Almost a year and a half ago, I was having a conversation with one of my pastors. At the time, I was set to soon be part of a church plant in Asheville, North Carolina. As I began to express a certain anxiety about my upcoming move, my pastor presented an interesting question, “Have you ever thought about staying in Louisville?” The honest answer at the time was no. Somehow the thought had never occurred to me that I could settle down here. I had always intended on moving on to some other place to do pastoral work. The questions stuck in my mind, though, and soon several events transpired that made this off-hand question a very serious consideration, including the cancellation of the church plant. After many, many months of reconsidering, suddenly I find myself contemplating what it would look like to settle down and make Louisville my home. Continue reading
I have loved the story of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables for some time, previous film versions of the story (particularly the 1998 theatrical version starring Liam Neeson and the 2000 made-for-TV version with Gerard Depardieu), and, yes, the popular stage musical. I really wanted to love this new film version as well. There is a redemptive element in the story that pulls on the heart, and it rings especially true, though not exclusively, to the Christian. The perpetual longing for redemption within the human soul has made the story live over and over again in many artistic forms. With many incarnations already under its belt, does the new film version of the musical live up to such rich material? The answer is one of both glory and misery. Continue reading
I’m beginning to think that if I don’t have an identity crisis at least once a month, I’m simply not taking in enough good art. A few weeks ago, I watched a piece of theater that has become a bit of a local staple here in Louisville: Actors Theatre’s production of Dracula. It is really one of the very few pieces of theater I have seen in recent years, but with the performance came a flood of emotions, the degree of which I wasn’t quite expecting. It threw me into a serious identity crisis that, if I were to be quite honest, I’m not entirely over. In fact, I intend not to be. Continue reading
(Cross-posted at Image of Truth)
Palm Sunday beings Passion Week (or Holy Week). The primary event the day commemorates is Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem on the Sunday before he was crucified. The work pictured, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem by Jean-Hippolyte Flanderin, is one of a minority of painting to portray a certain uniqueness in Matthew’s telling of the triumphal entry. Matthew alone says that Jesus used two donkeys, not one, in his ride into Jerusalem:
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:“Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,“Hosanna to the Son of David!”“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”“Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matt. 21:1-6)
The other gospels do not include this detail. However Matthew, who focuses on Jesus most as Jewish Messiah, is careful to include it. Meanwhile, the scene features a word that we often confuse or misinterpret today. Hosanna was not merely a praise, as it is often used today, but also a cry for salvation. The crowds were, as Jesus entered Jersualem, praising and proclaiming him the Messiah that would save Israel once and for all. When this did not happen in the way they believed it would, they turned on him just a few days later. Yet, in doing so, salvation was brought in the way that the Messiah did intend… his own death and resurrection.
The Hosanna from the gospels has been set to music many times, in many styles. Sojourn Music has a setting of it on their album Advent Songs (with Christmas-themed lyrics, however we at Sojourn traditionally sing an alternate set of lyrics to the same melody on Palm Sunday). Well-known musical theatre composer Andrew Lloyd Webber has composed two Hosannas, one for the controversial rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar in 1970 and another, using the Vulgate translation of Mark 11:9, in his highly stylized Requiem Mass in 1984. This version is show below in its first live performance.
(Illustration: Jean-Hippolyte Flanderin, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, 1842)
The rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar is an interesting piece of work. Originating as a a two-disc rock album in 1970 written by the then very young composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice, featuring the lead singer of the band Deep Purple as Jesus Christ, the work was controversial even before reaching the stage a year later and the silver screen in 1973. The composer was raised mainline Methodist, the lyricist an agnostic; the work neither endorsed nor denied Christ’s divinity, problematic for many Christians already, and further complicated by being told largely from the viewpoint of one generally considered an antagonist in the Passion narrative, Judas Iscariot. This, mixed with the theologically problematic lyrics resulting from the former circumstances, makes the piece generally unacceptable to Christian viewers and hearers. How is it, then, that a secular rock opera about Jesus Christ played a monumentally pivotal role in my spiritual life?
