Jesus Christ Superstar Now

When I was a kid, the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” was all the rage.  Both the local high school and my parents’ church (a large United Christ Methodist affair) each put on large, well-attended performances of the “rock opera” that included the entire teen choir.  The biggest questions were always: Whose booming bass voice would be adequate to play the role of Caiaphas?  And who would get the plum role of Judas?  The energy and enthusiasm surrounding these performances, as well as performances of the musical “Godspell,” suggested that the Christian church was entering a new age—indeed, something like “the Age of Aquarius.”  Henceforth preaching and liturgy would have to take on a new cast and a new demeanor, it was thought.  People say similar things today.

I was realizing the other day, though, that I hadn’t heard any of the songs from “Jesus Christ Superstar” or “Godspell” recently—in fact, for a very long time.  To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I heard one of those songs.  I work in various coffee shops around town nearly every day, and in them I enjoy a wide variety of styles of music: classic rock, contemporary pop, dance music, hip-hop—the whole range.  But I’ve not heard any “Jesus Christ Superstar” or “Godspell” in years.  I once mentioned “Jesus Christ Superstar” to my students, and they just looked at me blankly, unknowingly, as though I’d mentioned something from the Paleolithic Era.  Who?  What?

There’s an excellent scene in an episode of the television series “King of the Hill” in which Hank Hill is trying to deal with his son Bobby who has, disturbingly to Hank, become part of a Christian youth group that tries to make Jesus “cool” for teens.

“When I turn 18, I’m going to do whatever I want for the Lord,” says Bobby. “Tattoos, piercings, you name it.”

 

“Come here,” his father tells him, “there’s something I want you to see.”  Taking a box down from a high shelf, he opens it up, takes out an object, and says: “Remember this?”

“My beanbag buddy?” says Bobby. “Oh, man, I can’t believe I collected those things. They’re so lame.”

“You didn’t think so five years ago,” says his father. “And how about your virtual pet? You used to carry this thing everywhere. Then you got tired of it, forgot to feed it, and it died.”

Rummaging around in the box, Bobby finds a photo of himself in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costume.  “I look like such a dork,” he tells his father.

“I know how you feel,” says Hank. “I never thought that ‘Members Only’ jacket would go out of style, but it did.”

“I know you think stuff you’re doing now is cool,” says Hank to his son, “but in a few years you’re going to think it’s lame. And I don’t want the Lord to end up in this box.”

Whenever we incorporate some contemporary cultural expression into the Church’s liturgy—whether art, architecture, or music—we should undoubtedly keep in mind that whatever the current cultural fads may be now, they will someday soon likely find themselves inside that “box” of outdated relics of the sort that Hank Hill and his son put up out of sight on that high shelf.  Fads come and go, but the Body of Christ remains.  The Lord Himself must never be put in that “box.”  That’s why as a general rule I prefer a liturgy firmly anchored to the Church and her traditions, rather than one attempting to capture “the spirit of the times.”

It is for similar reasons that I am rather skeptical whenever people claim that they’re changing the mass or doing a certain sort of music “because it appeals to the kids.”

Really?

I might be willing to entertain the possibility that this music was a good thing if I thought it was really appealing “to the kids,” but that’s not so clear to me.  I teach young adults nearly every day and spend a good deal of time with them.  But I’ve got to tell you, no young person I know owns or plays music that is anything like the music that is often touted by many “music ministers” as being “for the kids.”

I also might be more willing to entertain the notion that the Church should incorporate elements of the current culture, if I saw more willingness on the part of the adherents of that position to move on (or move aside) in later years once the former “spirit of the age” had changed, as it always does.  Instead we find those who were undoubtedly most vocal in the 1960s and 70s about the church expressing itself according to the “spirit of age” tending to be the ones least willing to change (or move aside and yield their positions of authority in various church and chancery offices) now that times have changed.

When are boomers going to get the message?  Guitar mass, hymns by the St. Louis Jesuits, banners with clunky, boxy-looking figures: that time is over.  Whether it ever really appealed to “the kids” or not, it certainly doesn’t now, any more than sponsoring performances of “Jesus Christ Superstar” would bring “the youth” back to the churches in droves.  If you held such a performance, I predict there wouldn’t be a person under 53 in the audience, except for those poor teens forced to go in fidelity to the wishes of their parents or grandparents.  It would be embarrassing the way large bell-bottom pants and shirts with large multi-colored stripes on performers who sing “Up with People” would be.  And about as popular with “the kids.”

