I think this is a great film, one of Scorsese’s best. He doesn’t normally do pathos very well (there are some exceptions, like the prison cell scene in Raging Bull
, or parts of The Age of Innocence
). But with this one, even on a fourth viewing, I was almost brought to tears by the moment when Jesus is put on the cross. The low-budget aesthetic works wonderfully for this material. What really sets it apart from most of Scorsese’s work is that it is painfully earnest from start to finish, an unapologetic, un-self-conscious attempt to, as Scorsese put it in the commentary, ‘get to know Jesus better’.
Anyway, what I really want to do here is to be incredibly negative and take issue with the article linked to above. Sorry, but this article got me quite worked up, so this may turn into a bit of a rant. I’m a lifelong, very staunch, but not militant, atheist. I have (what I hope is) a deep respect for and interest in religious belief, but am far from an expert on the Bible or Christian theology generally. Some of what follows will undoubtedly be naïve and uninformed; I hope none of it causes offence. I’ve caused offence by accident when discussing such things with real-life human beings (as opposed to the virtual people encoded into this forum), so if I do that here please chalk that up to ignorance and imprudence on my part. Preamble over...
Steven D. Greydanus wrote:A work of art, a film or novel or painting, that evokes the truth of Christ’s humanity is a good and noble thing, even if it doesn’t directly address the subject of his divinity. A recognizably human portrait of Jesus — for example, one that envisions him being capable of suffering weakness, loneliness, fear, exhaustion; of becoming exasperated with his disciples, or of having a good time at a wedding party — all of this can be quite valid and worthwhile...
On the other hand, while Christian belief doesn’t tell us everything about what Jesus was like, much less what it was like to be him, it does give us certain insights into what he wasn’t. We may be unable to fully apprehend human nature united to divinity, but we can easily understand that certain things would be incompatible with this union. Christian belief teaches that Jesus shared our humanity, but not our fallenness and fallibility. Not only did he not sin, he didn’t suffer from our concupiscent appetites, our disordered and inflamed desires. He was tempted as we are — he could feel hunger during a fast, or dread on the eve of his passion — but his will was not pulled to and fro by wayward passions. He may, 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. At no time did he suffer doubts about his divine nature or messianic identity.
This strikes me as somewhat incoherent. Apparently, Jesus can be represented as being weak, lonely, afraid, exhausted, exasperated and hungry; but he cannot be represented as experiencing ‘concupiscent appetites’ or ‘disordered and inflamed desires’, nor was his will ‘pulled to and fro by wayward passions’. To feel dread at the prospect of death is undoubtedly some kind of ‘passion’, right? So the point must be that it’s not an ‘inflamed’ or ‘disordered’ or ‘wayward’ passion. These are extremely vague, subjective terms, but I take it that by ‘wayward’, Greydanus means something like ‘deviant’, a passion that veers away from the right path. What could be more wayward than Jesus’ desperate plea to God to take the cup away from him in Gethsemane, or his cry of ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Even to feel fear at the prospect of death is a wayward passion, especially for Jesus, who of all the people who have ever suffered death should have been most certain of salvation. To ask for that suffering and death to be taken away from him, or to accuse God of having forsaken him, when he knew perfectly well that his sacrifice would redeem mankind, and that he would be with his father in Heaven by Sunday, is tantamount to rejecting God’s will on the most fundamental level, and does indeed suggest a will pulled to and fro by wayward passions. The ‘why have you forsaken me?’ line comes from Psalm 22, which also anticipates the division of Jesus’ clothes, and whose speaker moves from a despairing sense of having been forsaken by God to a triumphant celebration of God’s vindication and salvation of His followers. But Jesus isn’t simply quoting that line while casting a knowing wink to his audience: he’s inhabiting, and embodying, that role of the confused human sinner, momentarily immersed in despair before being saved from it by God. Being pulled to and fro by wayward passions doesn’t compromise Christ’s divinity, it’s essential to his salvific act of self-sacrifice.
Greydanus admission that Christ might have had ‘limited knowledge or insights’ is in conflict with his extraordinary claim that ‘At no time did [Jesus] suffer doubts’; where does he get the confidence to make a statement like this? It’s a while since I read the gospels, but do they tell us this? It seems to me they leave an awful lot unsaid when it comes to Jesus’ inner state, so whatever we believe about that inner state must be educated conjecture. On the basis of the evidence we do get in the gospels, it would seem more reasonable to conjecture that Jesus was full of doubts than that he never doubted at all – if those moments when he explicitly tries to reject or question God’s plan for him are not evidence of real wavering, they must be play-acting, and such hypocrisy is surely more antithetical to Jesus’ nature than a moment of ordinary human doubt?
