by Dr. Steven Turley, Adjunct Professor of Church History, Houston Graduate School of Theology I only want to say, if there is a way, take this cup away from me for I don’t want to taste its poison…
I have changed; I’m not as sure as when we started
Then I was inspired; now I’m sad and tired…
Why should I die? Can you show me now that I would not be killed in vain?
Show me just a little of your omnipresent brain?
God, thy will be done; take thy only son
I will drink Your cup of poison…
Now before I change my mind…”
These lyrics are excerpts of the song “Gethsemane” in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, recently resurrected by NBC on Easter Sunday. Over the decades, many have questioned the orthodoxy of this work, while others have objected to the irreverence with which it treats Jesus. I, however, found its portrayal of a very human Jesus profoundly moving. Let me explain.
The hardest material I teach (by far) is the Council of Chalcedon, during which the ancient churches addressed the question of how Jesus’s human and divine natures cohabited. It is difficult to understand, it is difficult to explain, it is difficult to help students make any connection to their lives, and thus it is difficult to make students care.
Some parties to the Council believed it was most important to emphasize the divine nature in Jesus, the storm-calming, leper-cleansing, demon-casting Christ who stormed the gates of hell to win our salvation. Others believed it was most important to emphasize the human in Jesus, for only by taking on all of our humanity could he be the great high priest who ushers us into God’s presence (Heb 4:14-16). In the end, the Orthodoxy that resulted from Chalcedon was a compromise that defined what was not true rather than resolving the question.
In my upbringing, I learned mostly about the divine Christ. He worked miracles. He taught other-worldly wisdom. Sure he got tired, but it was nothing a night in prayer couldn’t fix, because he had a direct line to the Father. Sure he wept when Lazarus died, but it was just because his friends were sad, not because he actually thought Lazarus might stay dead. Sure he sweated blood in the garden, but it was just because he was anxious about the suffering he faced the next day, not because he wondered whether it was actually going to accomplish anything.
When I did learn about the human Jesus, it was always softened––the baby who didn’t cry when the cattle were lowing, the hungry Jesus who could turn rocks to bread if he really needed to, or the broken Jesus who could summon angels to save him. But that Jesus doesn’t really know what it’s like to be human, and that is where Superstar is helpful. I’m not concerned about its precise orthodoxy or its artistic license, because it gives me a profound gift––that of Jesus’s true humanity.
Almost every scene forces me to re-imagine Jesus’s story through truly human eyes, culminating (for me) in the haunting rendering of Gethsemane. What if Jesus really was unsure about his calling? What if he really was tempted by those who wanted him to stay in his place and run a successful ministry without being so extreme? What if he really didn’t know whether all his sacrifice would make any difference? Now that is a Jesus I can relate to, and that is a Jesus who inspires me to follow no matter how dim the prospects may seem.
In the end, I don’t know how “true” the Jesus of Superstar actually is, but the show makes Jesus more real to me, and for that I’m grateful.