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.
Many people have found a week of creativity and community in the desert to be a spiritual experience, but not always one associated with organized religion. Here are a few examples of Burning Man attendees, or “Burners,” who find parallels between their experiences in the desert and the philosophy of the Gospels.
This article from The Atlantic last year looks at the shift in ways that Jesus has been popularly depicted in film since 1970. It considers the film version of Godspell rather than the stage production, but gives some insight into the context in terms of religious movements and the media landscape, then and now.
“Hippies and their religious analogue, the Jesus People, defined themselves by experimentation. … For the latter, it meant relating to Jesus in new ways. Their ‘buddy’ Jesus ‘took a bad rap.’ The new vernacular even had a new Bible, The Way, which translated biblical texts into what seemed then a ‘cool’ idiom.”
There has been a lot of debate over what Jesus would think of various contemporary social issues. In St. Louis, and many other cities, that question has brought people from churches out to protests. Godspell emerged out of a time of civil unrest and an active struggle for social justice, and its reflections on Jesus as a rebel—carving his own path and upsetting the religious status quo—remain topical. The connections are there without having to venture far from the Gospels themselves.
Have lovely holidays, with whatever religious or social significance you prefer, and keep an eye out for more thought-provocation and context as we approach Godspell in the new year!
(I don’t believe that the song functions as a generalization against all Christians, but rather as a social critique; however, this is the internet, so here’s an opposing point of view!)
“Both [Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar] portray [Jesus] as a hippie opposed to the hypocrisy of the religious establishment, but they draw on conflicting impulses from the sixties in creating those images. As every student of the decades knows, the sixties went in like a lamb and out like a lion. They were peace and love and flower power: Woodstock. Then they were race riots and overdoses and Vietnam: Altamont. Superstar grows out of the sixties’ dark side. […] Godspell, by contrast, is a product of the sixties’ bright side. True, its Jesus flays lawyers and Pharisees as snakes and vipers, but […] he sings about love and harmony, thanks God for sunshine and rain, and rejoices in a community of caring friends.”
Check out Stephen Prothero’s fascinating and detailed history of Jesus’ place in American culture (American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon). In addition to his direct discussion of Godspell, the whole of the fourth chapter, “Superstar,” provides excellent historical context for the religious trends behind the concept of a hippie Jesus.
Passion plays are still being performed all over the world, including in towns with traditions dating back to the 17th century. Here is a 2007 passion play from Manchester, England, using popular music to tell the story.
The legacy of the passion play includes the second act of Godspell and shows from Jesus Christ Superstar to Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play, which looks at the lives of passion play actors from different centuries and countries. It also extends beyond theatre. One example came out just a couple of years after Godspell‘s premiere: Jethro Tull’s concept album, “A Passion Play.”