Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Godspell Message

Our local theatre presented the musical Godspell this week and they did a fantastic job. This is not an obligatory nicety that I put in to avoid being called an ass for what's to come. It's a genuine response to their talent and hard work. I strongly support these ventures that bring the community together for (generally) secular purposes and enrich our lives.

This was the first time I had seen Godspell in my 40 years. It came out in the 70s around my time but was considered "too modern" to be appropriate for us. I expected the musical's central message to be preachy and predictable - another variation on the same old theme of Jesus coming to earth and dying for our sins so we could go to heaven. It didn't turn out quite that way.

Godspell's first act represents Jesus's parables in song - the teachings of Jesus as laid down by the book of Matthew. When lifted from the Bible and presented in a natural way, these parables are damning to the conservative Christian community. Much time is spent chastising the rich and proud, the pious preachers, and those who refuse to help the needy. Jesus stresses the law and the prophets as the way to the Kingdom and scorns those who choose wealth over charity. Within the first few songs, Godspell completely condemns the conservative Christian culture of America (particularly the South). Christians who despise the "liberal" image of Jesus would not enjoy the scolding they get and they would not recognize Jesus's emphasis on the law as opposed to the easy grace they preach now.

Of special note was the parable about cutting off your right hand or plucking out your right eye rather than sinning and going to hell. When put in our every day language, it sounded quite serious and you'd expect that the audience would be full of amputees and the blind. It was a glaring indictment of the fact that Christians either do not believe Jesus's words or they do not care to follow them. Neither, I noted, had anyone in the audience given all their money to the poor. Nor had they forsaken the traditional practice of dressing up on Sunday in all their finery and parading around their churches. Yet these traditions and practices were condemned by Jesus in Godspell with painful acuity.

In Act II, we got into the whole "Jesus on the cross" bit. After a few more parables about not judging and hating others, we cut to the Garden of Gethsemane, the betrayal, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. It seemed a bit rushed as if they were trying to wrap up the show rather than convey an actual message. In fact, I realized fully about this time that Godspell was not a tool to convert the lost (despite the main actor's assertion that it was the "good news of Christ" being shared. The point of the show seemed to be more about highlighting Jesus's words. I don't know how that was received in the 70s but here in 2013, I felt as if Jesus had taken one look at America and said, "Goddammit, haven't you been listening to a word I've said?"

Of special note here was a line uttered by the Jesus character that goes against most Christian doctrine that I know of. We've been told over and over that God made hell for the devil and his angels - not for man. But this Jesus stated flatly that Hell was made for man since the very beginning. I don't know if anyone else picked up on this. Judging from the occasional "Amen" and "Praise the Lord" uttered behind me, I doubt it.

I expected that there would be some sort of invitation at the end - especially since Jesus was played by a real preacher. Fortunately, no such thing occurred. The show ended and everyone applauded but no one seemed visibly moved by the message. I wondered if what I had heard was the same as what they had heard. Again, I doubt it. Jesus's message filtered through a contemporary Christian lens seems to be rather lackluster and weak.

So was the musical good? Yes! Was it worth my time? Absolutely! Did I feel a pressing need to mend my sinner's ways and accept Christ afterwards? Absolutely not. What I felt instead was something like disappointment that the message had gone the way of the seed in the parable...the seed that fell on hard ground and was lost. So too did Jesus's message seem to flow into one ear and right out of the other. 

"Let them who have ears to hear, hear." Let them indeed.