A recurring theme in the writings of C. S. Lewis is that God’s action in Christ is really a completion and fulfillment of what is intimated in the great myths of ancient peoples. For that reason Lewis, while always finding paganism deficient, nevertheless found in it much of worth. Typical of his attitude is this opening paragraph from one of his addresses:
I have lost the notes of what I originally said in replying to Professor Price’s paper and cannot now remember what it was, except that I welcomed most cordially his sympathy with the Polytheists. I still do. When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, “Would that she were.” For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads. If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian man of our day differs from him as much as a divorcée differs from a virgin [“Is Theism Important?” God in the Dock, edited by Walter Hooper, Eerdmans, 1970, p. 172].
In a sense Lewis was indicating that the pagan was pre-Kantian in a way that “secular” man can never be. For the pagan, the gods were alive and active in his world. It was a world in which the events of nature, the destinies of men, and even small (and petty) affairs were the intimate concern of the gods. It was a world alive with meaning and value, not one in which “facts” and “values” were divided by a great gulf.
This is not to say the pagan was unaware of the difficulties raised by philosophers. Pagan philosophers, at least, surely knew about them. Rather, it is to say that the conceptual world in which the average person lived—the way he saw his world—was different. For pagans saw a world in which the gods were alive and active, ready to judge, to punish, to help.
However, the pagan’s conception of his gods differed, not only from what we call a secular viewpoint, but also from the picture his Christian descendants came to have of their God. Edith Hamilton has written:
Human gods naturally made heaven a pleasantly familiar place. The Greeks felt at home in it. They knew just what the divine inhabitants did there, what they ate and drank and where they banqueted and how they amused themselves. Of course they were to be feared; they were very powerful and very dangerous when angry. Still, with proper care a man could be quite fairly at ease with them. He was even perfectly free to laugh at them [Mythology, Mentor Book, New American Library, 1942, p. 17].
The Christian civilization that grew out of Greek and Roman roots certainly conceived God differently. Building upon their Judaic heritage, the Christians had a greater conception of God as the transcendent, numinous one. He was not just to be feared in the sense that Edith Hamilton uses the word; he was a God before whom man stood in awe. One took off his shoes before stepping into the presence of this God.
He was, however, still a God who was alive and active in the world. He was still concerned with the events of nature that he controlled, with the destinies of men, and even with the minor details of the lives of seemingly insignificant people. And he was, finally, a God who—so Christians confessed—had been willing to share human nature and live among men as one of them. He did not remain aloof from his world but came to die and rise again, even as the ancient myths would have to him do.
All this is really by way of introduction. It is intended to take some of the bite out of the title of this essay and help us look at a modern phenomenon from a fresh perspective. Without attempting to document it, I shall simply assert that there appears to be a new interest in integrating religious belief into the fabric of life, in finding in the Christian faith something with which men of our time can identify. And I want to focus attention upon the rock opera that has recently become such a sensation—Jesus Christ Superstar—as a leading example of what I choose to call “the new paganism.”
God did not disdain to become man. He shared our joys, our sorrows, our weaknesses, our temptations. That is, he lived a fully human life on our behalf, except that he did not sin. If this central affirmation of incarnation is true, it is surely of decisive importance in the history of the world. Then we can only applaud anything that helps the story to be more than a story, to become real for those who confront it. And this Jesus Christ Superstar often accomplishes. The listener senses the agony of Jesus, the mocking derision of Herod, the vacillation of Judas. The crowds seeking nothing more than a man to perform stunts seem vividly real and a judgment upon not only past but also present believers. In many ways this story of Jesus of Nazareth comes alive. Pieces fall into place. The story takes on a meaning that had perhaps been lost in the encrusted ways of reading it and telling it.
But is this Jesus perhaps finally too “familiar” a figure? Is he too much only the superstar with whom we are already acquainted? The Greeks felt at home with their gods in a way that the ancient Hebrews and Christians could never feel with theirs. The difference was not merely ethical. The God of the Hebrews and Christians was transcendent. But the gods of the pagans were only men immensely multiplied. With them one could attempt to stand on an equal footing. One could see in them his own faults; as, Hera, for example, was the typical jealous wife.
Is Jesus the Superstar finally too familiar a figure? To sense that Jesus could have experienced sexual temptation is to sense just how deeply he shared our situation. But to laugh at the implications as Mary soothes and comforts Jesus may not be quite the same. To sense that Jesus was pushed to the limits of his patience by the crowds is to see that the friction of living in community was temptation for Jesus even as it is for us. But is that quite the same as hearing him roar—in less than righteous anger—at the crowds to heal themselves?
To give the idea of incarnation its full measure, the Christian must take seriously the fullness of Jesus’ humanity. He must find in it the comfort and the strength that the writer of Hebrews finds there. However, there is a fine line separating that attitude from the exultation of bringing Jesus down to one’s own level. We must put the question bluntly: Does Superstar appeal because it points us to one who shared our troubles and weaknesses—but conquered them? Or does it appeal because there we find a god who has shared not only our temptations but also our tendency to succumb? Or, at best, a god who shares our uncertainty that the struggle against weakness and evil is worthwhile and can end in triumph?
The incarnation means that God took upon himself humanity. It does not mean that his character is now to be read as nothing more than humanity writ large (as Hera was the typical wife on a grand scale). I cannot avoid the judgment that Jesus Christ Superstar—beautiful in places and moving though it surely is—remains ultimately and essentially pagan rather than Christian. And therein lies the significance of its haunting question, “Who are you?” It cannot affirm that in this man God is acting, because it finds in him only a man—a man writ large, a man like the gods, a superstar, but only a man.
Here, however, we must recall Lewis’s words: “A Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity.” To say that Superstar is pagan rather than Christian is not necessarily the most damning judgment one could make about it. Since we have recently experienced a period of “secular Christianity,” the label pagan might even be thought an accolade. To borrow again from Lewis’s example: better the virgin than the divorcée!
This could explain one of the most curious facts about the rise of this rock opera—its appropriation by the churches. Perhaps they have been unconsciously longing for something—anything—that will seem to make God once again a living reality in the universe. What has been forgotten in the initial burst of enthusiasm, however, is that Christianity is not the only thing capable of accomplishing that. Paganism will do just as well.
Failing to make this distinction has led to a misuse of the opera. The point in recognizing paganism is to convert it. But the churches have been using Superstar, not to help secular man raise the questions he needs to raise, but (mirabile dictu) to provide him with answers. Yet it is precisely the central Christian affirmation that is lacking in the opera. Insofar as it leads man from secularism to paganism, it is to be applauded. But to pretend that Christians should be satisfied to do that would be to miss the point by a wide margin.
For the pagan’s god must finally be understood as the pagan’s own creation. And like all other creations of men he must be judged and found wanting. He must die if knowledge of the true God is to arise. Jesus Christ Superstar can be enjoyed and also used by Christians and by Christian churches. Nonetheless, they must ultimately find a God who, even while becoming man, is most definitely not on their level. A God whom they cannot by any means bring down to their level. A God who does not justify their faults. A God who speaks with more than human authority. They must find a God who has done more than share their weaknesses; he must have conquered them. And then—most emphatically—they must affirm in triumph and victory that God has risen to conquer even death.
Gilbert Meilaender, Jr., is a student at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. In addition to his theological studies he is doing graduate work in philosophy at Washington University. He has just completed a year of vicarage at a Lutheran church in Seaford, New York.
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