Gregory L. Jackson
Those who recall the 1960s, fondly or with regret, cannot forget the national interest caused by Godspell, the first Jesus film to break the pattern of the Biblical saga. Set in New York City, the movie opens with John the Baptist gathering disciples and baptizing Jesus, who is dressed as a clown and sports a heart on his forehead. Some might see Godspell as a hippy Jesus, an expression of the moment, but the movie really represents the culmination of Bultmann’s agenda in Biblical studies (Holding, 2009). This is Jesus from the 1960s demythologizing and remythologizing Bible, a moral teacher who died on the cross and did not rise from the dead (Deacy, 2007). Rather than portraying great agony over his identity, as Jesus Christ Superstar or The Last Temptation of Christ did later, Godspell presented Jesus in a perfectly appealing way for liberals from New York City, where it began. The film could be enjoyed by the Jesus people of that era or by mainline clergy, who hailed it at the Toronto premiere. An Episcopal priest, A. D. Brown cautioned that "it might have been thought of as blasphemy 20 years ago (Toronto Globe and Mail, 1972)."
Godspell is a delightful romp, full of dancing and singing, with several classics (Day by Day, Turn Back O Man) sung in creative, funny, or appealing ways. The musical began as John Trebelak’s master’s thesis project at Carnegie-Mellon University, 1970. The original lyrics were all from the Episcopal hymnal. After an experimental run at Café LaMaMa, the production moved to the off Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre in 1971. Steven Schwartz, from Carnegie Mellon, was hired to write a new score, adding original songs to the modernized hymns. Godspell moved to Broadway in 1976, ran for 576 performances, and became a movie in 1973 (Patches and Face Paint, 2009). Local theatre productions in Los Angeles, Boston, and Toronto doubtless added to the excitement of the film’s premiere.
Godspell is advertised as a version of Matthew’s Gospel, but that premise is true only if one accepts the Bultmann program, better explained by a teen in the 1970s. She described her lack of interest in a Bible study: “We don’t care who Jesus was then. We only care who Jesus is today!” So Godspell offered a Jefferson Bible approach to Jesus – a gentle teacher of moral tales, a human being, a unique individual. The film is a-historical; that is, history does not matter at all for the narration. Strangely, Jesus has men and women disciples, four each. Also, John the Baptist continues to follow Jesus, in spite of his beheading in the Gospel, then turns into Judas Iscariot, betraying Jesus but forgiven. Jesus is a gentle clown figure, very winsome with a great singing voice and dancing talent. A stranger would have trouble imagining why Jesus was betrayed and killed, since he is such an appealing figure in the film. Thus the foundation of the film cannot support the ending. The Last Supper and crucifixion are strange endings for the happy-go-lucky clowns, who carry out the dead body of their leader.
Baugh compared Godspell to Jesus Christ Superstar in this way: Superstar is a Passion Play. Godspell ends with the Last Supper and Passion, but as brief scenes disconnected to the first part of the film (Baugh, 1997, p. 43). Godspell is impressionistic, unassuming, with a low budget and no-name actors. Baugh argues that Jesus is presented as the divine Son of God in the film, and some scenes can be taken that way: the prologue, the prayer in the Garden, the Last Supper. However, if one sticks with impressions given, this Messianic figure is fun rather than polarizing. Apart from his dialogue with the Pharisee monster, who is activated by his followers, Jesus is non-threatening. The Parable of the Last Judgment has him separating the sheep from the goats, then inviting the goats up into the Kingdom. Judgment Day is Universalistic, because God is just too nice to condemn anyone.
Godspell is really a forerunner of the Church Growth Movement, which continues to teach the liberal program: "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross (Niebuhr, 1937, p. 193)." One can also see the influence of Hinduism in portraying Jesus as the Lord of the Dance, a figure borrowed from India, where Shiva’s title is Nataraja – Lord of the Dance. The juxtaposition of Jesus as a dancing clown and as the crucified Messiah struggles as awkwardly in Godspell as it does in the modern hymn (1963), Lord of the Dance:
I danced on a Friday and the sky turned black;
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back;
They buried my body and they thought I’d gone,
But I am the dance and I still go on.
Dance, then, wherever you may be;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.
And I’ll lead you all wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he (Carter, 1963).
Godspell represents a welcome break from the overly somber and melodramatic Jesus films of the past, but the Gospel message is lost in the amusing digressions from the actual narrative, the new mythology of a dancing god. A simple portrayal of the verbatim record in the Gospel is going to have a greater impact than a joyful, mystical, impressionistic experience.
Baugh, L. (1997). Imagining the Divine, Jesus and Christ-figures in Film. Franklin, Wisconsin: Sheed and Ward.
Carter, S. B. (1963). Lord of the dance. Retrieved February 3, 2009, from http://nethymnal.org/htm/l/o/r/lordoftd.htm
Deacy, C. (2007). From Bultmann to Burton, Demythologizing the Big Fish. In R. K. Johnston (Ed.), Reframing Theology and Film (pp. 238-260). Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
Holding, J. P. (2009). Rudolph Bultmann. Retrieved February 2, 2009, from http://www.tektonics.org/af/bultmann01.html
Niebuhr, H. R. (1937). The Kingdom of God in America. New York: Harper and Row.
Patches and Face Paint, (2009). Godspell, Original Cast. Retrieved February 2, 2009, from http://patchesandfacepaint.tripod.com/offbroadway.html
Toronto Globe and Mail, (1972, May 26, 1972). Clergymen seem to like Godspell. Toronto Globe and Mail. Retrieved February 2, 2009, from http://www.godspell.ca/reviews.htm