Passion and Temptation

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on March 30.]

It’s Holy Week, so what else would I be doing but watching two films about Jesus’ last few days? Two long movies. Two movies that inspired controversy and discussion and debate. Two movies that present two different Jesuses. And, frankly, I don’t care if movies want to use different devices to try to understand the most divisive, explained, written-about person in history, Jesus of Nazareth. I have trouble understanding people who protest religious movies (or any movies for that matter). The only thing such protesting serves to do is draw attention and publicity to movies that might otherwise (and sometimes rightly) fade away into the oblivion of thrift-store DVDs. It is exactly for these sorts of protests that the phrase “all publicity is good publicity” was coined. Roger Ebert’s 4-star(!) review barely even touches the film itself, acknowledging “that this entire review has been preoccupied with replying to the attacks of the film’s critics, with discussing the issues, rather than with reviewing ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ as a motion picture.” (That, for Ebert, is a confirmation of the film’s greatness.)

So I re-watched The Passion of the Christ and watched for the first time The Last Temptation of Christ. Since I found a copy of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel at the library, I decided to read it first, to get an idea of what Scorsese was working with. I was only nine when The Last Temptation came out in theaters, so I didn’t see it then, but I do remember going to a little theater in St. Louis to watch The Passion, sometime during Lent, 2004.

I also remember attending a discussion at Eden Seminary in St. Louis (a seminary of the United Church of Christ), where someone associated with the Jesus Seminar(!) talked about The Passion. His take was, of course, not favorable. One of the things I remember about the controversy surrounding The Passion was how many times people noted historical “inaccuracies.” Often, as with the Jesus Seminar professor, these were the very same people who questioned whether the Bible contained the actual words of Jesus. Jesus didn’t carry the whole cross, they said. Jesus couldn’t have spoken Latin to Pilate. The flogging of Jesus was just Mel Gibson’s version of torture porn. Maybe they were right about all of those things, but it was also a faith-less exercise in missing the point.

To watch The Last Temptation is to be taken even farther afield. Not only is the history bad, it outright contradicts the Scriptures at multiple points. I suspect Scorsese (or someone associated with the film) anticipated the controversy, because there’s a sort of disclaimer at the beginning alerting people to the fact that the film is not based on the Gospels. Clearly.

The film, though, doesn’t go nearly as far as the book. In the book, Kazantzakis’ discomfort with the parables that Jesus tells in the Gospels is obvious. More than once, Kazantzakis’ Jesus either changes parables or asks his disciples what they would do if they were the central character in the parables. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Lazarus can’t be at peace unless the rich man is released from his hellish torture, so Abraham allows Lazarus to go and release the rich man. And in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, the disciples say that the Lord should open the door to the foolish virgins, and Kazantzakis’ Jesus says that that is the correct ending.

There is also a quite pointed and typical portrayal of Saul/Paul as an opportunist who creates his own Jesus of Nazareth, regardless of what the “real” Jesus did or didn’t do. Although Harry Dean Stanton is excellent, his speech to Jesus comes across as a very dated, late-Enlightenment view of Paul’s role in the “creation” of Christianity.

The Last Temptation of Christ, in no way an orthodox telling of the story of Jesus, is a perfect example of the Jesus human beings want and, therefore, would invent. Kazantzakis’ Jesus is, at the same time, too earthly and too spiritual. He is tempted to pursue a “normal” life of a man who works, gets married, and has children. He says, in the Garden of Gethsemane, that the soil he holds in his hands is also his body (just like the bread he had earlier given to his disciples). And yet he often degrades the purely fleshly, and preaches the ideal of the soul, the “heavenly” and the “spiritual,” which becomes an escape from the very flesh he’s tempted to indulge.

All of this is meant to examine the “universal” struggle between man and God and flesh and the spirit. So Kazantzakis and Scorsese take Jesus as sort of the ultimate example of this struggle: which will he choose, the divine or the human? The temptation is not so much whether to do God’s will, as it is whether he will overcome the merely human with the spiritual and divine. Thus, the Jesus of The Last Temptation must be either a man who stays a man, or a man who becomes God. This is why both the book and movie emphasize Jesus’ sins, Jesus’ cowardice, the fact that “I’m a man just like any other man,” and Jesus’ ambivalence about who he is and should be. The story embodies a very specific theology, as well as a very specific anthropology.

