Tuesday, April 13, 2004

A very personal and undeveloped collection of thoughts on why I like "The Last Temptation of Christ" so much and why it's so much more significant to free-thinking christians than Mel Gibson's sadomasochistic tripe "The Passion of the Christ."-----

Nikos Kazantzakis wrote _The Last Temptation of Christ_ in the late 1950s. It cost him his membership in the Greek Orthodox Church, of course, but he didn't care, just as I wouldn't care what theological court would condemn me for loving the book and the movie more than any other fictionalization of the life of Jesus. Martin Scorsese turned it into a movie in 1988. Willem DaFoe was brilliant as a mild-mannered revolutionary Jesus, Harvey Keitel was a subtle gangsta Judas, David Bowie a cynical and intellectually curious Pilate...the characters are all terribly compelling, and the film makes me cry every time I see it.

The initial gesture of "Last Temptation" that sets it apart from other Jesus interpretations is that the Christ is an imperfect, self-conscious man; although this never makes him less the unique son of god, it can be painful to listen to lines like this:

Jesus: "I'm a liar. A hypocrite. I'm afraid of everything. I don't ever tell the truth--I don't have the courage! When I see a woman, I blush, and look away. I want to, but I don't dare!--for God....I don't steal, I don't fight, don't kill--not because I don't want to, but because I'm afraid. I want to rebel against you, against everything, against God! But, I'm afraid! You want to know who my mother and father are? Want to know who my God is? Fear. You look inside me and that's all you find....Lucifer is inside of me..."

Writing for _First Things_, Carol Iannone pointed out that "Last Temptation" became the poster-child for anti-christianity films, largely because of the mundane and dark way the film portrayed Jesus:

Jesus is shown at the outset as a lonely, masochistic soul full of self-contempt, plying his carpenter's trade making crosses for the Romans to use to crucify zealous Jews. He writhes and agonizes in fear and doubt over the voices and visions to which he is subject, whether from God or Satan he knows not. At one point he is shown watching while prostitute Mary Magdalene services a string of clients. Finally, he is shown tempted to leave the cross for the life of an ordinary man who knows the felicities of marriage, sex, and family: this is the "last temptation" that nearly wrenches away the meaning of his sacrifice.

Like "The Passion," Scorsese's project was also attacked critically, though in my view the attack was overblown and unwarranted.

The film drew criticism not only for its affront to conventional piety but also for aesthetic reasons, as Scorsese's usually sure artistry seemed to falter. Certain features of the film-such as Harvey Keitel's Judas with a Lower East Side accent-were extravagantly mocked by critics. The whole thing seemed a textbook case of blasphemy and artistic failure-a film both "silly and offensive," as reviewer Bruce Bawer put it.

The climax of the film has DaFoe's Jesus sucked into a Satanic fantasy, where he rejects his role as savior, marries and has a family.

The unsaved world, the world without the Cross, although still part of Jesus' fantasy, is rendered convincingly bare and desolate. After his mostly satisfactory life as a paterfamilias, Jesus grows old and is near death. Forty years have passed and Jerusalem is burning-the march of history has continued without any change of course. Paul, because he feels that people need to believe in something, is preaching a false gospel based on the incomplete crucifixion that Jesus apparently underwent. The Apostles come to see Jesus and they are old, broken men. They reproach him for descending the Cross and leaving mankind without hope, kept going by lies and fictions during the brief, sometimes pleasant, sometimes miserable interlude before oblivion. It is then that Jesus sees Satan behind his fantasy and rejects it, begging the Father in a deeply affecting scene to take him back to the Cross, to "make a feast." In a moment, with complete and eager willingness, he is back, and "it is accomplished." The film memorably ends here, while the novel continues for one more sentence: "And it was as though he had said: Everything has begun." And one can believe that it has.

For me, a shorter, more important moment in the film occurs when Jesus tells Judas: "You will betray me." The prediction of traditional scripture becomes a tactical order from one spiritual (and political) revolutionary to another. Judas argues, based both on his love for Jesus and on the tactical viability of the idea. He relents. Judas is portrayed as serious, militant, and loyal to the end. The dialogues between Jesus and Judas are so simple and plain, so beautiful as such.

Jesus: Listen, at first I didn't understand myself.
Judas: No, you listen. Every day you have a different plan. First it's love, then it's the axe, and now you have to die. What good could that do?
Jesus: I can't help it. God only talks to me a little at a time. He only tells me as much as I need to know....
Judas: We need you alive!
Jesus: Now I finally understand. All my life, all my life I've been followed by voices, by footsteps, and by shadows. And you know what the shadow is? The cross. I have to die on that cross and I have to die willingly....


Jesus: ...Judas, stay with me. Don't leave me!
Judas: I won't let you die.
Jesus: You have no choice. Remember, we're bringing God and man together, and they'll never be together unless I die. I'm the sacrifice. Without you there can be no redemption. Forget everything else. Understand that.
Judas: No, I can't. Get somebody stronger.
Jesus: You promised me. Remember once you told me that if I moved one step from revolution, you'd kill me. Remember? I've strayed, then. You must keep your promise....
Judas: If that's what God wants, then let God do it. I won't.
Jesus: He will do it--through you!...You can't leave me. You have to give me strength.
Judas: If you were me could you betray your master?
Jesus: No. That's why God gave me the easier job, to be crucified.

For me, _The Last Temptation of Christ_ does the same thing for me that Robert Eisenman's _James the Brother of Jesus_ does. It makes the story of Jesus's struggle against the Romans real to me. (I met Eisenman while I wasa grad student at Long Beach State, and read his book a few months later.) I will never believe the fairy tales and magic shows. I don't care if he could heal the lame or if he rose from the dead. He probably didn't, and like Kierkegaard I refuse to give in to expectations of super powers as a prerequisite for faith. I do believe in revelation, though, always have, and see how God might favor one or another side in a struggle. _Last Temptation_ makes me feel the dialectic between one person's internal struggle and the external political struggle that contextualizes it. And the sacrifice, the real sacrifice, of Kazantzakis's Jesus is not merely pain and blood and gratuitous flaying, as in Gibson's pornography. Instead, it's Jesus giving up the simulation-reality of love and family, sex and romance and the mundane, in order to be a god. That's more real to me than the Jesus-as-sadomasochistic-fantasy I was fed throughout my childhood.