Sunday, March 20, 2011


Godspell or God-awful? 
The original movie was released in 1973 and was adapted from an off-Broadway play created by John-Michael Tebelak. The movie takes place in modern day New York City with a motley crew of ten troubadours traipsing around the cities famous land marks dancing, singing, and acting out skits of the parables from the book of Matthew. When it was originally released, it received good reviews and relatively more acclaim than the similarly biblilically-insired the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. It has also been reenacted more often by churches and youth groups, who use it for evangelism and teaching purposes.

The film begins with the hustle and bustle of the normal city life, highlighting the main characters as they go about their worldly pursuits. Then here comes over the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge a colorfully clad man pulling a cart full of junk. Is this man homeless? Here he is singing and happily smiling, enjoying his leisurely walk, as he passes and you see his coat of many colors. As he passes, one sees a fish embroidered on the back of it. It made me think, this must be Jesus. It is a movie about Jesus, isn’t it? But no, this character ends up being as psychedelic as his coat, and maybe a little schizophrenic since he ends up playing more than one part in the movie.

His first character is John the Baptist, calling the disciples from their mundane existence in the big city to the fountain in Central Park to be baptized by him. These new additions to the play come skipping to the park by the sound of a ram’s horn being blown by our John that only they hear. As they traverse toward the park they throw off their conservative attire and implements of their previous life. All inhibitions are washed away as they play in the water fountain not only to be baptized by John but by one another. It is as if they are no longer the responsible adults of their previous existence but are regressing to a more youthful, carefree existence of children.

At first I had hope for this film, especially since I am a fan of musicals and especially Jesus Christ Superstar, but it seemed that from this point forward except for some good musical numbers I could not shake the idea that I was watching a rendition of Jesus’ life by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus.

Jesus pops in on John and these unsuspecting disciples across from the fountain. He is made-up as either a clown or a mime. He has John baptize him and as he come up out of the water he is now dressed more as a clown with a big ‘S’ on his shirt. Is this Super Jesus?

All the disciples now too are clothed as multi-colorful clowns. They now skip off with one another following Jesus as one maybe watching Sesame Street, till they come to a junkyard were they begin to play and act out parables. They end up cleaning up and painting the junkyard as if it is some type of play house for their group; still reminding me of Sesame Street. They eventually skip out all over the city acting out parables and singing songs as they move around a people-less New York.

My confusion increases as they not only sing and perform, but enact teachings from scripture. Who is actually doing the teaching, Jesus or these troubadour disciples? They teach each other as much as he does.

At the end of the movie, John, who has now somehow magically changed into Judas has turned Jesus in to the authorities, who are never seen. This is maybe the only moving moment of the movie: as Judas comes with the authorities, he shows reluctance in coming to Jesus. Jesus beckons him forward and Judas through himself at Jesus as to say he is sorry. It is Jesus who kisses Judas’ checks not the other way around. It is then Judas who ties Jesus to the fence of their play yard to be hanged. All the other players cry and wail as they grab hold of the fence and convulse with Jesus as he dies. When dawn come they all take down their Jesus and carry him to through the streets of the people-less city, until they turn the corner and are lost in the crowd as the people again reappear.

The movie is based on the gospel of Matthew. The most theological part is the use of the most parables and teachings in a film that we have seen so far. As for how true to the text the movie portrays, I would have to say this is not one to watch if looking for particular insight into the historical life of Jesus or a Biblical reneactment. In a little more depth one could see a hint of Liberation Theology as the disciples are called out of the world, changed through their relationship with Jesus, and then sent back into the world to carry the good news of Christ with them. I really hate that the passion and the resurrection are not portrayed in this story well or at all, since this is one of the most theologically relevant themes in Christianity. This can leave many wondering if Jesus was just a great teacher, a flash-in–the-pan or even relevant in the world today.

Final Thoughts
Personally, I see this movie aimed at a young audience. The fun attitude of the troubadours, the short skits of the parables, and the songs would appeal to this group. For those seeking a more deep theology, textual portrayal of the life of Jesus, I would look elsewhere. However, one may find use of particular clips of the movie helpful that could be used in a teaching lesson or during a sermon . As a minister, I can imagine that it may have entertainment value but this movie was one of only two movies in my life that I could have fallen asleep in. Even though I did enjoy some of the songs, those I could have watched on YouTube;. the film as a whole is not engaging. In the end, it is probably not worth your movie-watching time.


  1. I have to say that I agree with much of your responses to the film. I personally did not connect with this film. It seemed too sing song for me and I was distracted by the costumes and make up. The setting of a deserted New York City was also odd to me.

    I agree completely about the confusion that the John/ Judas thing caused. At the beginning in the fountain it was clear that the character was John the baptist but then it got blurry as he continued to spend time with the other "apostles" I felt lost and confused. As the film moved to the crucifixion scene it became clear that the character as you said "magically" became Judas.

    As we have asked the question in class about if we would use this film in our churches or to show other I think about this confusion that I experienced. I have to say that I would not be able to use this film with my youth at my Church because if I feel confused I cannot imagine how it would confuse them.

    The other issues that I have with the passion and resurrection. Like you I felt the film was laking in these aspects. I know some argue that the actors disappearing into the New York streets with JEsus was a resurrection scene because we are to carry him into the world but I disagree. I felt like the film portrayed our experience with Christ as separate from real life and not applicable to everyday life.

  2. The question arises as to how one might interpret the bearing of Jesus' body into the streets of the world? Perhaps a valid criticism of the theology implicit in this movie is its identification of Jesus and his followers with a sanctuary, that is, the junk-yard, sequestered away from the world. The occasional excursions beyond the chain-link fence (cum-cross) are encounters with a deserted city..This heightens the sense of make-believe and separatism, giving rise, I would argue, to innuendo of a separatist, disengaged Christianity. I would suggest that any glimmer of hope that Christianity might make an impact upon the world depends on Jesus’ followers ending their spiritual quarantine and bearing Christ to the world. Jesus’ followers were called away from worldly by the “Judas the Baptist” figure and it essential that they reenter it. The observation that this movie in any way evokes liberation theology seems open to question. While the small cadre of Jesus’ followers may be in some sense liberated from worldly concerns, liberation theology is never about liberation of self without regard for others, especially the oppressed. The closest suggestion of liberation theology I detected in the movie is the junk-yard environment that, at a long stretch, suggests the dumps among which the poor of the world are too often condemned to live. However, Godspell’s junk yard is clearly too sanitary and devoid of pestilence for that argument to hold up.
    The make-believe ambiance of the movie and its clown-like Jesus are difficult to make sense of. The following suggestion may be a somewhat nebulous and tentative suggestion as to how these features of the movie could be redeemed. John-Michael Tebelak was an Episcopalian who drew upon a 1940 Episcopal hymnal that suggested his weaving together of parables and the lyrics of some of the songs. Indeed, there seems to be a strange disconnect between the playful environment of the junkyard and the rhetoric of Anglicanism. The song “Day by Day” for example is based on the prayer of St. Richard of Chichester. Could it be that the Jesus the Clown is evoking a very particular British dramatic convention, that is, the role of the “fool” is Shakespearean tragedy? The fool in King Lear played a dual role. The fool passed coarse remarks that entertained the plebs but was also the voice of philosophical wisdom, often conveyed through paradoxical parable-like anecdotes. In King Lear, the fool could be considered a Christ-like figure and eventually hung for his unflinching loyalty to Lear when most have abandoned him. The fool convention would doubtlessly have been known to Tebelak as a drama student.