When Greydanus refers to what ‘Christian belief’ teaches, does he mean the Bible, or by ‘Christian belief’ does he literally mean ‘what Christians believe’? If so, rather than homogenising Christian belief like this, why not just say, ‘I believe x, y and z on the subject of Christ’s divinity’, and ideally offer some explanation and basis for these beliefs? In the passage quoted above, Greydanus presumes an awful lot of knowledge about the nature of Christ, in particular about what Christ ‘wasn’t’, or what he didn’t feel or do. That Jesus never taught anything contrary to divine law does seem like a reasonable claim to make (and one that Scorsese’s film does not necessarily violate), but otherwise this seems like a very unstable foundation for Greydanus’ critique.
Steven D. Greydanus wrote:A Jesus who commits sins — who even thinks he commits sins, who talks a great deal about needing "forgiveness" and paying with his life for his own sins; a Jesus who himself speaks blasphemy and idolatry, calling fear his "god" and talking about being motivated more by fear than by love; who has an ambivalent at best relationship with the Father, even trying to merit divine hatred so that God will leave him alone — all of this is utterly antithetical to Christian belief and sentiment. This is not merely focusing on Jesus’ humanity, this is effectively contradicting his divinity. But the Jesus of Last Temptation does all of the above things, and more. The film gives us a human Jesus, but a Jesus of fallible, fallen humanity — a Jesus who could not be God.
domino harvey wrote:Jesus is an aspirational figure, better than us all. That makes his sacrifice meaningful-- he's better than us and he still died for us. Why does he need to be dragged down into the mud? It's a process which does not ignite understanding but confusion. Who would care about this Jesus? Who would follow him? Who would mourn him?
This has always been my biggest stumbling block with the story of Jesus’ sacrifice. If he’s innocent and perfect, why should I feel sorry for him when he gets crucified? He knows he doesn’t deserve it, and he knows he’ll go to Heaven afterwards, so there’s really nothing at stake for him. And what does it mean that he died for our sins? Since the point of this story is that God takes human form among us, what would be the point in God’s doing this unless he took on the weaknesses of humanity? If he’s a perfect, aspirational figure, and if his infinite superiority to us is what enables him to fulfil his purpose, why take human form at all – why not just remain God, the ultimate aspirational figure?
The only way this story makes any sense to me is as a narrative about the mortal sinner being redeemed by God. Jesus is divine, but also human. What does it mean that he is divine? The most fundamental thing we know about God is that He is perfect. What does it mean that he is human? The most fundamental thing we know about humanity is that it is imperfect and mutable. In Scorsese’s film, Christ begins his ministry in earnest by saving the woman taken in adultery (Mary Magdalene, in this version), pointing out to the crowd that they are all sinners. In the biblical version, after the crowd has dispersed, Jesus sees that there is no one left to condemn this woman, and says to her, ‘I do not condemn you either – go now, and sin no more’. This isn’t the voice of God coming out of the clouds, it’s God in human form, exemplifying the merciful behaviour that any imperfect mortal should practice. It’s absolutely essential to the point he’s making that he himself be an imperfect mortal at this moment: all flesh is grass, and Jesus is there in the flesh.
When I say Jesus is imperfect, I mean primarily that, insofar as he is mortal, his flesh is corruptible and vulnerable, which of course it has to be for him to be tortured and crucified at the end of the story. But the film does get trickier when it seems to portray Jesus as a sinner. My take on this, however, is that this Jesus does not in fact commit any sins. Making the crucifixes is not a sin. He does not condemn and execute his fellow Jews, quite the opposite: he carries the cross to the place of execution and holds it in place while the nails are driven in; he is a witness to this event, and participates alongside the victim, not the executioner; he empathises with the victim’s pain, and their blood splashes onto his face.
What appears to be a sin is in fact a sort of typological anticipation of Jesus’ ultimate role. He is not there to eradicate human suffering, or to eradicate sin itself, but to participate (perhaps only symbolically in the case of sin) in suffering and sin in order to demonstrate the possibility of salvation. Christ’s sacrifice redeems our sins, not by showing that we can be perfect but still get crucified, but by showing that we can be mortal, weak, afraid, corruptible and in pain – the crucifixion is the culmination of all this – and still be saved. Jesus appears to be a failure and a criminal, but in fact he is saved. He appears to be a sinner, but in fact he is God, and perfect. He appears to be in agony, but in fact he is rising into a state of divine bliss. He appears to be full of doubt and fear, but all of this is part of the narrative that leads to salvation. God’s purpose in appearing to us in human form is to reconcile the apparent contradiction between divine perfection and human imperfection, and hold out the possibility that the latter could be united with and absorbed into the former.
