A lot of Godspell involves exploring ways to tell Biblical stories and illustrate philosophy, sometimes in playful, interactive, and performative ways.
This challenge of bringing philosophical ideas to life in a fun, engaging way for people of all ages and walks of life, is one that religious groups face all the time. Clown ministries are one approach. Here are some others.
There’s are a surprising number of clown ministries, and information about them, from a range of books to this 1989 New York Times article. While Godspell has moved away from the literal clown, its roots still lie in the playful, “fool for Christ” idea.
Godspell, along with many clown ministries, was inspired by Harvey Cox’s 1969 book The Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy. Cox writes that “In a success and money-oriented society we need a rebirth of unapologetically unproductive festivity and expressive celebration.” The title comes from the Feast of Fools, a medieval feast day involving the inversion of clerical roles to symbolize humility and the “first being last.” Celebrations often included liturgical drama, and sometimes bawdy masks and parodies of usually-sacred traditions. As celebrations became wilder and more extravagant, Catholic writers condemned the practices and eventually, in 1431, the Feast of Fools was banned by the Church.
In the chapter “Christ the Harlequin,” Cox paints Jesus as a wise fool, reminiscent of the Shakespearean trope. He quotes from First Epistle to the Corinthians that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men…” and connects this playful wisdom to festivity and fantasy—unapologetic celebration and creative imagination. Cox describes some previous depictions of Jesus as a fool or clown, symbolizing the “combination of merriment and seriousness.” Georges Rouault’s painting “Christ Mocked” is one of the most prominent examples, and controversial at the time, although a far cry from the wig and superman t-shirt associated with Godspell.