Jesus Christ, Superstar?
The personality of Jesus Christ as depicted in the Gospels is difficult to lucidly define in terms of common theatre and film personality types. While the deeds performed by Jesus Christ according to Biblical narrations make him somewhat a superstar, making a chronological account of his actions based on the gospels is a task that cannot be easily accomplished. Producing the character of Jesus in film is difficult due to the episodic nature of the gospels, which make it difficult to follow exactly on the personality of Jesus. The film Jesus Christ superstar shot in 1973 attempts to describe the last times of Jesus Christ through his superstar actions. However, the objective of the film does not come out clearly due to the distortion that the musical characteristic of the film presents. The present research paper aims at exploring various primary and secondary sources to determine the extent to which the character of Jesus Christ, as depicted in the movie, portrays the conventional characteristics of the superstar as shown in other films and secondary sources. This will be accomplished through comparison of the Jesus Christ superstar film with other films and literary writings on superstar, as well as in the Bible.
Khurana describes some of the characteristics with which superstars depicted in conventional films are associated, and some of those characteristics befit Jesus Christ perfectly (par. 4- 22). Charisma is described as the greatest gift possessed by superstars depicted in all films. According to Khurana, charisma among the heroic individuals is inherent and not borrowed from others (par. 4). This implies that such people have the capacity to influence others regardless of their stand in the society. Through speech alone, charismatic people influence others and are considered to be superstars. Jesus Christ superstar portrays these characteristics of the superstar to a small extent, mostly through the influence that Jesus has on people. Lockwood and Kunda also portray superstars as those individuals capable of influencing others through their actions (91- 93). The perception that Jesus was capable of influencing others is further enhanced through Judas’ jealousy of the person of Jesus and his desire to have him associate less with others.
Jenkins describes Jesus as a figure that is difficult to understand or exactly to position in literature and in visual art forms (1-2). According to Jenkins, depicting Jesus as a superstar or protagonist in a film is a difficult task since Jesus Christ as portrayed in the Bible is a unique figure (1). The film Jesus Christ superstar portrays a serial life of Jesus Christ unlike the Biblical portrayal which is episodic, non-continuous and incapable of being consolidated into a continuous story. The discontinuity in Biblical stories about Jesus makes it difficult to produce factual films while at the same time making them entertaining or in line with the demands of the movie industry. While the movie is entertaining and probably capable of teaching a lot, it does not replicate the impacts of the Biblical story in terms of the message given, supporting the argument by Jenkins that film cannot exactly duplicate the effects that the Gospels have on people (2).
The descriptions made by Jenkins concerning the inability to portray Jesus as a movie superstar are clearly observable in movies such as Jesus Christ Superstar, King of Kings and The Gospel of John (1-6). Like in King of Kings, Jesus Christ Superstar attempts to create additional material to depict Jesus Christ as the hero he is. However, this cannot be said to be successful as the movie appears fictional rather than based on first-hand accounts depicted by the gospel. The appeal of the movie to the targeted audience cannot therefore be linked to the truth in it, but to the musical and comic relief it provides. On the other hand, The Gospel of John provides a direct account of the Gospel as it appears in the Bible. Based on the YouTube views and likes for the two movies, The Gospel of John appealed to more viewers in comparison to King of Kings. What this means is that as much as the Gospels do not make good film material, it could only because the films such as Jesus Christ Superstar, which are created from the Gospels are normally designed for other audiences who are more interested in entertainment.
Jenkins opines that in the same manner that the Gospels do not provide sufficient material for the production of movies about Jesus Christ; the movies do not portray Jesus in the right image he ought to be portrayed in (19). The effects that the Gospels have on people due to the stories of Jesus Christ in spite of their perceived boring and non- chronological styles are immense. For instance, Jenkins holds that Jesus Christ cannot be perfectly represented within the film industry (19). The treatment accorded to Jesus Christ in films deviates from what his key characteristics and objectives are as depicted in the Bible. Contrary to what Jesus Christ superstar film communicates through the starring role, the Bible is a religious book that requires more than the pull of entertainment to understand or to be compelled by (Jenkins 19). Unlike the movie superstars, Jesus Christ does not need the appeal of massive deeds as shown in Jesus Christ superstar. His actions in the movie portray Jesus as a victim rather than the movie star. For instance, his disappearance as the movie winds up shows one that is subdued and not victorious. This explains the position presented by Jenkins, that considering Jesus Christ as a superstar is a matter of faith rather than the appeal of visual art.
The depiction of Jesus Christ as a superstar in the film becomes more difficult due to the primary decisions that are in demand in filming. Based on Biblical narratives, Jesus Christ does not provide a full comprehension that can be produced in a film. When the decision to produce a film with Jesus as the superstar is made, Jenkins opines that the decision has to be accompanied by several other primary decisions that are needed to make the movie more comprehensive and to depict Jesus Christ as a superstar to those who may not have the opportunity of perceiving him so through the Bible (7). This in essence alters the objective and design of the primary texts which narrate the story of Jesus Christ. In comparison to other superstars such as Hercules in films, the story of Jesus Christ has to be told differently. Others performed mighty yet limited deeds to attract crowds. On the other hand, Jesus Christ attracted crowds even without his deeds but with words only. He sustained the crowds he attracted and did much more than they expected. The New International Version says that only a few of the works of Jesus Christ were recorded since his deeds were so mighty that any record of all of them could not have found sufficient space in all the world to store it.
