Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh, Free for CAPC Members
In Vintage Saints and Sinners, Karen Wright Marsh manages to emphasize the vast goodness of spiritual giants while also humanizing them.
This Easter, 2018, millions of people witnessed a unique retelling of the true story of Jesus Christ—on live television. Jesus Christ Superstar Live! was broadcast as a live concert performance at the Marcy Armory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The impressive cast included Oscar-, Grammy-, and Tony-winner John Legend (Selma, Glory) as Jesus Christ; Grammy-nominee Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene; and the legendary rock artist Alice Cooper (School’s Out) as King Herod. The most impressive feature was Judas Iscariot, played by Tony-nominee Brandon Dixon.
Though versions of Jesus Christ Superstar have been around for decades, first as albums and later as Broadway musicals, the NBC live event was the first time many Americans may have been exposed to this production. But however much a musical spectacle the Jesus Christ Superstar Live! event was in its brilliant display of pageantry and performance, its most defining element was in its ability to capture the way our culture reflects the extent of its belief or acceptance of Jesus. Ours is a culture that remains willing to accept the reality of Jesus, but not in his entirety. It is a culture that desires, ergo demands, Jesus be a superstar that is willing to entertain our guilt and make us feel better about not being innocent. And in doing so, we remold a false image of the true and better Yeshua found in the Bible.Fortunately, Jesus Christ Superstar Live! was only a play—a surprisingly good play—and not reality.
The title of the play, Jesus Christ Superstar (JCS), is probably a good summary for how Christians and unbelievers often try presenting Jesus: a messianic celebrity. Christians sometimes try making Jesus a likable and acceptable person more than he already is to appease the unbelieving world. Unfortunately, we often do more damage trying to make Yeshua more culturally relevant than he already is. Even in our best attempts, we boil Jesus down to the equivalency of a multi-Oscar winning performer rather than a humble, offensive, and audacious servant-king. The world does not need another Oscar-worthy performer (they already have John Legend to do that). Our culture craves an auspicious reality, and fortunately Jesus is the embodiment, preeminence, and totality of all human reality.
Western culture’s fascination with Jesus’ story is best told in JCS Live’s seeming obsession with Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Christ. How much Judas is highlighted tells of how a culture might view itself in the true narrative of Christ. If the claims about Yeshua being who he claimed to be are, indeed, true, it is only fitting we feel the weight of guilt associated with betraying the Son of God. So Judas’s character is set up in such a way that we can all identify with, and almost feel sorry for, him. Instead of repentance, Judas looks to himself to rectify his undoable, but certainly forgivable, sin of betraying Christ. He first seeks to self-justify his duplicity through reasoning, but eventually finds a deceptive comfort in the self-reprimand of his suicide.
Unfortunately, we are part of a culture that thrives and dies on the ideas of self-acceptance, self-healing, self-medicating, and self-help. People get to these places through many different avenues, and for many, professional help is certainly in order. But as long as our eyes are fixed on our navels or on dirty mirrors, we’ll continue down a path of self-destruction. Judas’s problem—in the real Jesus narrative and the JCS Live one—was never his betrayal alone. Judas’s primary quandary was his inability and unwillingness to seek true forgiveness.
But the most reflective piece of the play is its ending. Among the amazing theatrics, spectacle of lights, relevancy, and amazing singing, it missed the whole reason one might even consider Jesus a “superstar.” The last we see of Jesus in the play, he is being beaten, mocked, and crucified. He is hung on a cross, slowly elevated, and eventually disappears into the backdrop of a blinding light just before the scene cuts to commercial.
Audiences return for the final scene, which is led by Judas in a bright, sparkling, and golden display of remarkable vocals and dancing. No resurrection and no ascension of the superstar, Jesus. The only one who seemingly resurrects is Judas who leads all the characters of the narrative into a processional of hopelessness, trying to make the best of the situation everyone is left with. A dead Jesus is a problem for everyone. A Jesus who hasn’t risen means there is no hope, no grace, no mercy, no forgiveness, and no atonement for our sin against an infinite God. It means the full cup of God’s wrath will be poured out on every soul walking the earth, from the most humble philanthropist to the most murderous leaders. It means Christians are people to be most pitied (1 Corinthians 15:19). In JCS Live, the only hope we are offered is in this life alone, and that makes the Christian life a waste of time and resources—and quite frankly, a wasted life.
Fortunately, Jesus Christ Superstar Live! was only a play—a surprisingly good play—and not reality. But however good the play was, it missed an opportunity to be great. Yet, among the acceptable characteristics of JCS Live!, its best attribute lies within its ability to be a cultural gauge for how Christians may be presenting Jesus Christ and how unbelievers may be thinking of him. Christians would do well to pay attention to productions like these as most contain reflective qualities, helping us to see where we may be missing the mark in our evangelism of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Maybe we’ll be challenged to survey the false Jesus we’ve cast in our own lives.
For as low as $5/month, you’ll get access to free offerings from creators and authors we love, exclusive access to our member’s only forum, and exclusive content and podcasts — and you’ll help ensure that CAPC keeps getting better and better.