Monday, May 30, 2011

Last Temptation of Christ

The following is excerpted (and subtly revised) from an academic paper I wrote this past month. I hope you will find it thought-provoking. For there is much work yet to be done. And my ideas are as of yet still unclear.

Some films, because they portray biblical or religious figures or teachings unfavorably, have been judged outside the pale of real theological work and therefore outside the pale of “moral theology.”

When Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ (1988) took on the classic biblical story of Jesus’ life, death, and passion, most theologians seriously criticized it, while most film critics praised it. Why the discrepancy?

In the film, Jesus is portrayed doubting himself, having sex with Mary Magdalene in a dream, getting angry in the Temple, losing as many followers as he gains, and eventually giving himself up to die in a semi-masochistic way. That does not seem like the sort of portrayal a (Christian) theologian would enjoy.

But the film director (and the novelist Nikos Kazantzakis, on whose work the film is based), as far as I can tell, had the idea to put the emphasis more on Jesus’ human side. That he then appears less favorably than in the Christian Scriptures is simply due to the fact that the film is telling a different story for a different purpose than that which the Scriptures tell.

When the Gospels were written, some would argue, Jesus’ divinity was much more at stake because people knew that he had lived, but doubted he had risen again. Nowadays, people want to know that Jesus was not just some super-transcendent, floating-high-above-us God, but that too he was human.

Besides wanting to portray Jesus’ humanity and moral anguish, the film wants to shock viewers and add to the Gospel narrative ambiguity.

Some might argue that all of this is fine in theory and that they agree with the suggestions I am making here, but they would prefer that, on the screen, Jesus making love with Mary not be so graphically displayed.

One could counter-argue that without bodies being involved no one could learn about Jesus’ embodied experience.

In other words, the alternative to watching a film, to watching and observing certain ethical choices lived out by others to as full an extent as is possible, is to instead live out those very choices one’s self.

Experiencing sex for oneself is fine but sometimes rather limiting because once you choose, for example, to be a homosexual and a priest (as perhaps Father Flynn does in the movie Doubt, for those who’ve seen it), and do it just to see what sorts of ethical issues are involved, you are committed to that, to a certain extent, and unable to back out of it. So to watch it on film allows you to give your choices greater consideration.

However it is, this sort of portrayal from the perspective of most Christian tradition, while arguably theological and imaginatively true, is probably more fit for a film than for a theological tome. To suggest Jesus may have had sexual desires or serious doubts and may have dreamed of marrying Mary – that is one thing. To dogmatically state it is another. For those who see the latter as inappropriate, film may be a useful medium of exploring these more controversial themes.

And then, because Jesus’ life plays such a morally normative role for the church, once our view of Jesus has changed, new aspects of life can be valued. For instance, Scorsese, who incidentally grew up Catholic and had at one point seriously considered becoming a priest, in this film portrays marriage as appealing, and he glorifies the crucifixion much less than does Paul the apostle in his letters to the churches. Surely, what Scorsese does is worth its while.

It is a film that is designed to make you think.

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