Pious consumption. As Easter is upon us, so is a recurring drama of what the holiday means. Believer based critiques as opposed to the deeply secular and atheistic. It is often a case of the message overwhelming the medium and the substance overwhelming the style, with the excesses of each side being mutually perceived as morally objectionable. As if the dual spirit of Jesus were not complementary but mutually incompatible that has tended to complicate truth, with the issue of Jesus’ identity obvious to many and enigmatic and murky to an equal number as well.
Martin Scorsese’s controversial 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ is one of those complex movies that questions faith and its importance relative to the resurrection. It is, from the vantage point of the religious critic, spiritually provocative and dogmatic and heretical from the strict orthodoxy of say, the Spanish Inquisition. On the other hand, being morally objectionable is a path of least resistance that risks little. So, to critique the film is to judge the critic; or at the least to choose sides where there is no options , save for the most extreme and conservative. Scrosese’s distortion of theology lends its target credibility and the somewhat perverse, even vulgar and stiff presentation, only stimulates the power of confusion.
”The most radical departure is Jesus Himself. There is no plaster saintliness here. When we first see Him, Christ is a cross-maker, collaborating with the Romans in their persecution of the rebellious Israelites. His reason for this, He says, is to make God hate Him: “God loves Me and I can’t stand the pain.” And He goes as far in His efforts to alienate His Father as to hold the feet of the rebels as the nails are driven in and their blood spurts into His face.
Scorsese takes a huge risk in these early moments. He succeeds in conveying Christ’s pain, but at the same time he alienates us from his hero. Scorsese’s specialty is souls in torment. In “Mean Streets,” his protagonist stuck his finger in an open flame and speculated on the pain of Hell. In “Taxi Driver,” Travis Bickle’s Hell was the streets of New York, and for Jake La Motta in “Raging Bull,” it was a boxing ring. The Savior here is on a direct line with these characters. But these men were outside God’s circle. Being chosen by God and having His divinity within Him are the cause of Christ’s suffering. This Christ is wracked with doubt over his destiny. He can’t be certain if the voices He hears are those of God or the Devil. Hating His own weakness and cowardice and susceptibility to temptation, Jesus excoriates His flesh, wearing a nail-studded belt around His waist.( Hal Hinson )
If Christ is portrayed as some charismatic revolutionary leader, a small time demagogue, the issue is one of artistic license . Varying theories claim he was descended from the Biblical house of David which would augur for a more majestic and Royal treatment, while still negating the basic tenets of the Christian faith. However, the inadvertently campy elements in the film give a certain feel of a black comedy, jhe inevitable pathos of gallows humor that at least washes out organized religion’s precious use of the power of fear.
”Nor is it only the portrayal of Jesus himself that is antithetical to Christian thought. Virtually every characterization, every aspect of the film is deliberately iconoclastic, self-consciously contrary to traditional Christian understanding, calculated for shock value. First and foremost is the reinterpretation of Judas Iscariot (Harvey Keitel) as a principled hero, a man who ultimately “betrays” Jesus only because Jesus orders him to do so over Judas’ own tortured objections. When faithful Judas demands to know whether if Jesus himself, were he in Judas’ place, would be able to betray a beloved master, Jesus replies (in a moment typical of the film’s sensibilities), “No, I couldn’t. That’s why God gave me the easier job [i.e., dying on the cross].”
The Christ in this part of the film is a sort of charismatic revolutionary leader, and as He travels He gathers his converts into a small army. Moving from village to village to pray and spread the message, He reaches out not in modulated, soft-spoken tones, but with a rabble-rousing fervor, like a flame-throwing tent revivalist. And we can’t help but feel a questioning twinge when, after a wedding, He boasts with wild eyes to a smalthering that He is the one they have been waiting for, that He is God.” ( Hinson )
Whether for, against or sitting on a fence in Jerusalem, the issue remains as Harvey Cox has stated, ”as everything in creation is transformed into a commodity”. And this unfortunately includes the institutions of faith as market based commodity. At the apex of any theological system, of course, is some doctrine of God. In the new theology this celestial pinnacle is occupied by The Market, which to signifies both the mystery that enshrouds it and the reverence it inspires in business folk.
Different faiths have, of course, different views of the divine attributes. In Christianity, God has sometimes been defined as omnipotent , omniscient (ha, and omnipresent . Most theologies in the Judeo-Christian tradition rend to hedge and fudge a bit. They invest long-term but are subject to short-selling in times of uncertainty. They teach that these qualities of the divinity are indeed there, but are hidden from human eyes both by human sin and by the transcendence of the divine itself. Like Adam Smith and his ”Unseen Hand”. Both the Market and Faith are not always completely evident to mortals but must be trusted and affirmed by faith. “Further along,” as aan old gospel song says, “We’ll understand why.” Perhaps when science and faith sit down and share a laugh together, but hopefully not on us.
