With the release of Son of God, a new movie about the life of Jesus, Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey remember that “Jesus films have not always been so serious, and they have not always been directed toward particular segments of the Christian community”:
Neither Godspell, nor Jesus Christ Superstar endeavored to convert unbelievers to Christianity. If they had a particular audience in mind, it was those who loved the theater. Both originated as stage productions. Tim Rice, the writer of Jesus Christ Superstar, explained later that he was fascinated with Jesus as a human and not as a divine figure. Following the theological controversy of the 1960s that had some leading religious thinkers emphasizing the actions of humans and not the powers of God, Rice tapped into this humanistic concern. In some respects, Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar wanted to have their communion bread and eat it too. They followed the Jesus People movement by repacking Jesus in the idiom of cool, but also indulged in the new theologies that wanted to dispense with his divinity.
Blum and Harvey go on to ponder why, then, “major motion pictures about Jesus returned to their serious ways”:
So what was unique about the 1970s? One main difference was that evangelicals and Catholics had yet to form tight political bonds and had yet to become a powerful niche market. By the time of [Mel] Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, an entire industry of the devout had been created. It boasted singers like Amy Grant, athletes like NBA star David Robinson, restaurants like Chic-fil-A, and painters like Thomas Kinkade. Those markets, along with conservative media outlets, made the Son of God and The Passion not only possible, but lucrative. In fact, a main sponsor of The Bible miniseries was the dating site Christian Mingle.
Recent Dish on God and Hollywood here.
(Video: Clip from Jesus Christ Superstar, 1973)