In this day and age, nothing is ever truly controversial anymore. Maybe for 15 minutes, which is an eternity in virtual time. But there was a time when songs and musicals had the ability to shock and polarize groups of people, and musicals like Lloyd-Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973 was considered blasphemous because its portrayal of Christ was deemed too humanistic, too secular, too offensive. And the title! It clashed with the perception people had of what Christ embodied: Humility, servanthood, sacrifice. Superstar indeed.
In researching creative material, this tune came to mind. I decided to put aside all the childhood warnings, the biases, and give the song a listen, this time with a 21st century mindset.
This is what I found:
1. On a technical level, the song is so well-crafted that anyone who considers herself a serious singer has to have a go at it. (c.f. Susan Boyle, Sinead O’Connor, even Sandy Lam.) But Yvonne Elliman, the original recording artist, is hard to beat for pure emotion, vocal range, and singing from the deepest recesses of her heart. Which the song demands.
2. In the musical, the character of Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a prostitute. Modern New Testament scholarship disproves this, but it is a common misperception that has remained. Mary sings this song in a quiet contemplative moment, with Christ steps away, asleep. The song captures the tension between the two characters, for Mary is feeling a mass of tangled emotions that range from physical attraction to a deep emotional connection with a man whose main vibe she feels is Goodness. Holiness. Righteousness.
All of her world-weariness comes up against something she glimpsed in a faraway and forgotten childhood, buried in the secret longings of her tired soul.
Do PLAY the video now as you read it through. The song itself starts at 1:12.
I Don’t Know How To Love Him
4. Keep reading. I’ve taken the lyrics apart below.
I don’t know how to love him. What to do, how to move him.
I’ve been changed, yes really changed. In these past few days, when I’ve seen myself,
I seem like someone else.
Don’t we all feel like this when we discover someone new in our lives? We look at ourselves a little differently in the light of someone else. When someone with eminence appears in Mary’s life, she senses the immanence of God in him.
I don’t know how to take this, I don’t see why he moves me. He’s a man, He’s just a man.
And I’ve had so many men before, in very many ways. He’s just one more.
He’s affecting her in a way that is also making her uncomfortable. He is not only immune to her charms, but is looking past them into her soul. She is moved by him, yet she herself fails to move him in conventional ways. The shift in the balance of power is unsettling. She tells herself “He’s just a man” so she can feel she is in control in the face of a mystery.
We do this too, when we find ourselves dwelling on the Divine nature and see the mystery. And we dismiss it because we fail to grasp what it means to us, and sometimes, we don’t really want to know.
Should I bring him down? Should I scream and shout? Should I speak of love, let my feelings out?
I never thought I’d come to this! What’s it all about?
Truly, what *is* it all about? What do his teachings mean? When he says I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, what’s he talking about? Right there in the voice is the confusion, the anger, the tangle of emotions. Should I let my guard down? Will I get hurt?
Don’t you think it’s rather funny, I should be in this position.
I’m the one who’s always been so calm, so cool, no lover’s fool, running every show. He scares me so. I never thought I’d come to this. What’s it all about?
She finds it ironical that for someone who has cultivated a heart of stone toward men, she has become vulnerable to this one in particular, this new-found friend who has touched her heart like no other. Again, the question: What’s it all about? This is what we ask ourselves time and again, when we have a crisis of faith, or when our internal beliefs are called into question.
Yet, if he said he loved me,
I’d be lost. I’d be frightened.
I couldn’t cope, just couldn’t cope.
I’d turn my head. I’d back away.
I wouldn’t want to know.
He scares me so.
She does what we do ourselves when we’re in a spot: We ask ourselves the “What if” question. “What if . . . he really does love me and says it outloud?” What would I do? How should I respond? What would you do?
“What if . . . everything I’ve ever heard about God is true?” “What if I surrender myself and start developing a personal sovereign preference* for Christ himself in all that I do?”
I want him so.
I love him so.
She stops rationalising and admits honestly to herself what she is feeling. In that honesty lies a purity that transcends the moment of declaration. It is repentance, confession, it is submission.
This is a song that all of us have, at some time in our lives, sung. Maybe not with this tune nor with these lyrics, but with the language of the heart.
* thanks to Oswald Chambers for that definition of “surrender.”
What is your take on the song? Like it? Loathe it? Does it reflect similar thoughts you had before on matters of the heart, matters of faith? Tell me what you think! Please.