”Moreover, the mystery of Jesus’ dual nature is one that no Christian can claim to fully understand or imagine. In particular the experience of being a mortal man who was also God in the flesh is one we cannot begin to grasp. Unanswered questions exist that leave room for a range of different ways of envisioning the person of Christ in drama and art.Christian belief teaches that Jesus shared our humanity, but not our fallenness and fallibility. Not only did he not sin, he didn’t suffer from our concupiscent appetites, our disordered and inflamed desires. He was tempted as we are — he could feel hunger during a fast, or dread on the eve of his passion — but his will was not pulled to and fro by wayward passions. He may, in his humanity, have had limited knowledge or insights, but he could not be deceived or confused into believing or teaching anything contrary to divine truth. At no time did he suffer doubts about his divine nature or messianic identity.
Scrosese’s interpretation, an example chose from among many, are really an affirmation of the concept of “process theology,” a relatively contemporary trend influenced by the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. In this school although God wills to possess the classic attributes, He does not yet possess them in full, but is getting an ”A” for effort, definitely moving in that direction, though at a snail’s pace. This conjecture is a welcome relief to some theologians for obvious reasons. It answers the bothersome puzzle of theodicy: why a lot of bad things happen that an omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God-especially a benevolent one-would not countenance. Process theology also seems to offer considerable comfort to the theologians of The Market. It helps to explain the dislocation, pain, and disorientation that are the result of transitions from economic heterodoxy to free markets.
”What about a notorious scene with Jesus and Mary Magdalene, now presumably (in the dream continuity) married, making love? In principle, once you grant the premise of Jesus being tempted with a vision of ordinary life after the crucifixion, a case can of course be made that this sequence reasonably belongs to the logic of the scenario. Since they are supposed to be married, it is all theoretically lawful; and the actual imagery is non-graphic….Despite this, in practice I myself was deeply disturbed and repulsed by the sheer visual-emotional impact of a close-up depiction of Jesus Christ passionately kissing a woman in bed…That the picture was part of a “temptation” scene doesn’t mend matters at all; the sheer force of the image is greater than its context….Almost as disturbing to me, in retrospect, was the fact that this tempter, in the guise of a young woman, is shown, seemingly, not only drawing the nails from Christ’s extremities, but also tenderly kissing the sacred wounds — wounds that are the object of such deep devotion among Catholics. Essentially we have here a picture of Satan kissing the sacred wounds.( Steven D. Greydanus )
From all these complex meanings that have been discussed through the centuries, the films of Last Temptation type are in the final analysis market driven products that in turn commodify all they touch. At the right price nothing is not for sale, and this radical desacralization dramatically alters the human relationship to land, water, air, space, and our own ideas and our bodies. The controversy over the attempt to merchandise human genes is a good example. There is a fair amount of opposition to the gene mart, the newest theophany of The Market. But this opposition are followers of what are now “old religions,” which, like the goddess cults that were thriving when the worship of the vigorous young Apollo began sweeping ancient Greece, may not have the strength to slow the spread of the new devotion.
”A Jesus who commits sins — who even thinks he commits sins, who talks a great deal about needing “forgiveness” and paying with his life for his own sins; a Jesus who himself speaks blasphemy and idolatry, calling fear his “god” and talking about being motivated more by fear than by love; who has an ambivalent at best relationship with the Father, even trying to merit divine hatred so that God will leave him alone — all of this is utterly antithetical to Christian belief and sentiment. This is not merely focusing on Jesus’ humanity, this is effectively contradicting his divinity.”
Many suffer from Bertrand Russell’s complaint that they remain unpersuaded of the existence of God owing to the sheer lack of evidence and simply cannot make or fake the leap of faith required. The Easter story of Jesus rests on assumptions of the afterlife, and for many the necessity of its existence is called into question; and that the yearning for eternal life is borne of a desparate fear of nothingness. The fear factor, that without the judgement of God there would be anarchy and the reward of Heaven and the punishment of Hell simply seems irrelevant. For many agnostics, the absence of an afterlife makes starvation, poverty, genocide, war, cruelty and indifference all the more abhorrent; rather than pushing the problems into the eternal as well.
”But the Jesus of Last Temptation does all of the above things, and more. The film gives us a human Jesus, but a Jesus of fallible, fallen humanity — a Jesus who could not be God. This is evident, not just in the sequences containing obvious blasphemy, such as the scene where Jesus the carpenter explains that he makes crosses for the Romans and helps crucify his fellow Jews so that God will hate him and leave him alone; or even in the scenes depicting Jesus’ persistent doubts and confusion about the nature of his identity and mission, or whether he is the Messiah at all; but everywhere you turn in the film. The fact is, Willem Dafoe’s Jesus has hardly a scene — hardly two lines of dialogue put together — in which the falseness of the character is not the dominant fact about him.
