(Pictured: in 2006, Jack Black played King Herod in a one-off performance of Jesus Christ Superstar, which is just the greatest thing ever.)
Imagine if you will, or remember if you can, one of those indestructible portable turntables, with a lid that opened like a suitcase, a thick metal tonearm, a stylus not unlike a drywall nail, and a speaker that was made for volume rather than fidelity. Now imagine it blasting Jesus Christ Superstar, echoing through a church sanctuary or fellowship hall. Imagine further a group of concerned adults listening carefully, perhaps following along from lyrics typed up and mimeographed by the church secretary. As they listen, they ask themselves: is this blasphemous? Or are the kids are saying something worth hearing?
Superstar was supposed to be a stage musical, but Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice couldn’t get the money together, so it was released as a concept album in 1970. An authorized, one-time stage production was mounted after the album became a giant hit, but the copyright owners spent the summer of 1971 shutting down unauthorized productions before it officially opened on Broadway that October.
Superstar brought religion into pop culture in a big new way, but I wonder if that would have happened without the collapse of the hippie dream of the 1960s. When it became clear that bomber jet planes were not going to turn into butterflies, the kids looked for alternatives to revolution as a source of hope or meaning, and many of them got religion. But their religion couldn’t be harsh or legalistic, and require congregants to wear a necktie or a dress; it had to be accessible. (Did your church hire its first “youth pastor” about this time? Mine did.) Your relationship with God wasn’t going to be something you experienced intellectually as much as something you felt. There has always been a strong strain of emotionalism in American religion—the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries, the holy rollers of the rural South, and Black churches, to name a few—but the middle-class, whitebread Protestant denominations of the mid-20th century had largely avoided it. But personal, feel-it-in-your-heart religiosity eventually infiltrated those bastions too.
At some point around 1972, several members of our middle-class whitebread Protestant church got into the whole charismatic revival thing. My parents stayed on the fringes of it, although they went to some of the meetings, and for a time, they watched televised services from a charismatic church, with people in the throes of religious ecstasy speaking in tongues. It was in this period that I read The Late Great Planet Earth and learned about the Rapture, with believers taken bodily into Heaven and sinners Left Behind. The latter had such a hold on my imagination that whenever the house would get quiet, I would wonder if the Rapture had happened.
I always just assumed I was getting Left Behind.
Eventually, our church sponsored an entire revival week. (I would like to know precisely how this happened, for it does not seem like something that our dignified whitebread senior pastors would have cottoned to.) There were services for all and breakout sessions for adults and youth, and I went for the whole week, toting a copy of The Living Bible. The speakers were not members of our church; they came from elsewhere. One young woman, celestial light gleaming in her eyes, told a group of 12-year-olds that she thought it would be cool to die, because then she would get to see what Heaven is like. Which seemed, even to 12-year-old me, like missing the entire point of living. No wonder I was getting Left Behind.
(It’s not correct to say that the experience made me an atheist; I remained at least nominally a believer until I was almost 40. But I have never forgotten the moment, or the bent worldview it expressed.)
The pop religiosity of the 1970s was new at the time, but today, it’s pervaded religion at every level. For most believers, God is no longer a celestial thunderer passing out judgment as much as he is a kindly grandpa in the sky. Even followers of Republican Jesus, for all their legalistic interpretations of the Old Testament and their desire to see God wreak punishment on their enemies, base their belief on a personal relationship with him. Smarter people than I could tell you for sure, but I see the origins of it in Superstar and the religious revivals of the 1970s.