Godspell: A Review! By Jennifer Bell

Wait. This is the church blog?


Am I at the right place?

Godspell?!? It’s on the stage at Phoenix Theater until May 20, 2018, and we just saw it. This is an emotional subject, in all honesty.

I need to acknowledge that my initial response to Godspell is visceral. Visceral, emotionally-charged, almost instinctual! I grew up with the soundtrack. I seriously—SERIOUSLY—know "Day By Day" like you know "C is for Cookie" (which I also know). Which is to say that I adore it.

I love it.

Godspell is near, dear. And I knew it before I knew anything about Christianity. I heard it before I ever stepped foot in a church. There had been no utterances of prayer, no sacraments. Not even a little secular humanist peek at an Italian Renaissance painting depicting the crucifixion or the Last Supper. I had only memorized certain incantations, consisting—mostly—of the songs of Mr. Rogers, Bert, Ernie, and . . . Godspell.  

This was my first exposure ever to Jesus Christ.

 Can. You. Even?

My parents converted to Christianity later. Years later.

What did I think at ages three and four and five and six?

I don't know. It would be dishonest of me to tell you how I processed it; I can only say that I was, undoubtedly, affected in such a way that Godspell etched itself permanently onto my psyche.

It was only as an adult that I discovered that many, many evangelicals scoff at the hippie/clownish production. I had no clue whatsoever. One day, this fall, at a picnic at my kids’ Christian school, I mentioned to another mom (a fave mom) that we had tickets to see Godspell, and I saw her shudder. It was subtle. A hint of disdain?

A smile followed.

The moment passed.

Would you believe that I was floored?

I'm very, very, very used to being the artistic and political "renegade" in churches (how absurd that I, Jennifer Bell, am an insurgent!!!!). But, well, it’s happened over a long history. If I wasn't going to rock concerts as a kid or even with my kids, I was reading Salinger or Hemingway or writing down a bad word. If I wasn’t seeing a Judd Apatow film, I was talking about zombies. And now, to top it off, my loud-mouth politics! (I don’t know if anyone noticed, but I stopped writing for the Roosevelt blog post-election—though I have continued to edit the blog. This was a self-imposed move to spare those who might be conflicted about, um, me.) The point is that I'm used to my spot on the outskirts of town. The wild, wild west. And I'm thankful that Tim is here too, because it would be very hard to be alone—watching all these R-rated movies and stuff (I’m joking!).

But Godspell.

I looked into the evangelical opposition.

The main issue is not its hippie-take (it’s super-Seventies: something like “The Banana Splits Adventure Hour” meets “Sonny and Cher” meets The Gospel of Matthew). Rather, it's that there's no resurrection. In this hippie gospel, Jesus is crucified—but He is not raised from the dead.

For good summary and plot info, go here. I’m not going over the story, but I will say that it is respectful (no mockery), and there really is not much distortion of the biblical text. Briefly, the play hits upon some parables – evoking Christ’s actual teachings often enough – and culminating in betrayal and crucifixion.

But no resurrection.

Why is this a big deal for Christians?

Well, certainly, victory over death must be won. Redemption requires resolution. (I could go off on a great big tangent on how novelization/fiction-writing/storytelling also demands resolution—so this is absolutely logical.) Without this pivotal happening, we are left with a subtle suggestion—a favorite secular suggestion—that Jesus was a good man, an awesome teacher, a cool dude. But not really the Son of God or anything.

Without the resurrection, this resolution, a victory over death, the emphasis may be on love, but it’s an incomplete love, a neutered kind of love. We are looking at the teachings of Jesus without the redemptive work of Jesus.

There you go.

This is why Godspell is often looked upon with disdain.

Let me sneak in a quick story.

This same friend – who I totally like and she took her kids to see U2 too and she’s reading this now and what’s so crazy is that I’m the conservative Calvinist and she’s the not-Calvinist – has been trying to get me (and the fam) to attend a Christian concert. She texted, “I know how you love Christian music.”

When I hear about Christian music concerts, I’m often, like, Where’s the back door?????

 Find the way OUT!

My friend knows that I’m playing around here; we agree on many things—none of them looking like this pattern of letters: T R U M P.

(Wendy saw her text and said, “We don’t need to listen to Christian music. We listen to U2!” She’s a good kid.)

I texted my friend in response, “We saw Godspell yesterday” – just to irk her.

She was ready with her come-back. “Did Jesus stay dead?”


Yes, he did.

Which means, quite simply, death is not resolved, there is no victory, and Jesus was not who He said He was. Jesus lied.

Some people—my mom included—think there is a resurrection scene.

There isn't.

Actually, the original director says that it doesn't matter if there’s a resurrection or not. We're missing the point. Which is LOVE.

Which is my point, exactly.

It’s a very nice message that we can make all the difference in the world if only we love one another.

End of story.

So should you great big consumers of Art write off Godspell as godless?

I think this is directly related to my own work. As a "working Artist" (ha!), I'm used to, if not "comfortable" with, embracing the virtues of works with which I don't entirely agree. I have had to be comfortable with dissecting art -- raising up the good parts, being okay with the problematic.

For example, the film version of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, starring Daniel Day Lewis, is so profound, so moving, so thematically rich but, if I remember correctly, crazy sexually explicit. I could do without that. Still, it's an awesome film. Awesome!

And I have found that this is necessarily the posture of an Artist who is a Christian in a secular world.

I just saw Trevor Noah in concert. I loved 85% of it. I didn’t love 15% of it. I wish it were different. I want for it to be different. I’ll work for it to be different, but I will still love Trevor Noah.

This production of Godspell?

It was excellent.

I was very impressed.

One actor's voice was better than the next.

There are two things I might particularly point out. First, Art often does speak to our emotions. It often speaks in that visceral way. This should never be an excuse to discount its value. Art speaks of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness still.

And Godspell packs an emotional punch about the death of Jesus Christ. The death hurt.

Like, it really hurts.

And I think it should.

Second, I was touched by the way Godspell presents Jesus as Jesus for all people. When Jesus says goodbye to his followers in the play, it’s profound. (I was intrigued, truly, with the way they did the farewell scene between males in the production.)

Go see it immediately.

Its message is partial. And I think it's emotionally relevant. It touches upon an emotional truth that's rare. So, yeah, I love it. And that message of love, albeit partial, is relevant too.