Too Much Heaven On Their Minds

Johnny, our Southwest Bureau Chief, reports from the house of his father-in-law’s swift decline.

Jesus! You’ve started to believe. The things they say of you. You really do believe. This talk of God is true!

We were sitting around, deafened, going through motions. I sat in his chair to keep it from sitting empty and becoming the ghost at the feast. We turned on the teevee, just to do something, and what was on OnDemand but Jesus Christ Superstar. Because it had Jesus in it, that’s what she wanted to watch. The Crucifixion was a bit much, under the circumstances, but it comforted her to know that he was in the arms of Jesus. It struck me as it never did, of course, when I was a child and still somewhat Jesus-centric in my thinking, that the show was about Jesus only peripherally, that Jesus here is spoiled and given to tantrums, that Judas is the star and by far the more interesting character, that Christ’s agony in the garden was as nothing next to his, that Judas was crucified as surely as Jesus was. It also struck me what a parody the seventies were of themselves. The show is set in the modern day of its time, but even then it seems like they’re spoofing some earlier generation’s excesses, like sychronized swimming movies.

What then to do about this Jesusmania? How do we deal with a carpenter king? Where do we start with a man who is bigger than John was when John did his baptism thing?

I can’t get the songs out of my head now, of course. I’m going to have to get the record on half.com and listen to it two hundred times in a row to get it out of my head, like I do with ABBA and Tony Orlando and Dawn when I fixate on them.

Did your family get into Superstar? In mine it was dynamite. We played the record and acted out the parts by the hour, wrapping a towel around our shoulders to play Pontius Pilate, whose name always confused me when I was a kid because I didn’t think they had airplanes then. My mom was in love with Ted Neely. My cousin Bubba’s high school put on a production, lip-synching to the record. I’ll bet they couldn’t believe their good luck that they had a black dude to play Judas! I didn’t of course put two and two together all at once that, as the song goes, He’s just a man (and I’ve had so many men before, in very many ways!), but it struck me even as a child that until then all the nuns and the priests ever told us about Judas was that he got up one day and sold Jesus for thirty pieces of eight. I can’t claim I was so wise that I figured out then I was being had. But the bomb started to tick in the back of my brain that the greatest story ever told wasn’t the whole story.

When I was in seventh or eighth grade, a few seasons before Johnny and I met, a traveling theater group did Superstar at my school and we were invited to be the crowd. During the crucifixion scene, my feet grew roots and I forgot myself, there in the aisle of the auditorium. I suddenly understood why people prayed, even if I couldn’t buy the to whom. Someone put arms around my shoulders and walked me through a door, which I could not have done myself. Sometimes, the light shines through me, but I don’t know from where.

Ted Neely? Ian Gillan. Yes, that Ian Gillan. All other Jesuses just don’t do it for me.

The play has its faults, but its treatment of Judas is what makes me love Jesus Christ Superstar. He’s human and heartbroken, loved and betrayed himself. The stakes are unbelievably high for Judas; it is truly important to observe and understand: Jesus is not Jesus without Judas. Judas must love Jesus more than life itself. There can be no Christianity without Judas.

In all the commotion Johnny has forgotten I have this tattooed across my back.

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