Sunday, August 3, 2014

Godspell Revisited

Recently I went to see a summer stock production of Godspell. It had been many years since I had seen it. To tell the truth I remember the 1973 movie version better than the 1971 stage version. Godspell was an important milestone on my spiritual journey. Godspell’s appearance on the American cultural scene coincided with my personal acceptance of the gospel.

I remember singing “Day by Day” like a mantra in those early heady days after my conversion. The words summed up the intentions of my heart. “Day by day, oh, dear Lord, three things I pray: To see thee more clearly, Love thee more dearly, Follow thee more nearly, day by day.”

My college girlfriend at the time (now my wife of 40 years) could belt out “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” in a voice that sounded like a born again Janis Joplin. The song “God Save the People” still moves me.

So my wife and I (along with some friends from church) went to see Godspell on a Sunday afternoon, expecting to take a stroll down Nostalgia Lane, reliving the Jesus Movement days when it was hip to be a hippie and a Christian. I did not realize that the musical had been reworked in 2011 for its 40th anniversary. It is not the Godspell I remember.

I noticed something was amiss as soon as the curtains parted and a huge G could be seen hanging from the stage rafters. I wondered if I had accidently walked into a Masonic gathering. Isn’t that supposed to be an S like on the Superman shirt that Jesus wears in the show?

When Jesus came on the stage he was not wearing long hair, a superman shirt and clown makeup like I remembered him from my youth. Instead he was a clean cut young man wearing some type of navy blazer with a faux military emblem on the sleeve.

I wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be a naval officer or a member of the local yacht club. He reminded me of a younger version of Thurston Howell III, the millionaire from Gilligan’s Island. That is not my idea of Jesus. I do not picture Christ as either an admiral or a millionaire.

These actors were not pretending to be 1970’s hippies. These young’uns looked like they had stepped off the set of the television show Glee. Oh, I get it! That is what the big hanging G stands for! This is GleeSpell. That is why the cast is so neatly dressed and coiffed!

Then the cast started singing rap music, and making references to Obamacare and Donald Trump. Okay. This is certainly a new type of Godspell. I tried to get into it, but I couldn’t. It wasn’t just that it was visually and musically different. It was the spirit.

The original Godspell communicated the Spirit of the gospel in the culture of the early 1970’s. It was genuinely Christian. I was hoping that this reworked Godspell would translate the Christian gospel into 21st century culture. But it didn’t. The culture came through clearly, but not the gospel.

The actors and musicians were talented. I am not being critical of their abilities. But it felt like they didn’t really get it. It was like listening to someone sing the blues who had never suffered. Or like listening to a love song sung by someone who had never been in love.

This cast was talented but clueless about the gospel. This was demonstrated in the constant dissonance between the body language and the words of the script. Jesus’s parables were presented by the cast, but the way they reacted to the words make it clear that the actors had no idea what they meant. The gospel is missing from Godspell. Now it is just another lively Broadway musical touring America’s small stages.

How did this happen? Perhaps Godspell is simply reflecting Christian culture. In the past forty years American Christianity has gradually become more entertainment than gospel. Worship services in contemporary churches feel more like performance art than spiritual worship. Godspell is the canary in the mine. But at least the canary can sing … for the time being.