From the description of Jesus’ works in Jesus Christ Superstar, the Gospel of John, and other movies, a picture is painted of one who manages to appeal to people without obviously putting himself out in the public eye. It paints a picture of one who manages to save even those considered to be most evil by the society. This is opposed to conventional superstar films where the protagonists mainly fight for the good while eliminating the evil. It is through such actions, considered heroic in the conventional sense that superstars are described for their roles. From this perspective, some episodes narrated in the Bible raise questions on whether Jesus Christ is really the protagonist superstar that is desirable by many or the antagonist one.
The Gospel of John represents the life and actions of Jesus Christ exactly as they appear in the Bible as opposed to Jesus Christ Superstar, which edits the life of Jesus to fit the entertainment role. Characteristics that have been linked to conventional superstar films are observable in the most basic and realistic forms that can be found in the Gospel of John but not in Jesus Christ Superstar. Contrary to other superstar films where actions of the perceived superstars appear somewhat exaggerated, the deeds of Jesus Christ are believable in the gospel of John and also more realistic. Heroic deeds such as standing against many people who had brought a woman to him, speaking in the presence of the scribes and the Pharisees about the law of Moses and countering their opinions and teachings all point to a man who has the potential of saving others who are probably under siege.
While most superstar films depict protagonists that save people who are in real visual danger, the heroism of Jesus Christ as depicted in the movie extends to emotional and spiritual liberation. Actions such as providing people with food when they were hungry, amount to liberation to a great extent. Unlike other superstar films where the actions are driven by the desire to be recognized or to show one’s power, Jesus Christ’s actions were driven by the love for mankind and the desire to bring cumulative good. This explains the argument by Jesus that he came to save the lost rather than to take those who were on the right way. The movie Jesus Christ Superstar depicts a hero not in the sense of the conventional superstar films but in his own sense of salvation. The kind of salvation portrayed in Jesus Christ Superstar is spiritual rather than physical as seen in other superstar films. Moreover, the salvation depicted in the movie is downplayed through the musical representations of the various scenes in the movie. As such, it becomes difficult to project the role of Jesus as the superstar that he is in the movie based on his saving deeds.
The ultimate heroic deed of Jesus Christ was his death on the cross. In Jesus Christ Superstar, the death of Jesus is depicted as a heroic deed in that in spite of the call from the population to get himself off the cross, he still went through the humiliation and managed to overcome death by rising again. Superstars are bold and are capable of standing up in the face of challenging situations. This is clearly shown as Jesus replies to Pilate’s questions during the judgment. Although he does not talk much about himself, he makes his position clear and is not easily intimidated. Contrary to conventional superstar movies where others who have seen the goodness of the superstars rise up against authorities in conventional movies to support their heroes, the story of Jesus Christ Superstar is different. In the Jesus’ story, the same people whom he had saved through healing the sick, providing food and breaking the bonds of law, are the ones who give him up to be crucified. This is contrary to expectations from a hero or one who has made so much impact on the lives of others. As such, when one considers this perspective, it may be difficult to characterize Jesus as a hero or even a superstar. The inability of the hero’s charisma to be a source of help in the time of need makes the characterization to be questionable.
That Jesus Christ possessed charisma in the movie as is characteristic of superstars is however undoubted. For instance, the ability to convince others through teachings such as the sermon on the Mountain can only be described as a gift. While Jesus was walking alone with his disciples, he did not have a specific home neither had he performed any of the seemingly ‘heroic’ actions by conventional superstar film standards, he was capable of attracting more than 5000 people to him. How this happened can only be explained through alluding to charisma. The people stayed with him, and had to be asked to go away for them to break off. This not only shows the capacity to influence others positively through teachings and actions but also the ability to be considered a role model for others. Khurana describes a superstar as one who is capable of building faith in others (22). Jesus managed to build Christianity single-handedly both in the Bible and in the movie. The close following by people such as Mary Magdalene and even the dream by Pilate were not in vain. This indicates that when considered in terms of its influence on people and the capacity to build faith in oneself, Jesus definitely fulfills the characteristics of a superstar.
Furthermore, Jesus boldness is one of the features that have been cited as characteristic of superstars (Khurana par. 4). Boldness is described as the capability to stand firm in the face of challenges in defense of oneself and of others. In conventional superstar films, boldness is observed in the actions of superstars such as moving forward to represent the weak and the oppressed even before the seemingly powerful regimes. On the contrary, Jesus Christ Superstar represents a bold yet unflinching superstar. The most obvious position where Jesus’ boldness could have been observed is in the judgment period, particularly when he faces Pilate. This is however difficult to observe as the scene is depicted musically. The seriousness of the case and the accusations cannot be felt due to the musical depictions, speech by Pilate and the single line response provided by Jesus in the form of song. As such, while the movie effectively entertains, it does not exactly fulfill the intention of depicting Jesus as a superstar in word and in his deeds.
