Saturday, October 14, 2006

Lucy Grealy, "The Gospel According To Andrew Lloyd Webber"

My early religious education, to the age of six, consisted of memorizing all the words to the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. Actually, I did more than memorize them, I acted out the whole album, my own private version of the London musical, which opened earlier than the American. I combined my passion for this album with my crush on Mr. Ed, the talking horse. I had one of those innocent crushes that couldn't distinguish between loving Mr. Ed and wanting to be Mr. Ed, and I'd re-create the entire drama of Jesus and Judas and the other apostles as a talking horse. All this took place on a large yellow Chinese carpet that lay in front of the stereo in the living room. Each part of the carpet signified a character, and I would canter on my hands and knees from corner to corner to mouth each part as it came up. My knees carpet-burning into a vivid red, I performed the entire drama single-handedly.

For the big chorus parts, I would mount my Hippity-Hop, a sort of big red rubber ball on which you could sit an propel yourself by holding onto a half-circle handle and bouncing. I'd race round the room, imagining that I was riding in complicated formation, banners flapping, as the apostles wondered what was happening, as the beggars and lepers overtook Jesus, as the crowd jeered, in harmony, for his crucifixion. The only drawback to the choruses was that my bouncing about often made the needle skip on the record, but it was also necessary, as it gave my knees a short rest. It wasn't the performance that made me love the album; that had to do with my courthsip of the strong, safe, gleamingly visceral world of Mr. Ed. The music itself had an uncanny hold on me; the sways and turns of the emotional narrative entranced me, even, and maybe especially, when I didn't understand them. The Pharisees were my favorites because their voices were so exotically varied, plus they all seemed so confused and put-upon, which, even at six, was a state I identified with. I had to hold my ears during the scene in which Jesus was whipped by the forty-nine lashes, not because I felt bad for him, but because the music itself seemed so dreadful.


Not surprisingly, for the rest of my childhood I held a rather liberal take on the New Testament. Jesus obviously possessed quite a number of very human failings, and though I knew from other sources, such as early morning television, that he was a very kind person, he seemed fairly preoccupied a lot of the time in the gospel according to Andrew Lloyd Webber. I liked Judas far better and felt very sorry when he killed himself: in truth, he seemed like the only one with any deep feelings at all, and I thought he'd been unjustly set up. He also had a much better singing voice. This was all I knew, and even this I kept to myself. Religion, in my family, was regarded as a highly specialized form of stupidity.


And yet I still longed desperately to believe. How could I cross that line? Did God exist? I conducted experiments in my room. Sitting Indian style on my carpet, I'd not so much ask as announce, "God, if you exist, prove it to me." Sometimes I'd qualify this, suggesting he (and it was always a he) do something like perhaps change the color of the carpet, or maybe make the family dog, who'd recently died, appear panting and wagging in front of me. I wanted the resounding silence following my questions to be the answer, the proof that I didn't have to waste my time wondering about such things anymore. Yet I also wanted to badly all that peace, all that joy and love.

from "My God" in Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited, edited by Rick Moody and Darcey Steinke
Highly recommended