The point is not that different from the Old Testament story of the Flood. God ‘repents’ of his creation and destroys everyone except Noah and his family; then he promises never to do this again, having now ‘realised’ that humans are prone to sin. The Judaeo-Christian God manifests Himself to us, and enables us to understand Him, by appearing to partake of our own mutability and imperfection, but incorporating this into an overall narrative of perfection. Thus we can see how the life we experience as a meaningless and terrifying vale of tears and sin will end with, and become part of, God. Aspiration isn’t just about having something to aspire to, it’s also about drawing a path from the mud we’re wallowing in now to the transcendent glory we’re heading to.
Domino, when you say ‘Why does Jesus need to be dragged down into the mud?’, I would say this is the essence of Christ’s story; we have to see a truly humiliated, truly suffering, truly terrified Jesus, or there’s no point to any of it. That the Jesus of this film should feel sinful, and feel alienated from – and even antagonistic towards – God, may seem like a challenging, unorthodox idea, but surely the point is that he turns out to be none of these things? What is ‘accomplished’ at the end is the perfect union of God and humanity, not in spite of mortal imperfection, but through
Notice, by the way, the contrast at the start of the film between the Jesus who thinks he is a sinner (but isn’t) and Judas who thinks he is doing God’s work (but isn’t). By inflicting violence on others, Judas is doing the opposite of what God wants, while Jesus, by identifying with and (at this point, only symbolically) occupying the role of the victim, is doing the real work of God. Jesus’ sense of guilt anticipates his ‘taking on’ of humanity’s sins, and his sympathy for the crucified man anticipates his expiation of those sins through bodily suffering. This opposition also foreshadows the eventual dynamic between Judas and Jesus, in a really complex way.
Steven D. Greydanus wrote:One scene that had religious critics up in arms depicts Jesus sitting all afternoon in a room outside the bedroom of a prostitute (Mary Magdalene), where he can both see and hear her servicing a long queue of customers. The movie’s defenders pointed out that nothing in the scene indicates Jesus is supposed to be moved to lust by what he sees and hears, so why couldn’t a perfect man do what Jesus is represented as doing? Yet even putting aside the question of lust (and of Jesus’ general state throughout the film of apparent obsession with Mary Magdalene), there is still the matter of ordinary modesty; not to mention the obligation to avoid situations that would reasonably give scandal (since Jesus appears to be simply waiting his turn like Mary’s customers) ... while there is a basis in tradition for representing Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, there’s no justification for Jesus’ apparent obsession with her, or her attempted seduction of him ... we all understand that we ought to refrain from things like...witnessing other people’s carnal activities.
There are several issues in those last few lines that need unpacking (I’ve picked out a couple of lines from later in the essay that refer to this issue). The reference to Jesus’ ‘general state throughout the film of apparent obsession with Mary Magdalene’ does not describe what we get in Scorsese’s film at all, and the vague phrasing here (‘general’, ‘apparent’) reinforces the sense that Greydanus is reading something into the film that isn’t really there. His point seems to be that this Jesus has an obsessive crush on Mary, but the relationship between these two characters is clearly far more complex than this. Yes, there’s a sense that Jesus feels or has felt some kind of erotic desire for Mary, but there’s no suggestion at all that he has ever been ‘obsessed’ with her. He refuses to have a sexual relationship with her, expresses concerns about her way of life and her soul, and asks her to forgive him – not, I think, because he has truly sinned against her, but because he recognises that he has caused her pain, and pities her. How blasphemous can this possibly be? And how can a critic look at all this and say, ‘Well apparently he’s obsessed
When Greydanus faults this Jesus for neglecting ‘ordinary modesty’ and the ‘obligation to avoid situations that would reasonably give scandal’, he echoes the Pharisees and others who faulted Jesus for consorting with prostitutes and lowlifes. This is a problem throughout Greydanus’ essay, especially when he claims to find this film more morally poisonous than The Birth of a Nation
Steven D. Greydanus wrote:Sometimes it’s possible to prescind from a movie’s offensive use of themes and appreciate its achievements in spite of its moral failings. One can bracket one’s objections to the Marxist propaganda in The Battleship Potemkin, or the racist celebration of the original Ku Klux Klan in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and still value the striking imagery of the famous Odessa Steps sequence from the former, or the groundbreaking editing in the climactic chase scene of the latter. But I for one don’t see how it’s possible to bracket all the objections that must be raised to all that is anti-Christian in Last Temptation, and still have anything worthwhile left over to appreciate or enjoy. Past a certain point, objectionability obliterates all hope or desire of approaching a work as art or entertainment. No level of production values or technically proficient filmmaking could make it worthwhile to watch a movie that indulged in child pornography, or that relentlessly celebrated the Holocaust, or that overtly romanticized the degradation and abasement of women. Cross a certain line, and message overwhelms medium, substance overwhelms style, what you have to say drowns out how you might be saying it.
