"Didn't you know? I'm the saint of blasphemy."
Jesus from Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ
by William Bowman
XXX Wildmon called the film "A blasphemous, evil attack on the Church and the cause of Christ." Billy Graham called it "sacrilegious". The US Catholic Conference said the film was "morally offensive," and Mother Angelica of XXX said the film "jeapordizes our faith." "Scorsese and Universal are not just taking on evangelicals," said James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, "they are taking on the King of the universe." Rev. Lloyd Olgivie: "The most serious misuse of film craft in the history of moviemaking." Bill Bright: The product of "a handful of people with great wealth and depraved minds." And Evelyn Dukovic: "A film that "intentionally demeaned Christ." Clearly, to conservatives, The Last Temptation of Christ was not, as scorsese claimed, an "attempt to use the screen... to get the message out about practicing the basic concepts of Christianity" (Broeskie 6.1, qtd on Riley 27) but rather a deliberate, malicious slander of the central FIgure of Christian faith, a film and director purposed to "steal, and kill, and destroy" their adhearants and Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (John 10:10), all in all, blasphemous to the core.
And the argument over Scorsese's film has not ended today, though it has taken on a much more scholarly lexicon. Stephen D. Graydanus in his Decentfilms review "The Last Temptation: An Essay in Film Criticism and Faith" calls the film "poisonous morally and spiritually." He goes on to describe Scorsese and Kazantzakis as "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" (Greydanus, "Last Temptation). To Greydanus' 'decent' and Christian sensibilities, both the film and its makers are odious. And Greydanus isn't alone. Robin Riley in his book Film, Faith, and Cultural Conflict: The Case of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ deligitimizes Scorsese's Jesus as well. To Riley, Scorsese's subjectivising and internalizing of the good-evil duality into Jesus' psyche and the removal of his mystic perfection disqualifies him as a legitimate candidate for his scapegoating for humanity's sins. For the scapegoat motif central to Christianity, he argues, Jesus must be perfect, and the subjectification and ambiguity of Scorsese's Jesus effectively disqualify him. Robert Egbert, who originally defended the film as not blasphemous, now (thanks to Greydanus' essay) believes the film to be so, though he still conside rs the film "one of [Scorsese's] great films is not that it is true about Jesus but that it is true about Scorsese" (XXX).
For thirty years, theologians, pastors, film critics, and bloggers have been trying to figure out just what, exactly, is right and wrong about The Last Temptation. But hindsight is 20-20, right? So I believe it's time to clarify. Riley, Egbert, and Greydanus, have something right: Kazantzakis, Schrader, and Scorsese are heretics and blasphemers to the traditional Christian faith However, it's not for nearly any of the reasons they cite. The blasphemies of The Last Temptation are not in Jesus' humanity and all its uncomfortable facets, but rather they appear only in Jesus' pre-desert rebellion and the authors allegorical use of Jesus as a model for Kazantazakis' Eastern-existentialist path to self-salvation.
But Dictionary.com expands this definition. The Jewish definition of "the crime of assuming to oneself the rights or qualities of God" is also blasphemous. We see this definition of blasphemy exemplified in both the Bible and The Last Temptation. In Matthew 9 Jesus is accused of blasphemy:
And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven." And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, "This man is blaspheming." (Matthew 9:2-4)
The other question of what constitutes blasphemy is assignment. Who determines who is a blasphemer? Does the mutterer of the virile words or phrase adhere to the faith blasphemed? Or are they an outsider? Is it fair to hold a non-adherent to a faith to the same standards as a believer? In most societies, this question is moot: the question of blasphemy isn't about adherence or "fairness" but about power. Definition and enforcement of blasphemy is meted out by those in power: those with the stick to spank decide what, in fact, constitutes blasphemy and dispense punishment for it. We look back on Galileo and Cervantes--burned for their "heresies"--and laud them as martyrs of free thought and religious freedom. They weren't blasphemers in any sense of the word, we say. However, in reality, in their societies, they were. Each lived in a religious society in which definitions of God were controlled by a central, political power with capital punitive authority, thus they were, practically and officially, heretics and blasphemers. It doesn't matter what they believed about themselves or what we believe about them. In every society except one in which freedom of speech is fully protected language is ultimately controlled by those who hold power over definitions of "holy" and the means to enforce it. If a man has the power to (lawfully) punish you for defamation or blasphemy, then it's blasphemy, regardless of a man's choice to adhere to the system which accuses him or not.
