My father consulted his Bible regularly, and I have many a memory of visiting my parents on a Saturday night and finding him sitting at the kitchen table, studying the book for the next morning’s Sunday school lesson. He was a devout Christian. He embraced the faith with all his heart, and he made a conscious effort to live by the teachings of the Word.
And in 1988, when The Last Temptation of Christ stirred up so much world-wide controversy among members of his faith, he was one of the few Christians I knew who remained silent on the matter.
The film is based on the 1953 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis in which Jesus Christ, being a physical manifestation of God, is subject to the weaknesses of the flesh, to include fear, anxiety, doubt, depression, anger, and lust. The Bible itself suggests that Christ was as much God as if her were never man and as much man as if he were never God, and neither Kazantzakis' book nor the film, directed by Martin Scorcese, dispute this fact. Rather, they suggest that if we are to accept Christ’s man nature, then we must also assume that he struggled with the same issues that all of us encounter every day, the difference being that His God nature allowed Him to overcome these issues.
Upon my most recent viewing, I realize that all of these issues are just various comorbidities of temptation, those things that attempt to lure us away from our spiritual walk and engage us in thoughts and behaviors that separate us from God. As such, the entire film is about ongoing temptation, and to fully grasp the meaning of the “last temptation” in the title, I believe it is important to understand the temptation process Jesus undergoes in the narrative.
When Jesus rebukes Satan three times, The Devil leaves, and Christ is ministered back to strength by God’s angels. This particular narrative of the Gospels is so profound to the Christian that John Milton’s poem about it is entitled Paradise Regained, signifying that Christ’s resistance to temptation was the antidote for man succumbing to it in Paradise Lost.
The first temptation is a snake that speaks in the voice of Mary Magdalene, addresses Jesus’s fear of isolation, and offers him the joys of a family and the pleasures of the marriage bed.
When Christ refuses to give in, a lion appears speaking in the voice of Judas Iscariot, tempting Jesus with dreams of power.
When Jesus threatens to pluck out the lion’s tongue, a pilar of fire appears, and Satan speaks to Jesus a bit like Darth Vader speaking to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back, proposing that they join forces to rule the world.
Next, Jesus is presented with a vision of an apple tree, the tree of life that tempted Adam and Eve and resulted in the fall of man. Christ tastes an apple, only to discover that it is full of blood and he spits it out. He then discovers an ax in the sand, and John the Baptist appears assuring Jesus that it is time to take up battle against Satan.
I am particularly fascinated by the sequence of event that occurs after. When Jesus wanders out of the desert, he is fed by Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus of Bethany. Christians will note that this episode occurs out of sequence with the actual Gospels; the film is not about narrative accuracy but about exploring the thematic arc of Christ’s journey. It is significant that Mary and Martha are the first people Christ sees after his temptation in the desert because they will play into his last temptation on the cross.
In the next scene, Christ--renewed by his victory over temptation--calls his disciples to war, removing his heart from his chest (a scene that horrified Christians at the time) and raising the ax as a symbol of their spiritual warfare.
These scenes, and many more, are reason enough to get the dander up of most Christians, but I would contend that while they are heretical they are far from blasphemous. Heresy is when one embraces beliefs that are askew to established doctrines or customs, which is what The Last Temptation of Christ does. Blasphemy is when one’s beliefs show contempt or hostility toward the deity at the center of those customs, which The Last Temptation of Christ does not.
Let me offer my own initial reaction to the film, and this is coming from a guy who was at the time in a state of wishy-washy yet condescending agnosticism.
I was raised with this idea of Jesus as the physical manifestation of love, so deeply spiritual and God-conscious that doubt, fear, and depression were incapable of entering his psyche. My understanding of the crucifixion goes beyond Christ receiving punishment for the sins of the world; I believe Christ literally absorbed all of the sins of man, kind of the way Nyah injects herself with the Chimera toxin in Mission: Impossible II, taking on the disease herself so it cannot be unleashed on the world. Once infected with all of man’s sins, Christ is put to death, not only cleansing man of sin but also bathing man in righteousness so he can stand in the presence of God. Even the Jesus of The Last Temptation of Christ states that the goal is to bring God and man together.
Atheists may look upon this story with disdain, but you have to admit, the idea behind Christ’s lone sacrifice for the good of mankind is not only moving but inspiring. Is it any wonder that the Christ figure recurs throughout our cinematic culture, from Spock in Star Trek II to William Wallace in Braveheart?