I know this was discussed earlier in the thread, and I've tried to come to a more sympathetic understanding of Greydanus' point here, but I still think it's really problematic. A film that repeatedly and insistently emphasises Jesus’ redemption of human sinfulness and his message of love, mercy, forgiveness and tolerance – and, for the sake of argument let’s concede the point, also downplays the divinity of Jesus and emphasises his carnality through references to his sexual desires, his doubts and fears, and his sense that he himself is a sinner, to the point of being blasphemous – is apparently so ‘poisonous’ that it is impossible to regard it as having any artistic merit, so poisonous that it is comparable to child pornography or a celebration of the Holocaust...whereas a film that vilified (or, in its kinder moments, belittled) an entire race of people, bolstered the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and prompted copycat lynchings (this litany of evils could go on) can at least be appreciated for its fine editing.
You would think that Scorsese’s film was some sort of Satan-worshipping tract, not a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to understand the story of Jesus. Seriously, what is the worst case scenario for vulnerable souls going to see this film? That they come away from it thinking that maybe Jesus Christ felt like a sinner sometimes, that maybe he experienced carnal desire, that maybe he was full of doubts and insecurities and had moments when he felt like God was his enemy (or that he was God’s), that perhaps even in the moment of death he was subjected to another temptation by Satan (on which more later)?
If aspects of this conflict with your understanding of Christian truths, I can see why you would find it problematic, and perhaps ultimately reject it as blasphemous. But the film is so on-message with regard to the core beliefs of Christianity that I find it hard to see how it can be accused of anything more than really quite mild blasphemy – the kind of blasphemy that boils down to an unorthodox interpretation of ambiguous material in the Bible, and is far less likely to endanger the viewer’s soul than the latest soulless blockbuster. Greydanus says absolutely nothing about the theme of love in this film, or about this Jesus’ rejection of violence (except against inanimate objects in the temple scene), or his kindness and openness towards the marginalised, despised and diseased. Well, no wonder. Who can pay any attention to that stuff when you’ve had concupiscent images put into your head..?
Steven D. Greydanus wrote:I was just blown away by the wrongness of the very picture of Jesus kissing a woman... It’s like one person quoting another person as having uttered a particularly graphic obscene remark that you’d just as soon not have heard: The person repeating the remark may not be endorsing what was said; but he still put the image in your head.
Just to be clear, I’m much too fond of severe medieval religious poetry to scoff at this kind of thing, I feel uncomfortable when people do scoff at it, and I can see why this part of the film might seem offensive to some Christians. There are no doubt sound religious principles behind the sexual morality that informs this critique. But not to be able to balance this offensive material against all the core Christian principles the film gets unambiguously right suggests a frighteningly skewed value system, and suggests as well that the source of the outrage here really has very little to do with the ‘known truths of faith’ (Greydanus’ phrase), which are concerned with far more important matters than the spiritual dangers of sexual desire.
I think the debates about whether the final sequence is a dream or a reality (from which Jesus gets to time-travel back to the Cross) miss the point. It’s a temptation, and it’s real in exactly the same way that the temptations in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are real.
Jesus is hungry in the desert. Satan pictures to him the stones turned into bread, but Jesus says that man does not live by bread alone and rejects the temptation. Satan urges Jesus to test God by jumping from a great height, to see whether he will be saved, but Jesus insists that testing God like this would be wrong. Satan offers Jesus power over the world if he worships him, but Jesus insists that only God is to be worshipped.
Each of these temptations is pictured to Jesus, and each could hypothetically come true: Satan shows him the stones and correctly says that they could be turned into bread; he takes him to the high precipice before urging him to throw himself down; he takes him to a mountain to show him the kingdoms of the world, over which he could have power. That is, Satan doesn’t just whisper in Jesus’ ear. He shows him things, and prompts him to imagine things.
Jesus does not forestall these temptations. He doesn’t just stay out of the desert because he already knows how divine he is and doesn’t need to be tested. He feels the hunger, he (presumably) wants reassurance of God’s support, and he sees world domination for the attractive prospect that it is. All this must be the case, or there is no temptation and the whole exercise is futile (again, I’m sure there’s infinite room for debate on this point, it’s just how I read it). But Jesus rejects all these temptations by re-stating to himself the ‘known truths of faith’: there is more to life than bread, God is not answerable to us, we worship only Him.
