Friday, June 4, 2010

Hey, JC, JC, you're all right by me .. sanna, hosanna, hey, superstar ...

Theatre nerds (notice the proper spelling) will recognize that title as a line from "Hosanna," one of the more acerbic numbers from Webber/Rice's "Jesus Christ, Superstar."

I remember when that came out in 1970. What a ruckus. Every Catholic anti-defamation faction condemned it as blasphemous. It was decried for disrespectfully mocking the sacred tenets of Christianity.

It burst onto the scene roughly the same time as "Godspell," and while there may have been similar negative reaction to Stephen Schwartz's Broadway play (Schwartz, these days, is still counting his money from "Wicked"), I don't recall it. "Godspell" was a whimsical take on the gospel of St. Matthew, full of gentle, affectionate humor.

"JC Superstar" bit a little deeper. Where "Godspell" was a series of humorous parables set to music, "Superstar" told the story of the passion -- the "Greatest Story Ever Told," as it were (without John Wayne as the centurion) -- from the perspective of the one biblical figure Catholics and Christians were least interested in hearing it from: Judas Iscariot.

It also portrayed Jesus in most human terms. He was, alternately, angry, petulant, and, strangely, apathetic. One of the better songs from show is "Everything's All Right," and in it, Judas excoriates Mary Magdalene for anointing Jesus with expensive ointment that "should have been saved for the poor." Jesus shoots back at him, "surely, you're not saying we have the resources to save the poor from their lot."

In another song, Jesus -- whose reputation for healing the sick is, by now, well established -- is besieged by lepers, paupers and cripples hoping for similar relief from their conditions. He is anything but loving with them. Here's one more: when he overturns the tables the barterers have set up in the temple, he does so violently, with a screaming recitative that would have made Robert Plant proud.

These were two different shows basically about the same thing. They took two different paths. I grew up Catholic (still am) and when "Superstar" and "Godspell" became two of the more happening pieces of theater, I was a senior at a Catholic high school (St. John's Prep in Danvers, MA). These shows were objects of our curiosity, especially "Superstar." Because when you're 17 and 18, you tend to go for the jugular more easily. We loved the satire, even if our parents (and teachers) hated it. Nothing, to me, was funnier than listening to "King Herod's Song ("Prove to me that you're divine/change my water into wine")."

I've never had a problem getting satire. Or sarcasm. Both are necessary components of adult commentary. Life cannot simply be a series of vanilla episodes. "Superstar" may have been written as entertainment, but beneath it, there was some pretty serious commentary. I mean, think about it. What would happen, now, if someone were to blow into your city or town, proclaim his divinity, go to the cemetery and raise your father or mother from the dead (imagine how you'd totally freak out seeing the relative you buried last week walking through your front door)?

I'd imagine you'd be calling for the exorcist rather than genuflecting. It does paint a different picture ... but certainly not one of the anti-Christ. Just a change in perspective.

"Jesus Christ, Superstar" is 40 years old. Christianity, and Catholicism, survived it. They have survived other attacks on their absolutism as well. In fact, the only thing we Catholics these days have to worry about, with regards to the survival of their belief system, is our leaders maddening propensity for being hoisted upon their own petards. Otherwise, we can, and should, be able to withstand doubters, atheists and agnostics who continually question why we adhere to a belief system that would certainly seem, to those who don't have the faith, harshly punitive to enormous groups of people.

I bring all this up because there's going to be a cartoon on Comedy Central called "JC," which depicts Jesus as being transplanted to 21st century New York.

These days, comedy isn't comedy (good comedy, anyway) without an edge and a bite, and "JC" promises both. Or claims to, anyway (time will tell on that, as it always does).

I have to confess I find the idea intriguing. I used to teach religious education, and I can recall many times telling anyone who'd listen to me that the proper way to teach it, in the 21st century, is to take all that stuff and apply it -- as best as you can -- to today's world. What are all these biblical stories and passages anyway without context? What point was Jesus trying to make, for example, when he told his followers to "turn the other cheek?" I'm sure he wasn't advocating making yourself a punching bag for people. But what, then?

The problem with Catholics -- well, some of them, anyway -- is that this stuff gets repeated and repeated and repeated, and there's no attempt to put any context to it. No attempt either to apply the points to these stories and parables to today's world, or to put them in any historical context either.

At the very least, even if you don't necessarily believe in Jesus' divinity, or even in the existence of Jesus himself, that writing came from a historical period that, when you think about it, isn't much different, politically, from what's going on in the Middle East now. In that sense, all the world is a continuum. The region was occupied by the Romans, and there were the same philosophical muddles that there are now.

The Jesus portrayed in the bible (the one with which some of today's Christians seem to have no familiarity) seemed to stress to his followers that there were other, deeper, more important things in life to concern themselves with -- such as their well-being, their spirituality, their dignity and self-respect. The Jesus from St Matthew's gospel (which sprung to life in "Godspell") firmly believed in taking care of your own house rather than worrying about everyone else's. Matthew 7:3 deals with the question of "how do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye and not see the log in your own?"

The answer: "Take the log out of your eye first and then you can see the speck in your neighbor's eye."

The irony of this just comes gushing down on you, doesn't it? We're so quick to condemn people whose lifestyles don't exactly mesh with ours ... whose belief systems, and ways of doing things, don't conform to the things we've been taught.

Yet the idea of worrying about your own shortcomings, and dealing with them, and concentrating on your own salvation, rather than judging how everyone else lives their lives, is one of the very foundations of what makes Christianity what it is (or, rather, what it should be). We forget that sometimes.

We haven't even discussed the fact that Jesus has, rather shamelessly, been co-opted into the political maelstrom either. If it's acceptable to do that ... and to cite biblical passages (or, to be more accurate, corrupt biblical passages) to justify a particular political agenda (and notice I'm not taking sides here), then it should be just as acceptable to lampoon them.

I firmly believe that if there is, indeed, a Jesus up in heaven, and he's paying any attention at all to the crap that goes on in his name down here, he's probably getting sick to his stomach about 12 times a day. He's probably got a river of Maalox flowing up there.

I hope, when this cartoon portrays Jesus walking among the Manhattan socialites, and the Manhattan muggers, or the Manhattan money-grubbers, that we get a little of this hypocrisy thrown back in our faces. It's OK with me if that happens.

And I'll say this again: The church, and its representatives, all of whom have the whole damn forest in their eyes these days (and not just one plank), would do well to stop complaining about this cartoon and worry about all it needs to be concerned about.

Maybe they'll all learn a few things about humility from the satire and sarcasm that (I hope) runs through this cartoon.

JC, JC, you're all right by me.

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