The Last Temptation ironically fails in its central purpose—to affirm the humanity of Jesus.

C. S. Lewis wisely laid out the options when he wrote that Jesus was either the Son of God, the devil of hell, or a lunatic—on the level with a man who says he’s a poached egg.

In filming The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese apparently opted for the poached-egg Christ. In fact, the tortured soul played by Willem Dafoe in the controversial movie is so unlike anything in the Gospels (or even any liberal vision of Jesus) that one has a hard time believing that Scorsese is talking about Jesus of Nazareth at all. Indeed, he isn’t. At the film’s beginning, there is a quotation from the Nikos Kazantzakis novel that provided Scorsese’s inspiration, and an explicit disclaimer calling it a “fictional exploration of an eternal spiritual conflict.” This makes it clear that the movie is really about the Jesus that the psychologically tortured Greek novelist created in his own image, and not about the Jesus we meet in the New Testament.

Fortunately, the informed viewer is not likely to confuse the two Jesuses. Theological aberrations and uncharacteristic sayings and actions abound in this film. Jesus the carpenter builds crosses for a living and helps Roman soldiers hang anti-Roman activists on the death machines. Jesus the cross builder talks of dying to pay for his own sins. Jesus the desert hermit and mystic talks about being a liar. Jesus the teacher denies the validity of the law of Moses. And so it goes.

Viewers who cannot or will not separate Kazantzakis’s symbolic Jesus from the Jesus of history and faith should be more offended by this aspect of the film than by the widely reported dream-sequence sex scene.

Why Jesus?

If this film is not really about Jesus, why make it seem to be about Jesus at all? Literature (and the novel on which the film is based qualifies for that label) is by nature symbolic. The great mythic characters from Oedipus onward have been distillations of some aspect of our human nature, thus helping us to understand ourselves better for having vicariously lived their lives with them. