Godspell Positive Vision of Christianity

XXXI’ve been a fan of Stephen Schwartz for a very long time. I don’t think his importance in musical theater is fully appreciated. He, and not Andrew Lloyd Webber, was really responsible for modernizing musical theater. And, of course, whereas Webber has a very shallow well of melodies, Schwartz is very deep indeed. His first musical was Godspell, which I saw as a kid, but hadn’t thought about much until recently. So I just watched the 1973 filmed version of it. And it is very touching. It is a story of Jesus that I can get behind.

Of course, it is hardly accurate. Jesus in the Bible is not a very pleasant guy. You know all the things that people are saying about Glenn Greenwald, snarkily observing him “telling bold truths that the corrupted partisans are too blind to see, in a manner that in no way is sanctimonious, is an inspiring example for us all”? Well, that’ kind of Jesus in the Bible. And he’s not very nice or happy. He’s always scolding the disciples. I mean, if he ain’t the son of God, you would never want to hang with him.

But the only time the Jesus of Godspell gets really upset is in the Garden of Gethsemane, and then it is clear that he is feeling very vulnerable—not so keen on dying for everyone’s sins. Otherwise, Jesus is absolutely the guy you want to hang out with. Sure, he’s a little preachy. But he’s fun and he explains what’s important in life. And they all play and act and dance and have puppets.

There are some very interesting aspects of the film that I’ll bet really bug the more conservative of the Christians. For one thing: Jesus is not resurrected. But the disciples carry his body off as they sing and dance. From this, I take it that it is the message, not the resurrection that matters. It’s a kind of Gnostic approach to Christianity and salvation that I’ve always preferred. The whole “just believe in Jesus and you are redeemed” has always struck me as more Tinkerbell than any kind of a adult theology.

There’s another Gnostic aspect of this where Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats. The sheep go to heaven and the goats go to hell. But at the end, he comes back and tells all the goats to come with him. Not a proper reading of the Bible, I would say. But one most people would prefer: God gives the bad people a good talking to, and then we all get on with everlasting life.

Another interesting thing is that John The Baptist and Judas Iscariot are combined in one part. And the way it is played is rather like the Gospel of Judas, which had not been discovered until after this film was made. After Jesus is dead, John/Judas is the head pallbearer on the right hand of Jesus. And this leads to a very thoughtful ending where the disciples joyously sing and dance as they carry Jesus down and empty street. They turn a corner and the camera follows but long after them. Once we see around the corner, they are gone and the street is filled with people, going about their usual business.

What are we to make of this? To me, it is that Jesus’ message lives on. But it is drowned out by the banality of everyday life. Since the film was made (Four decades ago!) things have changed. Christians have become much more vocal. Or at least, a certain kind of Christian has become much more vocal. And they are not banal. If I had one word to describe them it would be: angry. Or perhaps: hateful. And I’m not here to tell you that this is the wrong reading of the Bible. But there are a lot of Christians out there (quieter Christians) who interpret the Bible the way Godspell does. I can’t imagine a Universalist not loving the message of this film.

In addition to all this, the songs are great. They are quite varied. The whole thing is very much like Pippin, which Schwartz also wrote. It is quite a joyous film. You ought to check it out if you have any interest at all. Here is a compilation of scenes set to “We Beseech Thee,” which is not in the film, but was in the play. It is sung by Jeffrey Mylett, who is in the film, but I assume the recording is from the original cast album:

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Godspell Positive Vision of Christianity

  1. The church we were in when I was little ran basement careening of "Godspell." But we left that church eventually, after a priest said in his sermon that "there are some people who would vote for Genghis Khan if he was against abortion." That didn’t sit well with the right-wing parent in my household.

    Funny I remember that line (it must have been 1980 or 1984; it was one of the Reagan election years.) I also remember pretty much every song from "Godspell." I couldn’t hum four bars from "Jesus Christ Superstar" if I tried . . .

  2. @JMF – The priest was right and even more right today. Have you read [url=http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133.html#.U4dW1Y21GSp]Randall Balmer[/url] about how the religious right came into being over racial integration rather than Roe v Wade? Amazing stuff.

    And you should check out the garbage this Randian is spouting regarding my article [url=http://franklycurious.com/index.php?itemid=2248]Ayn Rand and Indians[/url]. Every libertarian who has commented has made the same argument that might makes right and they all show a complete lack of understand of what the Indian Nations were all about. It doesn’t matter how often, I point these things out, they just repeat them. The last guy made me so mad that I changed his URL so people could find his website but that it didn’t get counted by Google.

