Last week on All Saints Day, various outlets reported that a new musical would use the songs of Britney Spears to tell the story of Jesus Christ. On some level, we weren’t that surprised: we’ve seen jukebox musicals and Jesus musicals before, so why not a jukebox Jesus musical?
After all, if the same guy that wrote Starlight Express could write a musical about Jesus – one with some spiritually powerful moments, such as Judas’ opening number where he pleads with Jesus to do something already – then why not the folks who wrote Britney’s songs? God’s grace can be mediated by even the most mundane reality, like bread and wine (and yes, sunsets, too), so there is nothing intrinsically problematic with using contemporary music to open ourselves to God. What’s more, the images on the webpage look to be quite a bit more in line with mainstream portrayals of the Gospels than those of some other Jesus musicals.
Although, let us remember that being in line with mainstream interpretations of the Gospel itself is perhaps a sign that not all is well with our narrative.
On another level though, this is obviously absurd. Don’t get us wrong; there is much to enjoy in the music of Britney Spears. One could make the argument that Toxic is one of the finest pop songs of the last 10-15 years. But there’s little that’s overtly Jesus-y about her songs, and apparently they won’t be changing any of her lyrics or adding any dialogue. It’s basically a mashup, taking two apparently unrelated stories, songs, etc., and creating something new by putting them together. How then will this mashup tell the story of Jesus and his disciples? Will one of the disciples channel Paul and sing to Jesus “I’m a slave 4 u”? Following the three denials of Peter, will they replace the cock’s crow with “oops I did it again”?
It’s easy to imagine that the premise for this musical originated from someone who likes terrible puns. The website has a curious graphic, juxtaposing Britney’s last name with the picture of a crooked spear. While this graphic recalls the story of John 19:34, when a soldier pierces the side of Jesus and water and wine flow out, it mostly suggests a very tenuous connection between the pop star and our Lord.
Maybe it’s easy to dismiss this musical in its absurdity. Show creator Pat Blute claimed that the show “appeals to those from a religious background because it tells an essential story using fragments of pop culture in a non-offensive way.” Using pop culture fragments in this way can be risky: the fragments, if gathered poorly, can distort or distract from the Gospel story. The apparent attempt to re-contextualize the story of the Gospel can devolve into a spectacle without substance.
Such questions might lead us to paraphrase Tertullian and ask “What has New York (or Hollywood) to do with Jerusalem?”
Perhaps mash-ups and their like are non-offensive because they maintain distance from the story. We don’t have to commit . . . we don’t have to be earnest. But avoiding earnestness and authenticity does not answer why the tears come at night. Such avoidance does not allow us to wake stronger than yesterday. It merely allows us to skate by with more of the same—as simply more of the same. Earnestness coupled with authenticity make us uncomfortable because they force us to look at all the things we confess to believe and to consider if we do, in fact, live as though we are so committed. If done well, they make a claim upon us, to either embrace our commitments or to have some real reason to instead turn to something else.
Back in 1997, Dr. Michael Pennock, a former theology teacher at Cleveland’s St. Ignatius High School, mentioned in passing to his class that he had deep concerns about the film, The Last Temptation of Christ. But he wasn’t bothered by the elements of the film that led to its being protested (the idea that Jesus had sexual desire for Mary Magdelene, or the possibility that he was tempted to come down from the cross to live a normal life). Rather, Doc Pennock noted, it was Jesus, himself, who bothered him. Jesus was boring. The filmmakers took the incarnate God to whom Pennock had devoted his life and made him lifeless. Jesus neither invited devotion nor indicted us for our toxic sinfulness.
After all, in the chorus to her first hit song, Britney claimed “I must confess I still believe (still believe).” Is it possible that a Spears musical will, in the very strangeness of juxtaposing Britney with Jesus, might challenge us to face our own faith commitments? Can Britney’s lyrics lead anyone to proclaim that they must confess that they believe?
Perhaps. Maybe Spears will confront its audience with a truth that both indicts and invites. Or maybe it will just be a spectacular failure.