Warning: This post was published more than 5 years ago.
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I really, really like Love Never Dies. I saw the original production and loved it, and saw the revised version and loved it still more. Well, maybe not more, but at least equally, and I appreciated that the changes were necessary for those less familiar with the backstory.
ALW is on the media circuit down-under at the moment due to the Antipodean opening of the aforementioned musical. In a recent interview (that I now can’t find), there was some tangential comparison between Love Never Dies and Jesus Christ Superstar, including the assertion that the latter was never intended as as a stage show, but merely a concept album.
Jesus Christ Superstar is something that I probably grew up with, and never really understood. So I dug it out on Spotify for a re-listen, and ultimately found that it bore several re-listens over several days. I actually found that I really quite liked it, but there was something missing.
It was the search for the thing that was not-quite-right that lead to me listening to the album more times over than is probably healthy, frequently on may way into or home from work. The album seemed to have everything: love, lust, jeopardy, moral complexity, and, of course, great music.
But something didn’t “hang” right.
The last time I had this feeling was over the wildly successful Wicked. I eventually realised that the missing ingredient here was moral complexity: the story is fairytale simple, with “good” and “evil”. This removes the intrinsic interest of moral complexity, and any sense of jeopardy, since the moralistic absolutes mean that the outcome is clearly predetermined.
And if anyone points out that this is obvious in a musical that’s aimed at children, I’d point them in the direction of Captain Scarlet, possibly the most morally complex TV series ever made, which was aimed squarely at children. The concepts explored in that are essentially the same concepts that Tony Blair battled with when deciding whether to invade Iraq. But I digress…
Moral absolutism meant that Wicked‘s outcome is predetermined. In itself, that’s not a problem that affects Jesus Christ Superstar. The morality is absolutist, but not out-and-out so. Jesus is not always immediately perfect in the musical – he gets angry, shouts, and is generally portrayed as having a human temperament, even if the backstory makes clear that ultimately he was on the side of the angels. So to speak.
The problem with Jesus Christ Superstar is Judas: his character’s storyline is never completed, which makes the whole musical unbalanced. In the musical, it is predetermined that Judas will betray Jesus. Judas duly betrays Jesus, Jesus gets cross and berates Judas who hangs himself, Judas’s ghost gives his reasons for his betrayal (whilst simultaneously knowing that it was predetermined and not really his fault), and Jesus promptly dies.
There’s no forgiving of Judas. There’s no relief for Judas from his wracked guilt. He’s left at the low-point of his story-arc, despite the musical constantly reminding us that Jesus, and by extension God, are forgiving. There’s no resolution.
This seemed a really odd choice. A couple of lines in the penultimate song (“Crucifixion”) with Jesus asking God to forgive Judas would fix it – yet he merely asks God to forgive everyone else. Obviously, Judas being stopped from hanging himself would be all the better, but hey-ho.
So why does the musical leave this story, ahem, hanging?
Well, it turns out that it’s based on the Biblical story. As a non-believer, I’m not sure if it’s right for me to write posts poking holes in Christian theology, but I see no problem with pointing out holes in the plot of the book.
It is make explicit that Judas had no choice but to betray Jesus. It was prophesied that he would do so, hence his fate was effectively pre-determined. Luke says that he was possessed by Satan at the time, which adds yet more weight to the argument (Luke 22:3).
Given that Judas effectively had no say in the matter, it seem logical that his actions should be forgiven. Judas even confesses his sins (Matthew 27:4). Jesus has previously said that he would view anyone who did God’s will as his blood relative (Matthew 12:50). Punishment for actions over which there was no choice, and fulfilled God’s predetermined plan, and for which Judas has asked forgiveness, seems sadistic and vengeful.
Because of that, what happened to Judas after the betrayal becomes really important. A forgiving Jesus who “turns the other cheek” should absolve Judas, and all should live happily ever after.
Yet, bizarrely, the Bible is really unclear on what happened afterwards. Matthew says he committed suicide (Matthew 27:9-10). This doesn’t seem a great ending: Follow the path that God has laid for you and you’ll end up so guilt-ridden that you’ll kill yourself. Though perhaps that explains why suicide rates are higher in Christian than Muslim countries. Still, not something you here being preached every day.
Acts has a different story. Here, Judas buys a field, and falls over in it, causing his entire body to explode with bowels gushing everywhere (Acts 1:18). It’s difficult to imagine that this is intended to have happened by natural means, so it seems that God is directly punishing Judas on Earth for something that God had planned for Judas to do. How rewarding.
The non-canonical Gospel of Judas describes Judas being stoned to death by the other disciples. That’s Peter stoning to death Judas for following God’s pre-determined path. How does that sit with the Catholic church?
Barnabas reckons that, by some miracle, Judas was crucified instead of Jesus. Not friendly treatment.
And, lastly, Papias preached that Judas swelled up to quite an extraordinary size, until he was crushed by a chariot which was so huge it couldn’t get past him. That sounds worse than crucifixion. Again, apparently divine punishment for following a divine path.
Whichever one you choose, it represents a sticky end for Judas which seems entirely unjustifiable given that he was doing things which were pre-determined.
So the treatment of Judas is my Big Fat Theological Question of the Day: Why is Judas punished in the most horrendous way for following the will of God?
To my non-religious mind, that seems like a big ‘plot hole’ in the Biblical story.