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The Last Temptation: A Lifeless Jesus

by James M. Wall

James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century. This article appeared in the Christian Century, August 17-24, 1988, p. 723. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The story is told of a bishop who at a conference grew increasingly impatient over the number of ministers straggling back late from a lengthy lunch break. The first report of the afternoon was to be delivered by the Reverend Jones, but he was nowhere to be seen. The bishop exploded with anger, demanding to know why Brother Jones was not ready to give his report.

Rising slowly from his seat in the front row, one of Brother Jones’s colleagues spoke up:

‘Well, bishop, in the first place, he’s dead."

It was that old story that came to mind recently after I had spent two hours and 40 minutes viewing the controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ. What is to be said about all the furor over this picture? Well, in the first place, bishop, it’s a flawed film that doesn’t deserve the publicity that fundamentalist Christian preachers have given it.

The movie’s so-called sex scenes are throwaways, and, ironically, it presents biblical material with the literal-mindedness of a fundamentalist preacher from Oklahoma. For anyone who cherishes the Scriptures as passionate presentations of God at work in history, this film is dead at its core. To have to say so is painful, for I wanted to like the film. But that is the way it is, bishop.

Two contemporary cinema artists -- director Martin Scorsese and scriptwriter Paul Schrader -- have let their pietistic upbringings interfere with their creativity. Instead of developing the premise of Nikos Kazantzakis’s 1955 novel -- that Jesus struggled to live a normal life -- Scorsese and Schrader have reproduced the standard "beards and bathrobes" imagery of many previous literal renderings of the gospel story on film.

The most that can be said for The Last Temptation is that Scorsese succeeds in giving us the gritty, sweaty feeling of a group of men following a gritty, sweaty leader as they band together to challenge authority. But the picture is so utterly lacking in any serious theological vision that all the audience hears is a mishmash of words gleaned from popular culture’s assumptions about the man called Jesus -- references to love, kingdom, power, sin, guilt, anger, forgiveness, not to mention that constant, most oppressive of all forces, the one who makes ultimate demands, God himself.

One can almost sense on the screen the influence of childhood classrooms in a Roman Catholic school (where Scorsese was educated) or in a Dutch Calvinist Sunday school (Schrader’s Reformed tradition) in which well-intentioned teachers instilled in two little future filmmakers the idea that Jesus resisted temptation because he was God -- so if you don’t want to spend eternity in hell, you had better follow Jesus.

One can also speculate about a more recent moment when these boys, now grown, got together in Hollywood. Together they had found a soulmate in another product of a strict Christian education -- Nikos Kazantzakis, of Greek Orthodox background -- and decided that his novel, presenting a fictional version of a Jesus who had trouble resisting all the tempting opportunities that plague the rest of us, should be made into a movie.

In any event, they have made their film, and while they haven’t completely abandoned what they know about moviemaking, they have clung tightly to the image of Jesus given them by a Sister Josephine -- or in Schrader’s case, someone like the harsh father in his movie Hardcore. The film is overly long because it cannot resist, for example, having someone call Peter a "rock," or having Jesus tell a disciple to check the water cans again at a wedding celebration, or having that same Peter, the rock, forced to run away after he denies that he ever knew this man Jesus. There is nothing wrong with reminding us that these scenes are in the Bible. What is terribly wrong is seeing them replicated with virtually no imaginative flair. The gospel account looms behind every scene in the lengthy midsection of the film, an unfilmable story, written in poetic, metaphorical, passionate, committed language. These narratives were written not as scripts but as pronouncements of God’s actions in history. And as with almost every biblical film that has preceded this one, the story’s passion is completely lost in yet another futile attempt to re-present a multitude of facts in the fond hope that if enough details are repeated, the truth will emerge.

The scene in which Lazarus is raised from the tomb will probably elicit laughter from cynical younger filmgoers, for in an attempt to be authentic to the period, Scorsese has wrapped Lazarus so that he looks like a mummy who wandered over from a horror movie. Then, in one of the few departures from Scripture in this long biblical section, Lazarus is shown sitting up in a daze after being pulled out of his eternal sleep. He looks so sick that one gets the impression he would just as soon have stayed where he was. He remarks that he can’t really tell much difference between death and life anyway. He gets another chance to see the difference when three men -- led by Saul (who becomes Paul, you will remember) -- come up to him and fatally stab him with a knife.