    The most committed people in this country are committed to anger and hatred. They should all watch [i]Godspell[/i]

  3. I hadn’t seen the Balmer article, thanks. I was aware that the fundmentalism’s resurgence stemmed from integration, not abortion. Billy Graham and other leaders of the movement got their start in the 1960s. But piecing together exactly how right-wing business interests took over fundamentalism (remember, in the 19th century, evangelicalism was often anti-slavery and anti-Big Business) is something of a hobby interest of mine, and I’m grateful to add that Balmer piece to the puzzle. There’s a lot to this story.

    On the Rand business . . . oof. All credit for staying with the conversation as long as you could.

    What makes Rand so important to right-wingers today is, I think, not her "philosophy" so much as her aggressiveness in defense of moral schizophrenia. "Objectivism" celebrated self-interest and the discarding of extraneous human emotions which were little more than social constructs. But not for everyone. For a very specific group of people Rand happened to idolize. If people got together in a union and used their self-interest to beat out the interests of a rich factory owner, well, that’s bad. If the factory owner hired Pinkertons to beat the shit out of striking workers, well, that’s the Superior Man exercising his dominant social prerogative.

    And of course followers of her "philosophy" don’t want people weaker than they are to apply the same calculating standards of self-interest. They want loyal employees, fair competitors, faithful lovers, etc. It’s just that those standards (one wants to say "bourgeois standards"!) should’t apply to Higher Minds. Might makes right, as you say, but only when the Right wins.

    It seems silly for a Randian to be upset that others don’t like her work. After all, shouldn’t they be above such petty human emotions as needing others to agree with them? Howard Roark didn’t care! I often disagree with others about writers/artists I like, sometimes to the point of having a bit less affection for those others than before the disagreement came up, but I don’t feel threatened by their disagreement. Just a little sad.

    When you attack Rand, though, you aren’t saying "this writer was a barely incoherent moral maniac" (even though you are, and she was!) You’re telling someone who’s probably a bit subconsciously aware that their moral compass is skewed that the thing has been utterly fried by a super magnet. Such is the state of American conservatism/libertarianism today, I fear. They aren’t just disagreeing with us; they’re painfully in need of our approval for being assholes.

    Hence you can get Bill O or Mitt R or (pick a name) mocking anyone who tries to win sympathy for suffering people . . . while claiming that their preferred policies are actually the ones which best benefit suffering people. They claim the high ground of hard-nosed "shit happens" realism and lofty-eyed "keep believing and we’ll help everyone overcome" idealism at the same time. It makes me miss J.P. Morgan!

  4. Perhaps my biggest reason for leaving the libertarian movement was that it really wasn’t about liberty. It was about worshiping the rich. You can occasionally find a libertarian who argues in favor of unions. And I applaud that when I see it, because there is [i]no reason[/i] why a libertarian should be against unions. But almost all of them are. And by almost all of them: much more than 90%. And it is because they dislike workers and they love the rich.

    I think a lot of young people like Rand for the same reason a lot of young people really got into Mr Spock: the lack of emotion. It is emotionally hard to be a teenager and the idea of being someone who is just logical and emotionless is very seductive. But that is what makes Rand’s novels so terrible. She has no sense of character. She thought that her heroes were romantic, but Achilles had far more personality than anyone she ever wrote. As for the philosophy: all that A is A BS! Her philosophy is riddled with holes, and I think the reason she hated Kant so much is that she never understood him. He’s hard because (a) he’s not a good writer, judging by the translations; and (b) he doesn’t leave gaping holes in his philosophy. To Rand, everything was simple: black and white. And that just isn’t the universe. But I can see the appeal.

    But there was a lot of thinking like that around her time. It is just that her writing pushes a particular political agenda that the power elites like that keeps it going. On Amazon right now, the cheapest you can find her pathetic novella [i]Anthem[/i] is $2.50! You can get both [i]Of Mice and Men[/i] and [i]Animal Farm[/i] for one cent. You can get Putnam’s [i]The Portable Cervantes[/i] for one cent! But her stupid 80 page story about a kid who finds a hole, learns how to make an electric light bulb, and is ridiculed by the scientific community is still in print and selling new. There is no characterization; she’s just making a straw man argument: if you take collectivist values to an absurd extent and then really stretch it from there, people might lash out at innovators. There’s an obvious counter argument: even the most dogmatic societies ever welcomed innovation that improved their lives. But in her world there were just two kinds of people: the good (the kid) and the bad (everyone else). But look at what Rand left: a movement that is petrified of not seeing things exactly as she did. Any new intellectual idea is met by the Objectivists the same way the scientists met with the light bulb. It is a wonderful irony!

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