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August 12: The Last Temptation of Christ

The Last Temptation of Christ Released (1988)

It was on this date, August 12, 1988, that Martin Scorsese's film, The Last Temptation of Christ, was released in the United States. Even before it opened in nine theaters across the US (initially), the film had inspired controversy – not only from the usual, narrow-minded fundamentalists, who objected to any deviation from scripture, but also from more mainstream clerics, who objected for some entirely different reasons.

The Last Temptation of Christ was based on the 1955 novel of the same name by the Greek Orthodox writer, Nikos Kazantzakis, and his original work almost got him excommunicated. The novel was placed on the Roman Catholic Index of Prohibited Books, and Protestant fundamentalist groups in the US tried to have it banned from libraries, which of course made it a bestseller. By most accounts, Kazantzakis (who also wrote Zorba the Greek) was more philosopher than writer, and was influenced by Nietzsche and Bergson, as well as philosophical Christianity, Marxism and Buddhism. But his core beliefs were Christian, even if they were of an unorthodox variety. The story of The Last Temptation of Christ was expressly not based on the Gospels, but instead posed a what-if question.

Leaving aside the "what if Jesus actually existed?" question, which is far from settled, what if we assume Jesus was a man becoming a god, not just a god from the start? It is important to note that not only are Christians remarkably gullible in accepting the Gospel polemics as history, but they are remarkably hostile to any deviation through speculation – even a deviation as faithful to Christian philosophy as the film the faithful Scorsese made of the faithful author's book, 30 years after the author's death.

Willem Dafoe as Jesus

The quality of the performances of Willem Dafoe as Jesus Christ, Harvey Keitel as Judas Iscariot, Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene, and (a curious choice) David Bowie as Pontius Pilate, are almost beside the point. Taken in a purely naturalistic light, The Last Temptation of Christ might be the story of a man with a mission, with every enticement to abandon it, who nevertheless fulfills his mission.

That that mission is to die for no apparent reason can be seen as perverse, but it is certainly consistent with the character portrayed in the Gospels – and therefore the fundamentalists who call it "an intentional attack on Christianity"* speak in voices tinged with hypocrisy. The self-righteous culture critic Michael Medved excluded Atheists by saying the film arises from the "urge to assault the cherished recollections of even universally esteemed figures in our culture."**

The mainstream clerics were another matter. Characteristically, they looked deeper into the movie (and the book) and found it deeply subversive of Christian values. First, it is subversive because it is nakedly Pantheistic: "there is no final distinction between good and evil, between God and man, between matter and spirit..." And second, "there are no objective absolutes. Everything is relative. What's true for you might not be true for me. Kazantzakis' story about Jesus is just as valid as the apostles'."†

On the contrary, these seem good enough reasons to recommend the film. If you can swallow the "what-if" of the existence of the Bible Jesus, you can enjoy all the rest.

* Joseph Reilly of "Morality in Media."
** Hollywood vs. America, Michael Medved, 1993.
The Last Temptation of Christ Denied, Bob and Gretchen Passatino, 1989.

Originally published August 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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