Yesterday the Telegraph published an article I had written about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s search for Jesus. Not his personal spiritual quest, of course, but the hunt for someone to play the character of Jesus in the stadium tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. The response was interesting!

I was careful not to endorse the TV series or the tour, but thought it raised interesting questions for how alert Christians might engage with it creatively. Let’s just say some of the response wasn’t… er… creative. But, I stand by the points I made and the questions I raised. Sometimes the church is landed with a creative and imaginative opportunity to speak a common language with popular culture… and can’t see it. Well, here’s the latest opportunity and I hope people will see it.

The basic question it raises is simple: if you were looking for Jesus, what would you expect to find? A manipulable wimp in a white nightie? A ‘muscular Christian’ figure? Someone charismatic? Someone you might normally just pass on the street? And what prejudiced images do we filter our expectations through?

The question is pertinent not only because of Superstar, but I have just got home from an hour with a group of teenage lads in an RE class where they were exploring through Mark’s Gospel what discipleship is – what it means to commit to what you believe. They made strong points, asked good and penetrating questions, and made it a privilege to be there with them.

I actually spent four hours today (after a meeting with Bradford business leaders over breakfast) in this local Church of England secondary school. This is a school that makes a mockery of current ideologues’ obsession with simplistic measurements of achievement. Brilliant leadership in a building that isn’t helpful has still attracted excellent teaching staff. I loved being there (for the second time this year). Some of what I saw and heard was inspirational. I came away feeling very thoughtful and challenged, too.

The Church of England is constantly slagged off for cherrypicking the best students in the best areas. When people like me counter this with examples such as the school I visited today – and I have visited many, many others – which takes kids from its immediate catchment, including ‘challenging’ areas, we get dismissed. I seriously wonder if some commentators ever visit schools like this and open their eyes to what is demanded of teachers – such as that they should be surrogate parents, extended family, social workers, psychologists, counsellors, spiritual directors, friends, mentors, etc.

Not every school starts from the same point, but some are deemed to be ‘satsifactory’ in terms of certain markers when the starting points are ignored. No wonder that so many teachers and headteachers express the view that the (particularly Westminster) politicians ought to get out more and immerse themselves in these realities before setting policy.

Anyway, Superstar is intriguing. So is being grilled by teenage lads about what commitment really means.

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Not much time for blogging during a full London week. The General Synod kept me occupied during the day, other meetings (usually over a meal) in the evenings. The one morning I thought I could get some space I discovered I had agreed a breakfast meeting.

Leaving aside the fact that some media reporting of the women bishops business was bizarre (making the point that the Synod had ‘postponed’ making a decision until July – implying that the Synod was indecisive, procrastinating and deliberately spineless – when it was stated time and again in speech after speech that this debate would simply advise the House of Bishops prior to the bringing of the main debate in July), there wasn’t a huge amount to stimulate the imagination or fire the journalist’s critical faculties. We are against assisted dying, concerned about planned reform of he House of Lords, for the NHS and conflicted over fee levels for weddings and funerals – none of which evidences a shocking volte face.

So, the two things that are swimming around my own imagination as I ride the train back up north are tangential to the Synod’s preoccupations, but pertinent to what is going on elsewhere in the wider world.

First, reading coverage of Times editor James Harding‘s evidence at his second appearance before the Leveson Inquiry recalled to mind a conversation I had with a journalist recently. Discussing the impact of the phone hacking scandal on the nature and quality of journalism in the UK, the journalist expressed huge relief that at last the editors are in the firing line, unable to hide behind the frontline reporters. We have had a generation of newspaper editors demanding more and more – clearly sometimes exploiting both unjustifiably intrusive and actually criminal means of getting a story – from journalists who owed their jobs and future career to these tyrants. But, now it is the ‘generals’ in the dock and not just the troops in the trenches.

I hadn’t really thought about it in these terms – that many frontline reporters would be glad to see the exposure before Leveson of practices that are immoral and indefensible and that bring their profession into disrepute. The hope, as expressed to me, was that good, committed, intelligent and moral journalists would in future be able to work better and less fearfully for editors who now know they are likely to be held accountable. It might actually make journalism a better job and enable journalists to do better journalism.

The second thing on my mind comes from somewhere completely different, but involves another recent conversation. I was walking back from the BBC (where I had just done Pause for Thought on the excellent and never boring Chris Evans Show) to Church House, Westminster, and thinking about the Church’s apparent discomfort with popular culture (“We are more Radio 4 than Radio 2, bishop…”).

It occurred to me that Jesus went straight for popular culture in the villages and towns of Galilee. So, what do I think about the recently publicised ‘search for Jesus’, as in Andrew Lloyd-Webber‘s hunt for a singer to lead a stadium tour of Jesus Christ Superstar?

This has been called ‘tacky’ by some and ‘inappropriate’ by others. Inevitably it has led to screams of protest by the usual suspects (who have a loud voice, but little credibility) for whom any reference to Jesus has to be holy and disincarnate. But, I think the whole thing is pregnant with possibility.

Jesus used story and image to get into people’s imagination and tease them with a vision of how things could be in his ‘kingdom’. Like what the Germans call an ear-worm (Ohrwurm), these stories work their way into our head, re-shaping the lens behind our eyes through which we see God, the world and us. Far stronger than issuing statements with which we either agree or disagree.

In fact, the Archbishop of Canterbury picked up on a similar notion in a speech last night in London when he called for both the Church and the City to recover a moral imagination as we strive to reconnect finance and business with the moral ends to which they are the means (the common good). Imagination is not fantasy – imagination involves the power to conceive of something that isn’t yet apparent, but which might be gradually shaped.

Anyway, the ‘search for Jesus’, rather than being tacky or inappropriate, raises all sorts of really interesting questions. For example, the point of the gospels is that the reader is supposed to be shocked and surprised by (a) who Jesus is – and isn’t, and (b) who it was who received – or couldn’t receive – his invitation to look and see and think and live differently – discovering that grace is about God’s generosity and not our merit. So:

  • what sort of Jesus will be sought for this show?
  • will he be like the Mark Wallinger statue on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, simply human and vulnerable to what the world can throw at him, or a macho man? A wimp in a white nightie or an insensitive male chauvinist? A political revolutionary or a hapless victim?
  • how do you portray the sheer charisma that gets a bizarre collection of twelve people (with loads of other followers) to live a dream followed by a nightmare followed by a fraught life of new living that leads them all to an early death… and to change the world for ever?

I am intrigued to see how we make the connection between the stage Jesus of the musical and the one we read about in the gospels and experience in our life and worship. After all, ‘popular culture’ involves ‘people where they are’. Call me common, but I am curious about what this latest search for a star might hold in terms of potential for conversation, debate, imagination, questioning and exploration – all in a medium that will engage more people than sit in all our churches put together each week.

En route we might even take a sideways look at how Jesus has been portrayed in film and theatre: Pasolini’s The Gospel of St Matthew, Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal, Monty Python’s Life of Brian (which, as the title suggests, is primarily about Brian and not Jesus…), Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ.

Count me in. My imagination has been awoken.