Yet another college theatre troupe revival of the 1971 Broadway musical “Godspell” at Catholic University last weekend featured a radiant performance by Falls Church’s Nathan Ward, who played and sang the lead role of Jesus.
Ward, the star of many a high school musical at Falls Church’s George Mason High, won the role despite being a mere freshman at C.U., and based on his performance in the student-run Centerstage Theatre Company production, it is clear why.
“Godspell,” written by John-Michael Tebelak with music and lyrics by Steven Schwartz, was controversial when it first appeared as an Off Broadway production, mixing Biblical New Testament themes with up-beat song and dance and a hippie-like behavior.
But at the core of what has made it rub “establishment” religious types the wrong way has been the portrayal of its central figure, Jesus, himself, and not just the fact that it ends with his death, and lacks reference to a resurrection.
As a graduate seminarian, this writer has waged a fight over the character of the historical Jesus all his adult life, and not only against those who view Jesus as a blond, blue-eyed, tall, deep-voiced Nordic type.
Right-wing fundamentalists, in particular, who have at the core of their mission and world view the perpetuation of the so-called traditional, male-dominated nuclear family, have touted the image of Jesus as a muscular, frowning, authoritarian father figure, who doles out mercy and forgiveness only to those who vow to “sin no more.”
To them, it is the “person” of Jesus as the divine son of God that matters far more than the historical record of his words, except for those that claim his divinity. For them, all the historical Jesus represents, for all intents and purposes, is a face on the Holy Spirit, who is far more central to their theology than Jesus’ teachings.
By claiming the Holy Spirit, combined with Biblical literalism, the assertion that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, as the root of their faith, they assert the license to propound almost any prejudice as the Word of God, claiming such are channeled by the Holy Spirit through any fraud that commands a pulpit. They then selectively choose Biblical verses taken out of context to justify their false authority.
Such means were used to propound the racial superiority of Anglos, slavery, religious bigotry and hate, war, male supremacy over women, economic exploitation through “free market” practices, prohibition of interracial marriage, and the foment of violence and discrimination against homosexuals, among other things.
To them, Christian charity is limited to narrow personal acts of condescension toward needy people who otherwise do not offend them.
Churches propounding this vision of religion are truly the “bastions of the establishment,” and were perceived as such by the swelling legions of youth who fueled the civil rights, anti-war, feminist and gay liberation struggles of the late 1960s. A radically contrary religious approach arose in that era, known as “liberation theology.”
“Liberation theology” redefined Christianity from the standpoint of the teachings of Jesus, not the person of Jesus, as one who stood staunchly on behalf of the world’s oppressed and downtrodden.
It was into this climate of social and religious tension that “Godspell” came.
By focusing on the contents of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the musical is centered on the parables of Jesus and his Sermon on the Mount.
In particular, it is the parables that best represent the “voice” and worldview of the historical Jesus, as the renowned New Testament theologian, and my teacher, Joachim Jeremias, documented through an arduous, lifelong effort at digging behind the written gospels to their Aramaic and other roots, and so forth.
In the parables, Jeremias found, the real Jesus of history can be found. The parables were, he established, not just nice stories or metaphors, but were highly polemical tools used by the historical Jesus in arguments with his adversaries.
They reveal a very feisty figure, who in parables such as the Good Samaritan, Pharisee and Publican and Prodigal Son takes to task conventional prejudices, indifference and hypocrisy on behalf and in defense of the victims of such behavior.
Another very revealing feature of the historical Jesus that Jeremias documented was Jesus’ sense of his own relationship to God. Jeremias is credited with establishing the fact that Jesus’ use of the term, “abba,” with reference to the divine is authentic to the original historical figure, and that the Aramaic term means not “father” so much as it means something more akin to “daddy.”
By this, we find that Jesus had a sense of intimacy with respect to the divine, but not as one who propounded some booming, judgmental, male chauvinist image, but on the contrary, almost as if a child.
So the historical Jesus was most likely a diminutive, compassionate and combative figure, more boyish in his demeanor, more in keeping with the image of Old Testament’s King David, not the adult David, but the young David that slew Goliath.
In fact, the paradigm of David slaying Goliath, such a central theme in the rise of the Italian republics during the Renaissance, is a valid one for comprehending the historical Jesus. It is likely, in fact, that the historic Jesus saw himself in terms of the young David slaying Goliath.
Jesus animated his role by his teachings, in the form of a deeply-felt compassion that energized sharp arguments against the perpetrators of the status quo, including the prejudices, hatreds and divisions that defined it.
What did Jesus actually sound like? If a clear voice doesn’t come out of the parables, themselves, then I recommend trying on the voice of the vocalist, Dann P, in the album, “Epicon,” by the musical group Globus. I have shut my eyes and envisioned it is the historical Jesus that is singing the number, “Sarabande,” on that album, with just the right blend of bite and passion.
“Godspell,” in my view, gets at these same notions in its own way. For that, we can thank its creators, and also Nathan Ward for his very Jesus-like rendering of Jesus last weekend.