What happens in Scorsese’s film follows exactly the same model. Satan offers Jesus the prospect of coming down off the Cross and leading a long life of human joys and sorrows. If he can turn stones into bread or throw himself from a tower and survive, he can surely do this. The images of Jesus experiencing human love, marriage, sex, having children, etc., are offensive in exactly the same way that the images of Jesus turning stones into bread, testing God, and worshipping Satan in exchange for world domination are offensive. These things are all presented as hypothetical possibilities in the gospels, and they would all represent a renunciation of Jesus’ destined role as the Messiah. It makes a nonsense of the whole sequence to suggest that it ‘really happens’ in the sense that Jesus actually succumbs to the temptation and lives a normal life. The ending of the film is definitive on this point: none of that really happened, but it all could really have happened, and so it was all pictured in the most vivid manner. There is nothing in the film to suggest that time travel is one of the mysterious ways in which God moves.
Perhaps a big part of the problem here, as Greydanus suggests, is that all of this is presented not just in words but in moving pictures of real human bodies. There’s an interesting discussion to be had about the distinction between words and images, but I’d rather not get into that here.
I think the real difficulty, in Scorsese’s film, is not that these things are pictured, but that it does not appear to be Jesus himself who articulates the ‘known truth of faith’ that enables him to reject the temptation. Instead, this truth is articulated by Judas, and in part, earlier on, by Paul. Does this suggest that Jesus himself lacks the strength or wisdom to articulate these truths? I don’t think so. We might revert to the reading that says this is all a ‘dream’, all in Jesus’ imagination, and of course the presence of the little girl throughout these scenes (even sitting, creepily, to one side while Jesus and Mary have sex) underlines their unreality. But again, I feel it’s a distraction to dwell too much on the question of whether this stuff really happens or not.
The challenging voice of Judas is an essential part of this temptation in the same way that Judas’ betrayal is an essential part of Christ’s sacrifice. What I love about the re-interpretation of Judas in this version of the story is its generosity. After all, Christ’s sacrifice is supposed to redeem sinful mankind, not vilify us and make us hang ourselves. He forgives us, even on the Cross, for killing him. Judas, even by betraying Jesus, or especially by betraying him, is saved, and is part of the redemption, at one with God.
He is similarly incorporated into the last temptation: his treachery facilitated Jesus’ redemption of mankind; Jesus’ rejection of the Cross would make Him the traitor, so ‘traitor’ is the first word Judas says to Him in the temptation. Judas’ rebuke is generated by Jesus’ imagination as part of the temptation in the same way that those rebukes were generated as part of the biblical temptations: in one of them, Jesus says ‘It is written, you shall worship only God’; in Scorsese’s film, in a sense you could argue that he is quoting what Judas would
say. This doesn’t mean the words don’t really come from Judas, but from Christ Himself; they come from both of them, in the same way that Judas’ betrayal is both his own act and a fulfilment of what God (through Jesus) has ordained for him. Jesus is both man and God; Judas, and the voice of Judas, are part of Him through His rejection of this temptation, which is integral to His sacrifice. I can’t think of a less complex or confusing way to put that, but the point is that the union between them is essential to the point of the story, so the problem of Jesus not saving himself from temptation, but having to be saved by Judas, collapses.
Steven D. Greydanus wrote:...there’s nothing wrong with trying to humanize Judas to an extent, or give him understandable motivations. The filmmaker can even make us empathize with him to the point of feeling that we too would be capable of doing what he did. But what he did, in the end, has to be wrong; and Keitel’s Judas never manifests anything like corruption, self-interest, or pettiness. Jesus is the main character and protagonist here, but a case could be made that Judas is the film’s true hero, or at least its most idealized character.
No, what Judas did, in the end, has to be both wrong and right; it is a sin, but Jesus redeems sin, and that redemption cannot happen without the sin. Okay, the ‘felix culpa’ stuff is complex and controversial, but Greydanus is much too definitive about this considering the material he’s actually dealing with. Why is it so offensive to redeem Judas by emphasising his crucial role in enabling Christ’s sacrifice? And yes, in some ways Judas emerges from this film as a hero, but it’s a complete misreading to say that he is idealised, or that he never manifests any flaws. His whole attitude to doing God’s work is flawed. We never see him overcome his dedication to the use of violence, and indeed this is why he is the one chosen to betray Christ.