But lingering doubts about an afterlife do prevail among many. The popularity of astrologers, soothsayers, psychics and experts of the paranormal convey the interest in at least getting to sneak a peek at the next destination. That is the fundamental Easter question for Christians. Do they or do they not believe in life after death? Both positions require an act of faith. It just might be true that death is only the entry point to an unending existence in the after life. If Nietzsche said life has meaning because we die, it can equally be held that exists for those betting on the after life. Eternal life is a tough concept to grasp since it sense of time is totally foreign to earthy thinking which is totally controlled by this artificial measurement.
”One scene that had religious critics up in arms depicts Jesus sitting all afternoon in a room outside the bedroom of a prostitute (Mary Magdalene), where he can both see and hear her servicing a long queue of customers. The movie’s defenders pointed out that nothing in the scene indicates Jesus is supposed to be moved to lust by what he sees and hears, so why couldn’t a perfect man do what Jesus is represented as doing? Yet even putting aside the question of lust (and of Jesus’ general state throughout the film of apparent obssession with Mary Magdalene), there is still the matter of ordinary modesty; not to mention the obligation to avoid situations that would reasonably give scandal (since Jesus appears to be simply waiting his turn like Mary’s customers).
However, the Church’s own decision to allow imagery and iconography of the scriptures, has much to do with the dilutions and fabrications in popular culture today. If Jesus was a product of reincarnation, and the issue of Karma is present, Scrosese is just interpreting an alternative situation, one destined to failure. Like the myth of Sisyphus, to haul the material to the summit only to start over again. This ”selling” of the afterlife is a form of The Market in itself. Although Jesus gave compelling reasons about a life that awaits us in heaven, rose from the dead and during forty days appeared to hundreds of people; the metaphysical principle is obvious: If you say it really happened,and say it often enough, then it must be the real thing. As the early Christian theologian Tertullian once remarked, “Credo quia absurdum est” :”I believe because it is absurd”. However, a betting person is still apt to hedge their bets.
”I find myself reflecting on the significance of the fact that this film represents the collaboration of a writer of Greek Orthodox heritage and a filmmaker of Italian Catholic background. Only artists so steeped from childhood in the rich profundity of Christian tradition could possibly create something so profoundly antithetical to that tradition, so deeply heretical and blasphemous. It could never have been made by an ordinary nonreligious or atheistic filmmaker, or even by a lapsed Protestant.”
”But I have come to wonder whether the real clash of religions (or even of civilizations) may be going unnoticed. I am beginning to think that for all the religions of the world, however they may differ from one another, the religion of The Market has become the most formidable rival, the more so because it is rarely recognized as a religion….Disagreements among the traditional religions become picayune in comparison with the fundamental differences they all have with the religion of The Market. Will this lead to a new jihad or crusade? I doubt it. It seems unlikely that traditional religions will rise to the occasion and challenge the doctrines of the new dispensation. Most of them seem content to become its acolytes, or to be absorbed into its pantheon, much as the old Nordic deities, after putting up a game fight, eventually settled for a diminished but secure status as Christian saints. I am usually a keen supporter of ecumenism. But the contradictions between the world views of the traditional religions on the one hand and the world view of The Market religion on the other are so basic that no compromise seems possible, and I am secretly hoping for a rebirth of polemics. ( Harvey Cox )
In light of the recent media scandal against the Church, a timing of precious conjunction with Easter, the frenzied spirit of the Mob of the Market has reached a fairly base level of sensationalism. On March 31, the Associated Press ran a story covering a press conference given by Mehmet Ali Agca demanding the Pope’s resignation. Agca was the would-be assasin of Pope John Paul II. Even a homicidal wing nut can garner publicity if he hop aboard the anti-Catholic bashing train. There is justly a ” zero tolerance” on Bishops but not on suffocating market forces that have no real identifiable source of power. A few snake oil salesmen style prophets like Greenspan and Bernanke, but no tangible roots to eradicate.
“The Last Temptation of Christ” is a probing, unflinching film. And Scorsese’s motive here is to stimulate and provoke, not to sensationalize. The director’s failure, though, comes at the most basic level. In spite of all he accomplishes, he is unable to bring Jesus close to us, to realize his stated goal of creating a universal figure who symbolizes the spiritual anguish of all men. Somehow Christ’s suffering seems to have been fetishized, and there’s an almost creepy kind of glee in the filmmakers’ presentation of the corruptions here. The result is an inescapable sadomasochistic tone. Too often, you can feel them, perhaps in spite of themselves, taking pride in their own outrageousness….Scorsese’s obsessiveness is part of the movie’s strength, but its downfall as well. Not that he is a stranger to obsessiveness. But though we could all put ourselves inside Travis Bickle’s febrile brain, Christ remains a kind of ghostly emanation — a vivid but elusive shadow. We identify with His pain, but we can’t find our own in it, or ourselves in Him. ( Hinson )