When I was fourteen, I saw Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most famous musical The Phantom of the Opera at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta with my grandparents after becoming fond of its score when a teacher played the original cast recording in class. I was curious what else the composer had written. My mother recalled a rock opera that her brother had listened to on LP growing up, Jesus Christ Superstar. I managed to procure a copy and listened. I was enraptured by the classic rock songs telling the story of the Passion of Christ. The late 60s guitar mixed with a full orchestra in the Overture captured my imagination. The raspy, blue-eyed soul voice of Murray Head as Judas straining in his opening soliloque “Heaven on Their Minds” was mind-blowing (and every bit as much all the way to Judas’ posthumous commentary “Superstar” before the crucifixion), and then came along Ian Gillan’s Jesus in the third number with what one might be tempted to call “the voice of a god” were it not a bit too cliché for the circumstance. His stratospheric screams were something I never thought I’d find in a musical, culminating in his powerful lament to God in “Gethsemane.” Aside from Phantom, I didn’t even like musicals… but I loved this!
As I listened to this high-fidelity retelling of the Passion Week, however, there was much I didn’t understand. Having not been regularly to church in about four years or so at that point, my Bible knowledge was more than a bit rusty. The last track on the album was titled “John 19:41,” but I had no clue what that passage was. I managed to dig out the King James Bible I had been given as a young child and looked up the passage, which read:
Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid.
The piece ended with Christ being laid in the tomb. Interesting. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but I was certainly unsettled by the feeling that this wasn’t the end, and had the conviction for the first time in years that this was an important story. The question of the mystery verse answered, I found myself continuing to read in John and then Luke, trying to figure out what in the bizarre rock opera was actually in scripture and what was, as we might say, dramatic license. I finished both of those gospels in a month’s time, eventually going through Matthew and Mark as well. Meanwhile, I watched the film version of the rock opera starring Ted Neeley as Jesus and Carl Anderson as Judas. The humanity the lead actors lent to the roles broke down ideas of a stiff, unfeeling Christ and company that many previous films and perhaps too many flannel graphs had instilled in my mind.
In a year’s time, as I began to sign up for classes going into tenth grade, my interest in the story of the gospel narrative and the historicity behind it had grown to such an extent that I signed up for a released-time program at the Gilmer Christian Learning Center. My relationship with Jesus Christ Superstar never truly ended, whatever theological objections I could think to raise about some of its lyrics. I eventually saw a stage production starring Carl Anderson shortly before his death, and the original double album still finds its way into my car’s disc changer from time to time. I can’t loose myself of it. It was simply a life-changing work of art that raised all the right questions at the right times and was used by God to make a difference in my life. What else can we ask a piece of art to do?
Murray Head, the original concept album Judas, in a concert performance of “Superstar”:
Ted Neeley, Jesus in the 1973 film, in “Gethsemane”:
(Illustration: the original cover art for the American release of Jesus Christ Superstar: A Rock Opera, the concept album.)
Welcome to Image of Truth, a blog dedicated to engaging aesthetics and the arts from a Biblical Christian perspective. As a brief introduction, there will be numerous contributors here, each from a somewhat unique perspective when it comes to their involvement in art, church tradition, and background, though we could all be considered Protestant and broadly evangelical, thus coming at this from certain set presuppositions that will hopefully unify our conversation. From practicing artists with a commitment to the Christian faith to ministers and theological students with an interest in art (and many in-between), we will act as a community trying to shed light on the issues regarding beauty and art from the perspective of Biblical Christianity.
The goal of this blog is simple:
- To equip the Church to recognize the importance of beauty and developing a truly biblical aesthetic (that is, a philosophy of beauty).
- To equip the Church to recognize the importance and sanctity of the arts in the daily life of the Christian and the corporate Church, as well as in the history of God’s people over the course of history. Specifically, we will address issues of visual art (drawing, painting, sculpture, printing, etc.), music, theater, film, and literature.
- To engage the arts in our contemporary culture by interacting with and analyzing various artistic expressions today, from contemporary art to music, film, and theater.
It is my hope and prayer that this blog will be of great use for the Kingdom.
For the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
Jake, Image of Truth manager/editor
[Pictured: Rouault, Paysage]