The moment when Jesus tells Judas that he has the harder job might seem deliberately shocking at first, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Judas struggles and suffers and fights, and we never see this end. He is a sinner, lost in sin, unable to see the right path, blind to the ways of God to the point where he actually betrays God Himself, and this is the role Judas occupies (and, according to this film, was ordained by God to occupy) throughout history; what could be harder than that? Jesus struggles and suffers, but his struggle represents the capacity of human nature to overcome sin and achieve union with God, and in the end, at the moment of death, he smiles blissfully and is saved. ‘You can cast out the devil’: that sounds like a nice, straightforward battle between good and evil, but in fact it’s hard and complex. ‘You can’t cast out God’: that sounds hard and complex, but ultimately it isn’t; being possessed by God is easy, inevitable, and ultimately joyful. So of course Jesus has the easier job. Everything is easy for God. He makes what seems hard for us easy: he unties the impossible knot of sin, exemplified most fully by the figure of Judas.
What does Greydanus think the film is trying to say here? That Judas was actually a better man than Jesus, better than God Himself? This is a great example of the kind of wilful misreading to which this film is subjected. However misguided you think this representation of Judas is, a moment’s rational thought would tell you that the film is not actually exalting this confused murderer above the infinitely loving figure of Christ. Speaking of which...
Steven D. Greydanus wrote:When Jesus angrily contradicts Paul’s claims, Paul initially maintains the truth of his message; but before long he is essentially endorsing the notion of Modernist theologians that the gospel message was essentially "invented" by Paul himself, and that the faith and hope people draw from the idea of Christ’s resurrection is more important that the historical truth. This, of course, flagrantly contradicts the real St. Paul’s famous dictum: "If Christ is not raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain… If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins, [and] those who have fallen asleep in Christ [i.e., who died as believers] have perished" (1 Cor. 15:16-18).
Although this strange episode occurs in what is ostensibly a dream sequence, Paul’s argument seems to represent Kazantzakis’s (or Scorsese’s) idea of what could have or would have happened if Jesus were not raised from the dead. Essentially they are introducing the idea that "faith" is more important than Jesus’ resurrection. What is the function of having Paul say these things, even in a dream sequence, other than simply introducing these ideas into the film? If they merely wanted to show Paul preaching the gospel in order to suggest the necessity of Jesus completing his mission, why not follow up by having Jesus’ denial of Paul’s message leave Paul shattered and despairing, or at least flatly disbelieving Jesus’ claims?
This is an undeniably challenging, and in some ways confusing, passage in the film, but again we can safely rule out certain conclusions, unless we see this whole film as some sort of secretly atheistic tract. Paul’s response does seem to suggest that Jesus’ sacrifice was unnecessary, because people can still believe in it and that’s the important thing. The moment when Paul says he’s glad to have met Jesus is chilling. Is it in fact easier for him to preach the message of salvation now that he knows it’s based on a lie? Is such certainty, even of such a bleak truth, easier to deal with than a doubting faith?
Jesus responds to this devastating moment by returning to his family, clinging to them, begging them never to leave him. He hasn’t fully realised it yet, but in this fantasy he’s living in a world without God. In this hypothetical reality, there was no God on the Cross, no salvation. In such a world, people will still look for something to believe in: they will cling to any lie that helps them to improve their lot, whether that lie is ‘Jesus died for our sins’ or ‘my family makes my life meaningful’.
Paul is glad to have confirmation of what he seems to have suspected already, namely that his preaching is based on a lie, because it clarifies the nature of what he is doing, and makes his task clearer. Jesus too, in a sense, is glad to have a reason to devote himself to his family. But both kinds of gladness mask an emptiness and a futility.
If Paul’s attitude contradicts what he says in 1 Corinthians 15, perhaps that’s the point. In a world where Jesus’ sacrifice is not real, Paul looks the same but in fact is just a pragmatic agitator; in reality
, in the world where Jesus’ sacrifice was real, Paul’s preaching is deeply informed by the reality of that miracle. Something is essentially different here – if it weren’t, Jesus would not be so disturbed by what Paul says. But it’s not that obviously different – if it were, Jesus would be more disturbed, and would be driven to reject the temptation at this moment. At this point, he can still feel that his failure to die on the Cross has not made that much difference. People can still have faith, however un-founded it may be, and Jesus can take refuge in ordinary mortal pleasures to distract himself from the emptiness of this existence.
Perhaps what we have here is a comment on the Bible itself, with Paul standing for the role of scripture. He/it disseminates ideas to the community of believers, but is not in it/himself miraculous or divine. That is, the film draws a distinction between the words of scripture, or of sermons preached by Christians, and the actual Jesus’ actual sacrifice. The suggestion, perhaps, is that those words would still be there without the miracle of Christ’s life and death, but the film insists that this miracle really did happen, and that while Paul’s words are important and powerful, they would nonetheless be futile (as the real Paul says) without that miracle.