The Passion of the Christ is just as much a theological account. We should reflect more, actually, on the fact that there are no “objective” accounts of Jesus’ life. The Gospels certainly are not objective biographies, any more than any of these films are (although “not objective” does not equal “not true/didn’t happen”). The evangelists have very particular and subjective understandings of Jesus and what He came to do. They are not just “reporting facts,” but putting the facts of Jesus’ life in a very specific theological context—that of the Hebrew Scriptures and the resurrection.

While The Last Temptation retells the story of Jesus from the perspective of Anyman, The Passion retells the story from within a visceral, realistic, and very religious context. Mel Gibson—who, of course, has had to publicly exorcise his own demons—tried to depict the Gospels’ Jesus but without showing the supernatural. This, in my opinion, is why the flogging scene goes on so long: because how do you show Jesus bearing the eternal suffering and guilt of the world? You can’t show the spiritual, so Gibson uses the physical to get to the spiritual—ironically, not all that different from what Kazantzakis and Scorsese do in The Last Temptation.

Further, because Gibson is telling a universal story as much as Scorsese, he has Jesus carry the whole cross—not because it is historically accurate (note that the criminals are only carrying the crossbars), but because he is recreating cinematically the Stations of the Cross. Veronica, the meeting with His mother, the falling three times; these are Stations along the Via Dolorosa, not historically accurate moments from the Gospels.

For me, the two most moving scenes in the movie are not in the Gospels. In the opening scenes in Gethsemane, Jesus is shown fulfilling Genesis 3:15 in a visually (and sonically) satisfying way. Later, when Mary comes close to Him as He is carrying the cross, He says to her, in a quote from Revelation: Mother, I am making all things new. The first is especially interesting to me since Gibson, who belongs or belonged to a traditionalist, pre-Vatican II, Latin Mass Roman church (a chapel that he built!), might be expected to have Mary crushing Satan’s/the serpent’s head, as the mistranslation of the Vulgate has it.

The second scene, where the words of Revelation 21:5 are put in Jesus’ mouth (they’re not even in red print in the ESV!), is the most powerful. These are profound theological waters. While The Last Temptation might cause one to meditate on the human condition, The Passion forces the viewer to reckon with the theological meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death. But The Passion is not averse to humanizing the man Jesus. Via flashbacks, He is shown finishing a table in His carpenter’s shop, joking with His mother about how tall tables are going to become common, and Mary’s rushing to Jesus under the cross is interspersed with her running to pick up the child Jesus who has stumbled.

These films, as different as they are, contain some interesting similarities: their Jesuses are both dogged by Satan throughout; they both make Isaiah 53 central to what Jesus is doing; there are shots in both films of people kissing Jesus’ bloody wounds; and both films add details to what is in the Scriptural records in order to fill out the story; that is, both films go beyond the Biblical story in order to tell a visually coherent story.

I find The Passion to be the better film, however, and not just because I agree with its portrayal of Jesus. Part of this may simply be the gap in time between 1988 and 2004, but parts of The Last Temptation just appear silly. Some of the voice-overs (such as the lion who appears to Jesus in the desert) do not seem to fit. The mix of accents in The Last Temptation, British and American, becomes humorous, and some of the delivery from the actors is off. Harvey Keitel’s Judas should be an enforcer in a New York gangster movie (although David Bowie’s Pontius Pilate is refreshing. Incidentally, The Last Temptation is sort of a perfect capsule of late-’80s music: besides David Bowie, the score was composed by Peter Gabriel, and the Apostle John is played by Michael Been of the band The Call—one of the more under-rated and under-known bands, in my opinion).

At nearly three hours, I was ready for it to be over, especially after having slogged through the 500-page novel. If you want to see a far better exploration by Scorsese of the interplay of religious doubt and temptation, go watch Silence. (Why haven’t you watched it yet? Best movie of 2017.) The Jesus of The Last Temptation is tiresome, and the characters of the apostles know it, growing frustrated with the whiplash of his constant mind changes (which he attributes to God’s fragmentary revelation). On the other hand, the Jesus of The Passion—like the Jesus of the Gospels—clearly knows what He has come to do, and intends to bring it to completion, while still exhibiting an actual humanity, especially in Gethsemane.

While I don’t “like” watching The Passion, there is a 100% greater chance of my watching it again over The Last Temptation. And, in spite of its excesses (although, attempts to minimize the viciousness of Roman soldiers and their sadism seem disingenuous), it is a fitting visual meditation—don’t @ me, Reformed—for Holy Week. Behold, the life-giving cross on which was hung the salvation of the world! He is risen indeed!

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