We, however, don't live in such a society (at least not applied to traditional religious sense). We live in a society in which religion is a matter of personal choice and volition. The system of belief one holds oneself to is protected by law, though not all contingent acts necessarily are. A man could get up on a pedestal (in an approved free-speech zone) and say that Satan is, in fact, God, and that Jesus wears tutus and brings the Satanic Lord of the Universe his grilled cheese and no one in power would have the right to enforce punitive recompense. All religious beliefs are free from fear of oppression or societal rebuke. Thus the right to blaspheme has also becomes a personal matter.
That being said, no one will ever have a self-view of a blasphemer. No one willingly believes something is holy and then speaks blasphemies against it (except in the case of errors of knowledge). No one chooses to be a blasphemer (unless one is thinking of himself from the view of another, mockingly imposing it upon himself for comic or ironic purpose such as: "yup, I'm a blasphemer!"). No one ever believes that, one, that God exists and He is holy in the facets that he believes and two, says the negative things otherwise. Cervantes really believed that the trinity was not a thing. Arias too. Neither of these men had a self-view of blasphemer or heretic.
Heresy and blasphemy are rather imposed appellations, titles necessarily given from the outside. Blasphemy is always assigned by another. Blasphemy (a negative term necessarily requires a clash of two (positive) belief systems. Two people must believe their definitions of holy are right and correct and that the other system is incomplete or wrong. This is what results in the frequent and frustratingly comic back-and-forth heresy matches between two self-confirmed churches or faiths. Anyone can call anyone a blasphemer, provided they have a standard of holy by which to judge the remarks, though, In our society, no one has the power to punish them. What this means, then, is that the only means by which to judge if a remark is blasphemous is by scrutiny against the accusing party's belief system. If Martin Scorsese is a blasphemer he must be a blasphemer by the standards of blasphemy the accusers hold, and that is what this paper will attempt to do: to judge if Scorsese is, in fact, what his accusers call him, a blasphemer, by their own standards and definitions of the sacred.
Blasphemous! Is Not! Is Too!
The first of these accusations that we can rule out is Scorsese's characterization of John the Baptist, Judas, Peter, and Paul. Graydanus notes, in his review, that John the Baptist is much older than Jesus and that his baptism looks like a "hysterical-ecstatic Pentecostal revival meeting" ("Last Temptation"). Greydanus also notes that Peter is a weak, impotent character who is "he is invariably doing or saying the wrong thing." Mary Magdalene is Jesus "obsession." Judas is, rather than a villain, a bonefied hero who never shows "corruption, self-interest, or pettiness" throughout the course of the film. "What [Judas] did," writes Greydanus, "in the end, must be wrong" ("Last Temptation; emphasis by author). Because the essence and purpose of many of the film's characters differs from the Gospel accounts, the film is blasphemous, Greydanus seems to imply.
Underlying Greydanus' statements on the characters of the film, though, is the idea that, though alternative events, charactarizations, ideas, relationships and personalities may be explored by the author, the essence and narrative purpose of the characters must remain true to the gospel accounts. Underlying this statement is the real conflict: any purportedly historical story about Jesus which alternates from the essence of the Gospel accounts is, in fact, a direct attack on Christianity and it's "historical" account. Both accounts cannot be correct. This is true: if a narrative claims historicity and differs markedly from the accounts of another historical account, there is a conflict: one must be wrong, and by simply telling the story a different way one is implying the other story is wrong.
This book was written because I wanted to offer a supreme model to the man who struggles; I wanted to show him that he must not fear pain, temptation or death--because all three can be conquered. (Kazantazakis 4)
And even if they did: each of these characters (along with sacred wounds, theotokos, etc.) except Christ Himself, no matter how beloved, emotionally close, or central to Christian's hearts, still fall surely in the category of "sacred things," not God, and are, for the purposes of my essay, excluded from blasphemy.
Even Schrader's self-professed jab at Paul about the non-importance of the resurrection is, in fact, not an attack on God but an attack on Paul's theology and doctrine. Schrader says blatantly that "what we know of Christianity is, in my mind Paulism" (Schrader 18, qtd. on Riley 39). Schrader is a lapsed-Calvinist, a disillusioned fundamentalist who enjoys theological polemics. "The picture was provocation," he admits, "and I enjoy debate and argument." Paul's speech is an incitement to dialogue and, in essence, an alternative soteriology. However, no qualities or attributes of the ecclesial Christ are challenged in the speech. Rather, the question is the necessity of the concurrence of the Ecclesial Christ with the historical Jesus. This dialogue has been going on for 2000 years, and Paul's speech is hardly new theology.