To refer back to the biblical temptations in the desert, the world pictured in the film’s final sequence is a world where man does live by bread alone, where there is nothing beyond material existence. Satan keeps insisting that God wants all this, but the God Satan describes in these scenes is one who ordains only empty material comforts for his creatures – he is not recognisable as the Judaeo-Christian God. (There are echoes of the other two temptations as well: Jesus has ‘descended’ from the Cross and, according to Satan, been saved by God, and he has enthralled himself to Satan in exchange for the things of this world.) At the end, Judas tells Jesus that ‘what is good for man is not good for God’, insisting on the distinction between his humanity and his divinity. Jesus is a traitor, in this imagined scenario, because he has subsumed his divinity in humanity. He is human only, not divine. It is characteristic of Judas to deal in such rigid binaries, to say that the Messiah must be divine only, not human, to say that what is good for man is not good for God.
But what happens after this is crucial: Jesus climbs to the top of a hill (in the gospels, it is on top of a hill that Jesus is ‘transfigured’, appearing in a divine light to his disciples; it is also on top of a hill that he is crucified, appearing in his most degraded mortal state) and begs God to forgive him. He cries out, ‘prepare a feast’, invoking the parable of the prodigal son, but he also insists on his divinity, his status as the ‘Messiah’. He takes that rigid distinction that Judas insists on (what is good for man is not good for God) and he dissolves it, embodying sinful humanity in the very moment that he embodies redemptive divinity. The transition that takes place in these last forty minutes or so is from ‘Father, why have you forsaken me?’ to ‘Father, I want to be crucified and rise again!’, from a confused sense that the crucifixion represents the alienation of man from God to a certain knowledge that it represents the reconciliation of man and God.
Steven D. Greydanus wrote:Almost as disturbing to me, in retrospect, was the fact that this tempter, in the guise of a young woman, is shown, seemingly, not only drawing the nails from Christ’s extremities, but also tenderly kissing the sacred wounds — wounds that are the object of such deep devotion among Catholics. Essentially we have here a picture of Satan kissing the sacred wounds. I could probably imagine an image more odious to Catholic sensibilities… but if it got put into a movie, I’d rather not see it.
Clearly, in retrospect, Satan’s kissing of Christ’s wounds is indeed supposed to be shocking. Greydanus’ critique of this would carry more weight if he paused to consider the significance of this detail, rather than simply pointing out that it is odious. I think these kisses are clearly meant to be ‘salving’ kisses in the most superficial sense, relieving Christ’s physical pain. That’s the temptation Satan offers him here, the relief of ordinary physical pleasures and comforts. Satan is de-crucifying Christ and then soothing his wounds. When Judas reminds Jesus of his Messianic role later on, the wounds reappear and start bleeding. Like all the temptations Satan offers Jesus in the Bible, this one looks attractive on the surface but is blasphemous underneath. Perhaps Greydanus would still consider it offensive to show these images at all, even if they are being used to make an essentially orthodox, unobjectionable point, but the fact that, once again, he simply stops at the image without making the effort to interpret it, indicates that we are not dealing with a considered, open-minded critical evaluation here.
Steven D. Greydanus wrote:Again, in the gospels there is an episode in which a crowd of listeners report to Jesus that his mother and brothers have come to see him, and Jesus responds to the crowd, "Who are my mother and brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and brother" (cf. Mk 3:31-35). The version of this episode in Last Temptation has Jesus saying to his mother "I have no family," and turning his back on her as she breaks down in tears. Is this compatible with basic honor for father and mother — a virtue that Jesus himself emphasized was neglected in his own culture (cf. Mk 7:10-13)?
Admittedly, these are small things compared to the sweeping falsifications of Jesus’ perpetual loving union with the Father; yet emotionally these "small things" may have a greater impact on the viewer because they strike at things that are closer to home: sexual purity, honor for parents. None of us really knows what Jesus’ relationship with his Father was really like; but we all understand that we ought to refrain from things like denying our filial responsibilities to our parents, or witnessing other people’s carnal activities. The falsity of the characterization of Jesus extends to such details as these, not just the big things. Throw out the objectionable parts, and there’s virtually nothing left.
Here’s a bit more of the relevant passage from Mark:
‘Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”’
The gospel does not tell us how Jesus’ family responded to his refusal to treat them as his mother and brothers. Should we assume that they were unmoved? That what he did here caused them no distress? Should we also assume that when Jesus took Zebedee’s sons away from him, Zebedee had no problem with this? I suppose so – after all, this challenging material that’s actually in the Bible is all very well, but we do have ‘basic honour for father and mother’ and ‘our filial responsibilities to our parents’ to consider...