Besides struggling with the duality of Jesus, I believe The Last Temptation of Christ asks the viewer to do something else--to consider just how great this sacrifice would be if Jesus was some poor schmuck like you or me. Dafoe’s version of Jesus is readily accessible because we as frail humans understand his anxiety. We may not like it--that’s not the Jesus we signed up for--but we recognize in him our own terror and bewilderment, which makes his willingness to take up the cross that much more compelling.
Jesus replies: “No, that’s why God gave me the easier job, to be crucified.”
Many Christians assume that Christ was resolute and unwavering, but we forget the way he prayed in Gethsamene. One of the questions The Last Temptation of Christ asked me was, “Do you have the strength to do what Jesus did?”
And then there is the crucifixion itself and the subsequent last temptation. First of all, this was 16 years before The Passion of the Christ, and at the time, Mel Gibson was still making Lethal Weapon movies, so the torture of Jesus in Last Temptation was the most violent I had seen up to that time. That alone made the sacrifice of this confused and frightened version of Jesus all the more powerful.
But then came the Last Temptation. As Christ suffers on the cross, mocked by those who were once his followers, a beautiful child appears, identifying herself as an angel sent by God to rescue him. She takes Jesus down from the cross and allows him to live life as a normal man. This includes the wedding of Mary Magdelene, the pleasures of the marriage bed, but it also includes becoming a young widow when Mary dies during child birth. Life goes on, however, and Jesus ends up taking both Martha and Mary of Bethany as wives, and then growing old with his family. Only on his death bed are his eyes opened by his former disciple Judas: that the child angel is Satan, playing upon the selfish desires of the flesh, and that without Christ’s sacrifice, man and God cannot come together and the world will be damned.
When the film was released, the global backlash was almost frightening. Enraged protesters gathered outside of screenings, and one theater in Paris was attacked with Molotov cocktails. The film was condemned by religious leaders across the world, and in America Scorcese received death threats while televangelists made the talk show circuit calling for a nationwide boycott.
While I myself was not offended by The Last Temptation of Christ, I know of many Christians who were. At the convenience store where I worked, numerous religious groups came in and thrust petitions in my face, and the local paper was flooded with poorly written letters to the editor damning Scorsese to hell.
One of the many mantras I heard in late 1988 was how The Last Temptation of Christ was a “tool of Satan.” If there really is a Satan, then I won’t argue with that statement. When the storm surrounding the film was at its zenith, literally thousands of believers diverted themselves from their Christian walk to devote all their spare time waging war with the film.
If these same people had shut up and gone about doing what Christ Himself instructs them to do--that is, feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and care for the sick and needy--then The Last Temptation of Christ might have been overlooked by the mainstream and suffered a quiet death at the box office. The irony is that the Christian right’s vehement attempts to squelch the film are what pumped life into the film’s ticket sales, plus Christians were so distracted by their defensive protests at the time that they neglected to do more productive and--dare I say it?--charitable things.
I asked my father at the time what he thought of The Last Temptation of Christ, and I don’t remember getting much out of him. Dad loved the Scripture and was willing to defend its integrity, but when it came to Scorcese’s film, he had better uses for his time. As for me, my feelings about The Last Temptation of Christ have fluctuated through the years, but things have gotten a lot clearer since Dad died and I inherited his great big Bible.
Here’s what I think. In Ephesians 4:31, the apostle Paul wrote “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice.” I don’t think I have to interpret this for you. It’s pretty darn clear, even in the King James translation.
In Matthew 10:14, Jesus Himself says, “And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet.” In other words, don’t waste your energy fighting something that runs askew to your own beliefs; just shake it off and move on.
My father was a master at putting away bitterness, and if someone would not hear him, he never carried that man’s dust further than the front door. He saw in Jesus an example of how to live, not an excuse to rebuke others. This is probably why he didn’t get too excited by The Last Temptation of Christ, and why I think nobody else should either. This is a powerful film, and the spiritual questions it raises necessitate serious discussion. No, it is not faithful to the Scriptures, but that’s why it’s rated R, to encourage only grownups to see it.
If you have not seen it, I encourage you to check it out. If after viewing it you still have issues with its content, leave an extra dollar in the collection plate and take a homeless person to dinner.