INSERT HEGEL AND BULTMANN QUOTES.
To Paul in The Last Temptation, Schweitzer, Bultmann and Hegel, historical personage of Jesus is swallowed up in the Christ of the church and his message and His Spirit. Was the real historical Jesus the same as the Eccleastic Christ? Doesn't matter. The message is what matters. Paul's speech is one which has been made numerous times in the last 300 years since the quest for the Historical Jesus officially began with Wrede. And while many may consider this assertion false or theologically wrong, and while it may be unsettling of traditional soteriology, it does not attack the God Jesus Christ's essence or character, only the congruence with the historical personage, thus falling outside my definition of blasphemy for this paper, and thus leaving The Last Temptation still outside the realm of blasphemous.
A Sinner Savior?
For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin. (1 Corinthians 5:21)
But what does it mean that Jesus was not a sinner? It's clear from the Christian canon that Jesus is believed to have been without sin.
"One who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin." (Hebrews 4:15)
"He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth." 1 Peter 2:22
"For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)
For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:18)
So what does it mean to make Jesus a "sinner" rather than just being tempted? What are "sin" and "temptation"? Generally, the state of sin is separation from God. As Augustine says, evil has no substance, but is rather an absence of good (XXX). Sin is a physical act or mental state of intent which separates one from God and his Will. It is not enough to desire something which is outside God's Will. That is temptation. But one must act or intend to act on it to be considered sin.
Jesus experienced all temptation but never sinned. He experienced desire and longing for all things humans experience longing for, though he never once acted on them as, for him, they were against God's Will. It isn't enough to say that Jesus seems like a sinner. Compared to the divine, haloed child-loving, cloud-floating portrait pictured in the Gospels, even Mother Theresa seems like a sinner. To declare Jesus a sinner in the film, direct, objective evidence of him committing sin in his pre-film life or over the course of the film must exist.
So, let's start out with what in The Last Temptation isn't sin for Jesus.
His anger and hatred. The desire for justice is, if the Old Testament teaches anything, a good thing. The idea of hating evil and sin are, to Christians and Jews, very compatible with divinity and righteousness. Anger is divine.
The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;
you hate all evildoers. (Psalm 5:5)
The mouth of forbidden women is a deep pit;
he with hom the Lord is angry will fall into it. (Proverbs 22:14)
Yet I have loved Jacob, but Easu I have hated. (Malachi 1:3)
Be angry and do not sin. (Ephesians 4:26)
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother (without cause) will be liable to judgment; whoever insults (Greek Roca; a term of abuse) his brother will be liable to the council. (Matthew 5:22)
In The Last Temptation, in the scene where Jesus rescues Magdalene, William Dafoe's deep blue eyes radiate anger and fury. His mouth quivers, he clenches his hands as he picks up the stones. One wonders if he plans to throw them at Peter. Peter wonders whether he plans to throw them at Peter and steps back. But he doesn't. Later, he tells Judas "XXX." Jesus experiences anger at the injustice of sinners stoning another sinner for sin. He feels the (arguably justifiable) wrath at hypocrisy. But he doesn't commit violence. Instead, many of the men at that gathering later become his disciples. Jesus' reaction to anger here (as well as in the temple) represents a normal, natural human and divine reaction to injustice, one which is extremely prevalent in the God of the Old Testament. See injustice, feel anger, warn offenders, and don't commit violence until due warning has been given. Yes, we oftentimes like to imagine Jesus with a perpetual banana smile on his face; but behind the Gospel texts is a man-God furious at the injustice of the world and its perpetrators, whether we like to admit it or not. No sin here.
Next, sexual desire. To understand the proper Jewish position of sexuality we must go all the way back to Genesis. God created Adam and Eve in his image.