Greydanus cites Mark 7.10-13 as evidence that Jesus wanted people to care more for their parents, and rightly so. But Jesus’ target there is people who claim to be paying tribute to God in order to get out of their responsibilities towards their parents. There is a clear distinction between such hypocrites and the people who are urged to leave their families to follow Jesus. Perhaps it’s significant that Jesus implicitly underlines that distinction in the gospel of Mark, which so combatively foregrounds the way in which Jesus dissolves conventional family relations, and makes us all brothers and sisters in Christ. These people following Jesus are not just trying to get out of their tedious filial responsibilities, they are genuinely committed to doing the work of God.
Jesus, in his refusal to give special treatment to his mother and brothers, is setting an important example in this regard. Scorsese’s film spells out the human implications of what Jesus does here by showing Mary’s heart-rending distress, but it also retains the point of the scriptural episode by having Mary say that she wishes her son were not the Messiah. What does Greydanus want this Jesus to say or do at this moment? Not, presumably, to abandon the path he’s on, which is what Mary wants? Not to offer Mary some comforting lie about how he’ll be fine and will write to her every day?
What he says is, ‘I don’t have a mother. I don’t have any family. I have a father, in Heaven.’ This is somewhat different from ‘Who are my mother and my brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.’ This Jesus is denying that he has any family except God – but this seems to me a legitimate re-working of the idea that his family are those who do God’s will, which is to say that they are his family through God, his father, and not otherwise. Jesus’ sense of fellowship with other human beings is amply established throughout the film, which counter-balances the fact that it is played down somewhat in this exchange.
It’s important that this moment be painful and a little shocking, because when he’s being dragged to the Cross at the end, Jesus will look at his weeping mother and say, in his head, ‘I’m sorry for being a bad son’, undoubtedly thinking back to his rejection of her. (This is loosely related to a moment in one of the gospels when Jesus acknowledges Mary as his mother.) He feels like he has been a bad son to his mother in the same way that he thinks God is being a bad father (forsaking him) at this moment, and for the same reason.
Earlier, when he rejects his mother, Jesus says to her, ‘Who are you, really?’, echoing the biblical Jesus’ question, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ Jesus’ point, as I read it, is that people are not answerable primarily to their parents, but to God; honouring one’s parents is an important act of piety, and one should not hypocritically neglect this responsibility in the name of God; but on the other hand, one should not hypocritically neglect the work of God to spare the feelings of one’s pleading mother.
Jesus is only a bad son in the same way that Chris, in All My Sons
, is a bad son. As this world goes, Jesus has been a bad son to Mary, but according to the strict, challenging, seemingly austere but fundamentally true law of God, he has nothing to apologise to for. It is this apology to Mary, not the rejection of her, which should trouble Greydanus, because it seems to represent a genuine misunderstanding on Jesus’ part, akin to his sense of guilt at the start of the film. But I think it works well as an extrapolation from ‘Father, why have you forsaken me?’, and it clarifies the nature of the sin and confusion Jesus’ imminent sacrifice is meant to expiate.
domino harvey wrote:where is the idea of Jesus as leader, teacher, embodiment of patience and measured awareness and always with him the sense of awe he inspired? There is none of that here, not at all. Jesus is now an ineffectual public speaker, his speeches confused and inviting to ridicule.
I can see what you mean and why you might respond to the film like this, but I don’t really agree. No, Jesus isn’t always the measured, confident public speaker we’re used to seeing, but the message remains intact, and he communicates it earnestly, spontaneously, as though he really feels and means it rather than as though he is quoting scripture (which, for me, is how this stuff usually comes across in films). The message is not heard by many people, and is understood by still fewer, but wasn’t that the point in the gospels? It would be interesting to discuss the ‘sermon’ sequences in more depth, but I’d better wrap this up now...
This film’s presentation of Jesus as a character who more closely resembles a recognisably flawed human being than do most presentations of Jesus is profoundly important, not just because it enables us to identify with him and so grasp the point that this sacrifice is for us
, not just for perfect people...but also
because it prompts us to connect with each other. Jesus’ life and teachings don’t just tell us that we, imperfect as we are, can be forgiven by God – they also ask us to see God in our fellow human beings, imperfect as they are.
This film seems to challenge us by saying, ‘If you can’t recognise this figure as Jesus, how can you do any of the things Jesus tells you to do?’ If this character’s mutability disqualifies him from being Jesus, then our mutability disqualifies us from receiving God’s forgiveness or each other’s.