It is also expected of superstars to possess a winning attitude in their dealings as well as in their interactions with dark powers. In the movie in question, the dark powers can be likened to the regime in authority, which does not support the work of Jesus Christ. In his interactions with them however, Jesus does not clearly separate people into good and evil groups, asserting that he came to save the lost. This is observed through his interactions with people like Mary Magdalene, and the tax collectors. From his social life, it becomes difficult to clearly understand the stand of Jesus in terms of his consideration of others. Because of this, the movie, through depicting actions of Jesus as in the Bible, portray an image of a tolerant individual, unlike conventional superstars who clearly categorize the people they interact with into either good or bad groups. The movie represents one who does not accommodate evil yet is ready to give people the room to confess their sins. Interaction with others gives him the opportunity to understand them and to teach them in accordance with the Biblical word.
Based on the impact that the movie has, it can be deduced that the actions and the charisma of Jesus Christ make him a superstar, not in the film context of the word, but in the impact sense of the word. As much as the film superstars improve peoples’ lives through charisma, heroic actions and positive influence, Jesus Christ also did and continues to provide guidance to many in real life. The Bible indicates that in one day after the death of Jesus, more than 3,000 people were converted through his living word alone. This portrays an individual that did not have any need for the seemingly unbelievable actions that are characteristic of the conventional superpower movies. The movie Jesus Christ Superstar does not use overrated or obviously fictional modifications to depict Jesus Christ as a superstar. On the contrary, his actions make him stand out in spite of the seemingly unserious nature of the movie. The music downplays most of the features of Jesus Christ as the movie star and also makes the occurrences to go superficially fast. This reduces the perception of fiction and improves the image of Jesus as a superstar relative to the other mythical superstars such as Hercules.
While characteristics such as Hercules and ‘the Rock’ require such seemingly fictional actions to lure others, Jesus needed his charisma as his only power of influence over others. This explains the difficulties experienced in depicting Jesus in the real film context. The efforts to portray Jesus as a superstar in films results in conflicts between the constraints presented by the gospels in their episodic depiction of Jesus and the narratives that film demands. The challenges of superposing the superstar in Jesus with the demands of film are connected to the objective of the gospels which is to create a message of change rather than to present the biography of Jesus. The ability of Jesus to stand out as a superstar without necessarily having fictional deeds clearly make him stand out above the common breed of superstars, which needs the support of lies to stand out. Jesus Christ takes his own position without the need for lies just because of who he is. In spite of people jeering at him at a time when he is low, he comes out strong in the face of adversity. Contrary to what conventional superstar films portray, a real superstar overcomes every form of difficulty and can neither be contained by death nor by the grave.
The life and actions of Jesus Christ, as depicted in Jesus Christ Superstar, may not qualify him as the film superstar per se. However, it is clear that the role of Jesus Christ is religious and not filmic. His role in the religious context depicts him as the superstar he actually is within that context as much as the conventional films may not find his story worth telling in film. The challenges that lie in the depiction of Jesus as a superstar in film include the differences between his types of heroic actions and those expected from the film superstars; differences between responses that people have when conventional film superstars are passing through difficult times and those they had during Jesus’ difficult times; difficulties in presenting the life of Jesus chronologically without distorting the message and factual representation of the Bible; the strengths of Jesus’ charisma versus those of other filmic superstars. Because of these differences, depicting Jesus as the King of Kings or in any other way that alters the design of the gospels results in poor reception among believers. It should thus be realized that Jesus remains a superstar in more than the filmic essence and that his position in religion and his role in human salvation remains heroic regardless of the mode of presentation.
Jenkins, Bill. Jesus Christ, Superstar? Why the Gospels don’t make good movies. Journal of Religion and Film 12, 2(2008). Retrieved from www.digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1546&context=jrf
Jesus Christ Superstar. Directed by Norman Jewison. Performances by Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman and Barry Dennen, 1973. Retrieved from www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQWyHTk2rfs
Khurana, Rakesh. The curse of the superstar CEO. Harvard Business Review, September 2002. Retrieved from www.hbr.org/2002/09/the-curse-of-the-superstar-ceo
King of Kings. Directed by Nicholas Ray. Performances by Jeffrey Hunter, Hurd Hatfield, Siobhan McKenna, Viveca Lindfors, Robert Ryan, Ron Randell and Others, 1961. Retrieved from www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtTA6XFBFUA
Lockwood, Penelope and Kunda, Ziva. Superstars and Me: Predicting the impacts of role models on the self. Journal of Personality and Social psychology 73, 1(1997): 91- 103. Retrieved from www.citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.578.7014&rep=rep1&type=pdf
The Bible. The New International Version, Biblica, 2011.
The Gospel of John. Directed by Philip Savile. Performances by Henry Ian Cusick, Christopher Plummer, Daniel Kash, Stuart Bunce, Richard Lintern, Scott Handy and others, 2003. Retrieved from www.youtube.com/watch?v=47OkuvT5JFo