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24)
There are several scenes in The Last Temptation which reveal Jesus' very obvious, very explicit sexuality. Many critics (scholars and layman alike) have interpreted this as evidence of Jesus' sinfulness in the film, either from a theological or deeply emotional position. For exampel, the shot of the topless, tattooed woman as Jesus walks toward Magdalene's. As Jesus passes, "she draws water in a way to emphasize her chest area. Her shoulders are squared to the point-of-view camera shot for a full frontal view of her brests She seductively looks into Jesus eyes (the camera) as he passes" (Riley 49). Scorsese highlights Jesus' momentary desirous gaze, a gaze which, in Riley's words, "[violates] sacred or holy reference to the biblical character... It implies not only could Jesus have looked at her this way but did look at her this way" (Riley 49). To Riley, the fact that Jesus paused at his passing, obviously noticing her sexual openness and nakedness, profanes Jesus to the point of corruption and sin. But what has Jesus really done here? He has looked at a woman, his sexuality has been stimulated, he turns and walks on. There is no purposed act of sexuality, nor can Riley assume that in Jesus mind there was any kind of volitional state of intent toward sexual acts with this woman. In fact, judging by the ashamed, anti-sexual characterization of Jesus thus far, one would guess quite the opposite. What has happened here is nothing beyond biological: Jesus sees a naked, sexually attractive woman, his biological and God-given human desire to propagate life causes him to pause for a moment. Nothing is profaned here except, maybe, Riley's own chaste conceptions of Jesus who wears a iron girdle, a purity ring, has a glowing groin and supernatural powers of non-humanity and is never really affected by desires to perform his very human, very male, very good and natural purpose on the earth to procreate.
Next, the scene of Jesus waiting in Magdalene's brothel. Jesus sits all day in the presence of sexual aberration and, to some critics, seems to absorb the sin by osmosis. However, there's a very particular shot which reveals Jesus' true mental state while in the brothel. As the camera zooms closer, closer to the eastern man's eye, Jesus sits behind, blurred, until the camera goes into extreme-close-up and pans away toward him. He's staring as well, his fascination very blatant. But he looks down. This shot does reveal Jesus obvious attraction to the sexual act: he is staring. But what most critics seem to miss is that, unlike the Eastern man in the forefront of the shot, a man who has obviously purposed to partake of the licivious activity, Jesus looks away. Jesus' sexuality is revealed, yes, as well as his desire for sexual participation. But the profanity of the act and the harm of it to his beloved Magdalene hurts him so he looks down and, maybe, mumble some prayer for the prostitute he loves, hardly a sinful state to adopt in the presence of immorality.
And finally, the infamous sex scene with Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Of all the "blasphemies", these images disturbed conservative Christians the most. This otherwise tender scene with Magdalene washing Jesus' wounds, cleaning his bloody body, and engaging in otherwise holy and wonderful sexual copulation was looked on by conservative viewers in utter disgust. The scene touched sensibilities with the emotional impact not of a sledgehammer but of a keen, precise dagger, slipped between the ribs, quietly and gently entering the heart, leaving behind little real evidence of why, exactly, this images was so utterly devastating. But Greydanus sums up the emotional impact quite effectively.
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. Roger Ebert, in his review of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, criticized that film’s use of actors in blackface makeup — even though the actors themselves were black and the device was intended as a critique of racism — arguing that the sheer racist association of the image itself overwhelms the context and dramatic purpose. Watching this scene in Last Temptation, I had a similar reaction: I was just blown away by the wrongness of the very picture of Jesus kissing a woman. ("Last Temptation")
But despite these emotional revulsion, Greydanus admits the legality and non-blasphemous nature of the scene. Riley, however, is not so genuine with his treatment of the scene and the dream/temptation scene as a whole. Rather than admitting a feeling-level revulsion to the films ideas (which is painfully explicit in his so-called scholarly treatment of the film), he haphazardly attempts to delegitimize the temptation sequence theologically.
