity to Christ when they pretend the rock-opera is an adequate vehicle for the raising of proper questions. For they are precisely the ones who indulge in the cant that youth can only be reached by adopting their ruthless questioning of anything and everything, but vehemently cry, "We must not indoctrinate !" And so they conspicuously refuse or glaringly hesitate to give the answers sanctioned by Catholic Tradition and the Magisterium, or explain to youngsters the rational motives of credibility that classical Catholic apologetics has so laboriously hammered out over centuries of painstaking intellectual effort.
Ill-disposed toward Catholic apologetics for philosophic reasons (they have in the main succumbed to the vagaries of popular forms of relativism or some types of existentialism) or incapable of appreciating its necessity at a time when the questioning of the motives of Christian belief increases day by day, they expend their misguided zeal in desperately attempting to find a modern magical medium which will "tell it like it is." It is highly ironic they inflict upon the youthful audiences, with whom they identify, the fad of Jesus Christ, Superstar which "tells it like it wasn't"! And all this in the name of relevance.
Lutheran sociologist Peter Berger has exposed the intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy implied in such a procedure:
"Relevance is a very fragile business at best... Relevance and timeliness are defined for the society at large by the media of mass communication. These are inflicted with an incurable novelty. The relevancies they proclaim are, almost by definition, extremely vulnerable to changing fashions and thus are generally of short duration. As a result, the theologian (or, of course, any other intellectual) who seeks to be and remain "with it" in terms of mass-communicated and mass-communicable relevance, is predestined to find himself authoritatively put down as irrelevant very soon.
Those who consider themselves too sophisticated for mass culture take their cues on relevance and timeliness from an assortment of intellectual claques, which have their own communications system, characterized by fashions that are more intolerant but hardly more durable than those of the mass media. In this country the maharajas of the world of true sophistication are mainly individuals whose baptism in secularity has been by total immersion. The theologian who wants to take his cue from this source is unlikely even to be recognized short of abject capitulation to the realities taken for granted in these particular circles - realities that are hostile to the theological enterprise in any form"
(A Rumor Of Angels, Doubleday, 1961.)
The abandonment of the system of classical apologetics in seminaries and Religious institutes and its disappearance in much Catholic religious literature are doubtless responsible in part for the retreat from sound philosophy characterizing "New Breed" clerics and Religious. They, in turn, by embracing existentialist subjectivism, have powerfully contributed to the growing impression among their students that belief in Christ is the product of blind faith and beneath their dignity as men and women educated in the ways of modernity and freedom. It is particularly tragic to see the students of Catholic schools who have been dutifully taught to "search" and "discover" seeking after the irrationalists of our day: yogis, gurus, psychics, spiritualists and astrologists. Betrayed into the hands of the Gallop-pollsters, they become the ideological slaves of the most strident huckster pretending to embody the latest consensus.
It is not an accident that the loudest voice in "Jesus Christ, Superstar" should be that of - Judas!