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I watched The Last Temptation of Christ for the first time last night. I remember when it came out 20 odd years ago and the furore it created then. Cinemas were picketed by Christian groups protesting at the more fallible and human representation of Christ the film allegedly portrayed. I say allegedly because few, if any, had actually seen the movie they were so opposed to.
Looking back now it all seems vaguely silly. It was silly in the first place because these protesters drew attention to a movie that few would likely have been interested in otherwise. And silly because like so often these good Christians acted in ways I can only consider as un-Christian. Their opposition was rabid and often vitriolic, not to mention ignorant. I’m not a Christian in that sense – Jesus for me is a fascinating historical figure – but I think at the heart of many of his teachings is a democratic perspective. He may decry, rightly, the temple market, but is message largely is of acceptance.
What is ironic in this instance is that these people protested what they believed to be a desecration of what he stood for, when in fact this movie makes truer his legacy because it deepens his sacrifice. It’s not surprising. I believe in Jesus much more so than I do in organised religion. Beyond a few devout souls it seems to me that much of organised religion misses the point. It is a behemoth when the essence of what Jesus taught was personal, which is why out of all the religious orders I was always most attracted to the Franciscans and their vow of poverty. Not for them grand monuments, nor crusading zeal. They lived as they believed and carried that with them as they spread the word.
In fact after watching this movie I questioned the point of church devotion. Why must one attend a church to celebrate Jesus? What is the point of having a soaring spire overhead and religious relics all around when clearly belief is a matter of the heart and may be celebrated anywhere one stands? To be ‘organised’ in fact seemed against the spirit of belief in many ways. While it was absolutely necessary for Jesus to have his disciples and followers spread his word, the word was taken to the people where they stood. It was all inclusive, without discrimination.
I found the story told by the movie fascinating. Most of the story is familiar even to a heathen such as myself, but I saw it in different eyes. It’s a well made movie with good performances – William Dafoe is great – and the stories you know by heart seemed fresh in their portrayal on screen. Perhaps it is because I am older and more discerning now, but I found the story of his progression from carpenter to the son of God to be more realistic than I had ever viewed before. It was a journey I saw, troubled and difficult often, from one discovery to another. Here was context that was absent in the old and somewhat stale biblical epics of earlier years.What made it more convincing was that the world he lived in was rendered more authentically than anything I had seen before. Whether it was or not it seemed real, true, as if what you saw on screen might have happened that way and the people like that, rather than Hollywood extras dressing up in colourful costumes playing a role.
For the most part the protesters had nothing to quibble with. Where they got upset was where the story diverged from the conventional tale. This is what the movie, and the book it was based on, was all about – the final temptation of Christ.
The story we have all grown up with pretty much ends with Christ dying on the cross, sacrificing himself for us. It was a rugged, fantastic journey to that point. In the movie you see Christ feeling it. He is tormented at times, sometimes feeling he is being used against his will by God. He has moments of frailty and doubt, but ultimately feels the truth of the journey he is on even as he fears its inevitable resolution.
In this story we see Jesus being given a second chance at life. Hanging on the cross he is visited by a guardian angel offering to ease his suffering. You have done enough she says, come and live the life you crave. She takes him off the cross and leads him away even as the angry crowd still hurls abuse at the empty cross. "You mean I’m not the messiah?" Jesus asks. "No", she smiles.
He goes on to live the normal life of a man, as if he had remained a carpenter in Nazareth. He marries, fathers a number of children, and lives a happy, normal life. This is his chance at earthly love and he takes it, and looks back at his life as the messiah somewhat as a misguided dream. He has an encounter with Paul which angers him, and then on his deathbed he is visited by his disciples who all treat him gently but for Judas who comes late. Judas, ever the committed zealot, accuses him of betraying the cause they all believed in, of being selfish and weak and self-indulgent. Somewhere in there Jesus recognises the truth and on his hands and knees crawls from his deathbed and begs God to return him to the crucifix he was sacrificed on. And then it is done. He dies happily with a smile on his face knowing he has fulfilled the destiny God granted him with, he has sacrificed himself for the greater good of mankind even as a few stand there abusing him.
The problem with this version of the story is that it shows Jesus as a fallible being rather than a holy figure. In his own words Jesus is briefly revealed to have feet of clay. He succumbs to the temptation of living the full and complete life denied to him, briefly turning his back on his destiny for his own selfish – but understandable – reasons. Hasn’t he done enough, after all?Though he has many high sounding sermons throughout the bible and acts with certitude at key moments there are also moments when the Jesus I remember questions and doubts just as any other man does. This is what proves his humanity. Jesus is not a superhero, he is the son of God, chosen to lead us while finding his own way. Though there were moments watching last night I wondered if he had it both ways, his devotion, his love, is made real by the temptation he spurns, the life that you and I might reasonably expect but ultimately relinquished by him. His destiny was not to live like a man, but to live for us by sacrifice.
That’s the movie, and impressive it is as both story and as a piece of movie making. I may seem a believer in how I describe much of the story, and in truth I see nothing but a lot of common sense in the message he preaches. I believe in that. Do I believe he is the son of God though? No. I believe in Jesus, but think there is no God. That doesn’t make his message any less relevant – it’s how we should live, and we have been fortunate that his message has survived the ages no matter how many times it has been twisted and subverted and used for unworthy causes. And the Bible is a work of genius. Society would be much less without his word being carried down through the ages.
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