When I was in junior high, a production of Jesus Christ Superstar came to my area. The Lutheran church I attended with my mom organized a field trip for the youth group. I was blown away (this was before I realized I should pretend it’s not cool). It seemed to capture the power of my faith. Meanwhile, at the Baptist church I attended with my dad, the pastor gave a sermon condemning the musical for being un-Biblical.
I thought of this as we approach Easter, and NBC’s live broadcast of the play. In the decades since Jesus Christ Superstar came out, a tension has developed in American Christianity. On one side is a Superstar Christianity, which lives out the spirit of Christianity but downplays strict adherence to Christian teachings. On the other is a worship style that claims to strictly follow the Bible but seems to miss its essence. American Christians are often forced to choose between the two. As much as I love Jesus Christ Superstar (and progressive Christianity), this does not bode well for the vitality of American Christianity. Mainline Protestants, though, are well-positioned to help, if they learn the right lessons.
Jesus Christ Superstar tells the story of Jesus’ last few weeks of life through excellent (if extravagant) prog rock. Granted, there are doctrinal issues. It presents Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, and says she is in love with Jesus, neither of which is accurate. The musical suggest Jesus was just a great man—not the Son of God—and does not depict the Resurrection.
But there is a lot there for people of faith. It powerfully depicts the nobility and love of Jesus’ message, as well as his refusal to indulge in vulgar politics. The play also presents His human suffering—an essential part of the Christian faith—poignantly, especially in the song “Gethsemane.”
Jesus Christ Superstar remains popular nearly fifty years after its debut. But it is more than just another musical by the guy who did Cats. Divided reactions to the musical—as I experienced in my hometown—mirror broader divisions within American Christianity.
Superstar Christianity—like Jesus Christ Superstar—captures the essence of the faith without bothering with Scriptural details. Progressive Christians in this vein focus on Jesus’ teachings; their churches emphasize social justice and economic welfare, inclusion and forgiveness. But they tend to downplay adherence to the Scriptures. I’ve heard many social justice sermons use purely secular language. Often, when discussion turns to a difficult Biblical passage like one of those on homosexuality, these Superstar Christians will simply turn away rather than investigate its misinterpretation (as Gene Robinson does in God Believes in Love).
Alternately, there is a Christianity that sees itself as the counterpoint to Superstar Christianity. These Christians assert they follow the Bible strictly. This strain argues that, unlike progressive Christians, they ground their choices of social positions and daily actions in scriptural language, backed up with Biblical citations. But they often display a marked lack of Christian love when interacting with LGBTQ individuals. While they allege this is part of their “religious freedom,” it has at times involved vicious harassment. And their involvement in politics often feels detached from the Christian message of love. For example, leaders in this strain have presented tortuous Biblical defenses of Trump’s conduct, ignoring his un-Biblical behavior.
Twenty-first century American Christians must choose between these two. While there are prominent exceptions—such as historically black churches that combine social justice with an evangelical approach to worship—churches tend towards one or the other side. There are intellectual, reasonable evangelicals horrified by their community’s support for Trump. And there are progressive mainline Protestants who think the Bible should be taken literally. But each is pulled and strained by its broader tradition.
A Way Forward
As a fan of Jesus Christ Superstar, I could be rooting for the Superstar variety. But this forced choice doesn’t bode well for Christianity. The reaction to Superstar Christianity is already harming the faith: there is some evidence that the growth in the religiously unaffiliated is due to backlash against this overly political religion.
And Superstar Christianity isn’t a viable alternative—it is sentiment without structure. That may draw people in, but without emphasizing Christianity’s distinctive Biblical grounding, it doesn’t give people a reason to stay committed. They can advance social justice and live a loving life without church, and at some point, they will realize that.
That being said, mainline Protestants are well positioned to step into this divide. These traditions have longstanding engagement with social justice, and, from Fasnacht Day (the Pennsylvania German version of Mardi Gras) to the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday, their rich practices create tangible expressions of faith. As Zach Hoag argues in his excellent The Light is Winning, tradition can renew the faith of those turned off by mean-spirited Christianity. It can also be the next step for those attracted to Superstar Christianity: a loving, justice-focused faith grounded in the Bible. But that means mainline Protestants must be comfortable emphasizing what makes their traditions distinctive, instead of diluting them to appeal to the “spiritual but not religious” crowd.
Sure, Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t Biblically accurate, but it is powerful (and full of great songs). I’m going to happily watch it this Sunday. If I have to choose between the meaning of Christianity and its legalistic application, I’ll go with the former. Just remember that appreciating its message is not enough. We need to translate the emotions it induces into Biblically-grounded worship. Superstar Christianity isn’t the answer, but it’s a start.
Peter S. Henne is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont. He received his doctorate in Government from Georgetown University, and a B.A. in Political Science from Vassar College. He has previously worked with the Pew Research Center. He is the author of Islamic Politics, Muslim States and Counterterrorism Tensions, published by Cambridge University Press.