I take it I needn’t be in the position of demanding the Tridentine Latin Mass (which I’m not) to suggest that a more solemn and serious liturgy is more likely to be taken seriously by the youth of this generation.  Albums of church-inspired chant have been on the top of the charts for years now.  And the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Liturgy does, after all, specify that “the Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (116).  Now granted, the Council fathers, open-minded as they were, did go on to add: “But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations….” So along with Gregorian chant, polyphony is okay too.

My question is this: Why aren’t people falling into line with the spirit of the Council?  The Second Vatican Council says very clearly that chant should be given “pride of place in liturgical services.”  What kind of counter-revolutionary old geezer wants to go against the clear dictates of that radical “updating” of the Church, the Second Vatican Council?  Shame on them!

As for singing the sort of full-throated congregational hymns such as those patterned on (or copied directly from) the classic Methodist hymnal I grew up with, they’re fine as far as they go—indeed, some of them are truly great—and personally I have a certain soft spot for some of them given that I grew up with them as a Methodist kid.  But they’re not exactly Catholic.  And as a kid who grew up having to sing such hymns, I can tell you from experience that they don’t exactly appeal to the run-of-the-mill teen.  Three verses of “How Great Thou Art” or “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” and you’re pretty much ready to pack it in, especially if you’re suffering from that ultimate spirit-killer: a slow organist who plays everything as though it were a funeral dirge.  Growing up having to wait for these hymns to be over before I could leave church for breakfast, especially the ones with seven or eight verses, caused me to have no trouble imagining purgatory when I began to study Catholicism. Not only did I believe it, I felt I’d experienced it, and I knew I definitely wanted time off if I ever had to go there.

Whatever else you do, though, I beg you, don’t try to appeal to “the kids” by playing music that you think will appeal to their sense of “what’s cool,” because if you do, you’ll lose, you’ll absolutely lose.  You’ll never be able to keep up.  As any advertising executive who deals with teens will tell you, “cool” is something that changes every six-to-eight months.  Within a year, what was “cool” last year will be utterly passé.  Not only will it not be cool anymore, it will be embarrassingly “uncool”:  something to be shunned like the plague.  In fact, you might have better luck offering them the plague.

My final advice about dealing with young people, however, is simply this: If you want to get anywhere with them, you have to start by gaining their respect.  You have to show them that you take what you do in the mass as seriously as firemen and soldiers take what they do.  I don’t necessarily mean “solemn and serious” in the sense of “stiff and joyless.” There’s no point in merely “playing dress-up”; indeed, there are a lot of reasons not to.  Teens have a special radar warning them against hypocrisy and “dress-up.”  What has to be communicated somehow in the liturgy (and this can be done in a number of ways, but it must be done) is that the mass has the power to change a life, to draw a person out of the deepest recesses of despair, or to inspire someone to give his or her life for the love of his friends, family, and community.

Yet the mass cannot work its power when the priest and the music are aggravating distractions.  Some people are convinced that what drove people away from the Church were the Catholic teachings on abortion, divorce, and contraception.  From my experience, I’d say that what drove them away was intolerable music and unspeakably bad preaching.  The Second Vatican Council described the liturgy as “the source and summit” of the Christian life.  In the wake of the Council, we were supposed to restore the liturgy once again to its rightful place at the center of the life of the Church.  So why do we still so often tolerate discordant music, lectors who can barely pronounce the words of the text, and priests who’ve clearly not prepared their homilies in advance, assuming that they can just ad lib their way through one more time?

And yet, let me say that, although I’d prefer it if the priest and the music weren’t aggravating distractions, God doesn’t always (or usually) send what I’d prefer.  So it’s clear I need to discipline myself not to be distracted.  Sometimes you get a superb mass, sometimes you don’t.  Sometimes you find yourself at a superb mass staring at the tiles on the floor and wondering what they’re made of or thinking about some silly controversy from earlier in the day.  Our minds wander.  If St. Anthony could focus and pray in a cave in the desert with Satan attacking him relentlessly, then I suppose I should be able to learn to focus and pray when the choir strikes up the dulcet strains of “One Bread, One Body” for the ten-millionth time.  Instead of rolling my eyes and thinking: “Not again; do we not know any other song?” I might instead recall that I have the privilege of going to communion.  Out of no particular merit of my own, I get to receive the most precious gift in the whole universe.  Is that precious gift worth suffering through some lousy hymns?  Darn right.  Indeed, I guess I’d better be ready to walk over hot coals to get the Eucharist.  The modest annoyances I have to suffer in order to receive Christ are nothing compared to the sufferings others have overcome.

So if I let little annoyances like the grating sound of bad guitar music or the false cheerfulness of “Fr. Bob” distract me, or worse yet, keep me from receiving communion in a spirit of profound gratitude, then Satan must be having a field day with me.

And I just hate it when that happens.

Randall B. Smith

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Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-12 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

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