Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Godspell and the Parables (part 1)

Godspell

Why include Godspell in the book?

I wanted to include one film in the final chapter of the reception history of the parables book, and Godspell is certainly not the one I had in mind. I actually had never seen the film before, and I looked at a number of other films before settling on Godspell. Son of Man, a very interesting Jesus film out of South Africa was the first one I explored, but there simply was not enough on the parables to make it work. Also, after attending one day of the Life of Brian conference at King's College London last summer, I considered Life of Brian. In that film, however, there is only one real attempt to engage the parables:
BRIAN: Ohh. Look. There was this man, and he had two servants. 
ARTHUR: What were they called?  
BRIAN: What?  
ARTHUR: What were their names? 
BRIAN: I don't know. And he gave them some talents.  
EDDIE: You don't know?! 
BRIAN: Well, it doesn't matter! 
ARTHUR: He doesn't know what they were called! 
BRIAN: Oh, they were called 'Simon' and 'Adrian'. Now--  
ARTHUR: Oh! You said... 
EDDIE: Ohh.  
ARTHUR: ...you didn't know!  
BRIAN: It really doesn't matter. The point is there were these two servants--  
ARTHUR: He's making it up as he goes along.  
BRIAN: No, I'm not! ...And he gave them some ta-- Wait a minute. Were there three?  
ARTHUR: Ohh.  
EDDIE: Oh, he's terrible!  
ARTHUR: He's terrible.  
BRIAN: There were three. 
ARTHUR: Thpppt!  
BRIAN: They were-- they were st-- stewards, really.  
ELSIE: Aww, get off!  
BRIAN: Ooh! Eh, uh, b-- b-- now-- now hear this! Blessed are they...  
DENNIS: Three.  
BRIAN: ...who convert their neighbor's ox, for they shall inhibit their girth,...  
MAN: Rubbish!  
BRIAN: ...and to them only shall be given--to them only... shall... be... given... 

And so it goes . . . .

Once you start working your through the "Jesus films," you realize that the parables do not play a significant role in the vast majority of them. If you want to see for yourself without watching all of the films, you can look at the helpful summaries in Jeff Staley and Richard Walsh, Jesus, the Gospels, and Cinematic Imagination (or the appendix of Bible references and allusions in nine Jesus films in Stern, Jefford, and DeBona, Savior on the Silver Screen). I also recommend Barnes Tatum, Jesus at the Movies. Barnes came to Oxford College of Emory University in 2001 to give a lecture on this topic for me, and the lecture was very insightful and helpful for our students.

It was the process of elimination that led me to Godspell.

Godspell, in many ways, an artifact of the early 1970s, is distinctive because of its extensive incorporation of the parables of Jesus in its story. It makes more use of the parables than does any other film about Jesus. The film is based on a play written by John-Michael Tebelak (1949-1985) while a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon. After attending a disappointing Easter service, where he also was frisked for drugs by a police officer as he left the church, Tebelak wanted to write a play that treated the Gospels in a simple and joyful way: “I wanted to make it the simple, joyful message that I felt the first time that I read [the Gospels] and recreate the sense of community, which I did not share when I went to that service” (de Giere 2008: 45). Writing and directing the play The Godspell, as it was originally titled, became part of his project for graduation. Part of the simplicity and joy of the play was created by characters dressed as clowns acting out the parables of Jesus, an aspect inspired by Harvey Cox’s, The Feast of Fools, which includes the concept of “Christ the clown” who brings joy (Laird 2014: 15). 
 

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