If we derive our interpretation from this material the dreams sequence clearly testifies taht Jesus accepts Satan's tempting offer. He is captivated by the girl-angel who effectiely persuades him that he is not the messiah. Taking her hand, Jesus gladly follows her into his alternative future life failing to recognize the angel is Satan. He changes his mind only after having lived to an old age in the dream. (Riley 52)
But what Riley fails to take into consideration is that the entire dream sequence is not real but really only an expression of Jesus' heart. Kazantzakis' translator reminds us that Kazantzakis was heavily influenced by both Eastern thought and Neitchian existentialism. Kazantzakis' Christianity, by the end of his life, was closer to a marriage of these ideas than that of traditional Christianity (Kazantazakis XXX). It's also well-know that Scorsese practices transcendental meditation, and is also otherwise exposed to Buddhism ("David Lynch"). In Buddhism, the phenomenal world we live in is a manifestation of our desires, an illusion. The world as we see it is a reflection of our deepest desires to live, love, procreate, survive, and anything else we deeply, deeply want. Meditation is the process of entering that deep heart and stilling one's desires. In The Last Temptation, Jesus' deepest desire is to be human: to have a wife, a family, a simple, spiritually-satisfying vocation, essentially, to be happy, to live at peace with the world, and to have a God who allows him to do it. "Peace between the world and the heart," Satan tells him at the beginning of the sequence, "that's God's Kingdom." In order to fully embrace his divinity, Jesus, like a good Buddhist, must enter his heart and, with this form of cinematic transcendental meditation, fully come in touch with this desire in order to overcome it's hold on him. Jesus' dream sequence represents this final struggle. Though in Jesus' perspective it represents 37 years, in real time it is only a moment. In deep transcendental meditation, time is relative and malleable, and the entire sequence of Jesus. (This concept is similar to when, quite the opposite, one falls asleep and seems to wake up only a second later, though the night has already passed.) The real defining moment comes when Judas tells him "XXX" and he is offered the opportunity to die with his heart in the same condition as when he entered it. But instead, against the shame, weakness, and agony, against Satan whispering ironically the same argument that Riley makes in his scholarly treatment ("XXX"), Jesus crawls back to Golgotha, pleads to be returned to the cross. God wakes him up in the same spot and time as when he fell asleep, no life or salvation negated, no harm, no foul, no real sin, Jesus' desires now fully conquered, his divinity swallowing up his humanity, sinless, perfect, having conquered all temptation. The dream sequence was not, as Jesus perceived, a seeming eternity, but rather only a meditational moment, a second, one in which he confronted and left behind his final and greatest fulfilment--a simple human life and death--in lieu of the cross and God's Will.
The next facets of Scorsese's Jesus which critics have deemed blasphemous are Jesus' fallibility, self-doubt, and subjective good-evil dichotomy. Across the film, Jesus holds multiple views on what he believes is the Gospel: first it's love, then, after visiting John the Baptist, he takes up the axe, and finally, after nearly dismissing all of them in the meditation as "wrong ways I tried to get to God," he ends on the cross. Greydanus argues that, though Jesus could "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" ("Last Temptation"). Similarly, according to Greydanus, "at no time did he suffer doubts about his divine nature or messianic identity," and to assert such is blasphemous. Riley echoes this, calling the world inside Jesus' mind "a flux of confused and competing influences." Scorsese's Jesus has "no outward conviction becaues he has no internal guiding truth, no moral compass" (XXX).
But when looked at closely, these different stages of Jesus' really don't represent conflicting gospels and messages. Rather, what they are is exactly what Greydanus called "limited knowledge or insights" into the overall final Gospel that Jesus incepts by dying on the cross. Late in the film, Jesus and Pontius Pilot sit in a sun-lit stable talking before his crucifixion. Pilot asks Jesus to tell him "what he tells people on the streets." Jesus tell him:
Jesus: "The prophet Daniel had vision. A tall statue had a gold head, silver shoulders, the chest was bronze, the legs were iron, the feet were clay. A stone was thrown. The clay feet broke and the statue collapsed."
Jesus: "See, God threw the stone. The stone is me."
Pilate: "And Rome is the statue."
Pilate: "So, your kingdom, your world will replace Rome. Where is it?"
Jesus: "My kingdom? It's not here on earth."
Pilate: "It wouldn't be, would it. You know, it's one thing to want to change the way people live, but you want o change how they think, they feel."
Jesus: "All I'm saying is that change will happen with love, not with killing." (Scorsese)
And is Jesus self-doubt really a concept so foreign to the Gospels? In Christians' own Scriptures exist several instances in which doubted himself, his purpose, and even God, though the language is much less overt than in The Last Temptation.
"My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done." (Matthew 42)
And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" That is "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46)
However, in doing this, Riley writes,
What Scorsese tears away from the classical Christ films through point-of-view and voiceover narration is precisely what is required to legitimizes the traditional system of scapegoating, a mentally stable and morally resolute victim whose behavior reinforces clear boundaries between good and evil. (Riley 49)
The Saint of BLasphemy
"God loves me, I know he loves me. I want him to stop. I want to kill every one of his messiahs...XXX (Scorsese)
Jesus' victimization on the cross produces a form of redemption, not the form identified with traditional Christianity, but a secular redemption of the autonomous conscience conformed to the principles of humanism. (Riley 57)