The movie’s facts do pile up, but toward the end of the biblical segment it begins to be clear that Scorsese and Schrader couldn’t totally reject their Hollywood experience. Looking for a "spine" on which to hang all this stuff, they turn the overall presentation into a "buddy" film. Judas (Harvey Kietel) and Jesus (Willem Dafoe) are presented as a kind of Butch Cassidy and Sun-dance Kid -- two mismatched pals who stay together because they think they can reach a common goal. Jesus talks a great deal of love, but the only love he displays is toward Judas, on whom he leans when the going gets tough. And the other disciples, convinced that Jesus is leading them to something better than what they have, fill in the story’s background, looking like the remnants of a western cowboy gang.

This picture does have a few effective cinematic touches -- moments that make the viewer who appreciates the previous films by Scorsese and Schrader wince at what might have been had it not been for Sister Josephine or Schrader’s Sunday school teacher. At one point, for example, John the Baptist has gathered a band of crazies together at the River Jordan and is preaching up a storm when Jesus approaches him from behind. John waits until the last minute and then swings around, lowering his voice to a growling "Who are you?" -- as though to say, "This is my corner, Mac; take your wares some other place." But after a few short words with his visitor, John joins the rest of the cast and agrees that this really must be the Master, the savior, the son of man, the son of God, or whichever term he uses. It is hard to remember which term it was since the picture uses them interchangeably in order to make sure that God is not displeased, in case he is watching.

Robert Phillip Kolker of the University of Maryland has pinpointed the reasons for Scorsese’s interest in the Jesus story. In a study of his earlier pictures, Kolker notes that "Scorsese is interested in the psychological manifestations of individuals who are representative either of a class or of a certain ideological grouping; he is concerned with their relationship to each other or to an antagonistic environment . . . [and finally] there is no triumph for his characters" (A Cinema of Loneliness [Oxford University Press, 19881, p. 162) The Jesus of the Last Temptation fits this pattern (as do Travis Bickel in Taxi Driver, Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull and Paul Hackett in After Hours) By eschewing any reference to a resurrection -- and, in an interesting theological note, allowing Paul to suggest that his preaching of the risen Christ is more important than the Jesus of history -- Scorsese presents the crucifixion as the final willful act of a man driven by a God who makes strange demands on his followers.

In the film’s final 20 minutes or so Jesus hangs on the cross, and then it shifts to the Kazantzakis material, in which Jesus is released from the cross by a pretty young female angel (really Satan in disguise) and delivered into a dream in which he experiences highlights of a normal life, including marriage to Mary Magdalene, children, his first wife’s death, and then marriage again to Mary and Martha and again more children. Oh yes, there is a quick long shot of Jesus and Magdalene in bed together with an ever-so-slight hint that they are doing what married persons do to produce future generations.

The sequence is hurried -- and unnecessary to make the point that the two are married. One suspects that Scorsese’s insistence on leaving it in suggests that either the artist in him rebelled against being told what he could or could not do, or some satanic impulse hinted that without that slight movement under the bedcovers, none of the publicity generated by fundamentalist protest would have come about.

According to Kazantzakis’s premise, Jesus’ "last temptation" is to follow Satan, not God, and not to die on the cross but to live the normal life he had been longing for since Act One. He finally resists this temptation because Judas comes to him in his long dream and squeals on the little angel, revealing her to be evil, and pointing out to Jesus that he hasn’t done God’s will.

When Jesus does wake up, he realizes that he has resisted the temptation to live a normal life and happily accepts the death which is his fate. He cries out, "It is accomplished" -- a Kazantzakis quote -- which, suggests that he had an earthly mission to follow God’s will and succeeded in doing so. There is no resurrection, which is also true to the Kazantzakis novel.

What is the believer to make of this interpretation sans the central feature of the faith? We are left with the frustrated awareness that a man who could convert water into wine and deliver Lazarus from the tomb is himself doomed to end it all on the cross -- just another committed follower of God who did God’s will and died for it.

But since Scorsese’s central characters don’t win out in the end, he is at least consistent with his own personal vision, which lets his hero tough it out to the death. Sister Josephine would not have been pleased with this ending.


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