The Greatest Story Ever (Re)Told
I was a junior high schooler growing up in the Bible Belt when I first heard the concept album “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The retelling of the events leading up to the crucifixion of the Son of God Christ made a household name of the then-22 year old composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and – slightly lesser so – 26 year old lyricist Tim Rice.
Tonight, NBC is presenting “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert.” This Easter production stars, among others, John Legend, the Academy Award winner and 10-time Grammy Award winner, as Jesus and Alice Cooper, the son of a Christian evangelist, as King Herod.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” was envisioned as a “rock opera” by Webber and Rice, who are credited with creating the genre. Their “Brown Album,” as it came to be known for its packaging, sold 3 million copy worldwide. That led to a Broadway stage production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” in 1971, a production in London’s West End and a 1972 and a motion picture in 1973.
Despite the success of the Brown album, the Broadway and West End stage productions and the Hollywood motion picture, “Jesus Christ Superstar” was not well received in some quarters.
In fact, a New York Times review noted that when the Broadway production opened, “it was criticized not only by some Jews as anti-Semitic, but also by some Catholics and Protestants as blasphemous in its portrayal of Jesus…”
Yet, the contemporary rendering of the passion of Christ by Webber and Rice – both who were reared in Christian homes – served a Kingdom purpose.
Indeed, while Billy Graham’s taste didn’t run to rock opera, he nevertheless allowed that “if the production … causes young people to search their Bibles, to that extent it may be beneficial.”
And after a special screening of the movie “Jesus Christ Superstar” for Pope Paul VI, the pontiff told director Norman Jewison, “Not only do I appreciate your beautiful rock opera film, I believe it will bring more people around the world to Christianity…”
Both the Rev. Graham and Pope Paul VI proved prescient. Because “Jesus Christ Superstar” was one of the soundtracks of the Jesus Movement. It almost certainly contributed to the emergence of Christian rock labels, such as Maranatha! Music, founded in 1971 by Chuck Smith, pastor of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California.
The label was an outlet for Christian rock bands that performed during Calvary Chapel worship services. It was an innovation that grew Calvary Chapel from a 25-member congregation to an evangelical megachurch, with more than 1,000 Calvary Chapel churches planted throughout the United States and hundreds more throughout the world.
Calvary Chapel’s example has been emulated by such megachurches as Hillsong, Saddleback and Lakewood, which marry contemporary “praise and worship” music with a traditional Christian message. That God-inspired formula has been reaching the young and the unchurched for the past four decades, fulfilling the Great Commission to “Go and make disciples of all nations.”
This evening, “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” will have an audience of more than a million viewers. Some, if not many, of those watching will be unchurched and unsaved. But there will be something about the production that will stir their spirits, motivate them to start going to church and ultimately give their lives to Christ.
And there will be joy in the presence of angels of God over every single one of those sinners who repent.