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Heaven on their minds


About the last thing I wanted to do was go anywhere with the church youth group. I was 12 or 13 and my parents were still making me attend the meetings, but I had already decided that this religion business, at least as it was practiced at a rural, conservative Methodist church, wasn't for me. I just couldn't buy that every word of the Bible was literally true. I mean a guy gets swallowed by a big fish and then is ralphed up on the shore at Nineveh because that's where God wanted him to go? I couldn't hang with that. Also, dissing the church was the quickest way to needle my parents and at that age I was into serious needling.

But the elders had decided that we should pile on a bus and make the trip to Roanoke to see this new play that was all in the news. It was called Jesus Christ Superstar and it was supposed to be really appealing to us young folks. You know, it was about Jesus but it was hip. In other words, I was going to have to miss a Friday night listening to Alice Cooper for some lame gospel show.

The chaperones, my father among them, herded us to our seats, and they waited expectantly. We tried to see if we saw anyone we knew from school. Then it happened, the first acid riff of the electric guitar in the overture, and walking onto the stage was a barefooted, long-haired guy in blue jeans and a smock-type white linen shirt. Jesus Christ, I thought, and sure enough it was. How cool. I could see that my father was having a reaction on the opposite side of the coin from me. And then a really hot Mary Magdalene starting singing and stroking Jesus' head to get him to sleep and were they suggesting that, yes I think they were. My father thought so too and was getting fidgety. All the chaperones were. A rebel Jesus, a hippie who was having a thing with Mary Magdalene.

I came out with my head buzzing; there was a lot of Heaven on my mind, and a lot of earth, too. On the way back to the bus, my father grumbled "That's not my Jesus." It was a great moment because I realized for the first time just how slippery the gospel story is.

When you see the movie after you've read the book, things often don't jibe. The characters don't look like they did in your imagination, and their body language might suggest something that you find just plain untrue. That may be what a lot of the people seeing Mel Gibson's new interpretation are finding out. It's something the elders of the churches who are loading the young folks onto the buses might think about. The teenagers being shuttled in to the theaters may come out with an entirely different message than the gray heads imagine. It's the problem and the mystery of story in general and this one in particular. Young people are impressionable. You never know, deacons, you may be giving these kids some radical notions, notions that you won't be able to dispel. Sometimes a superstar can have even more influence than the church.

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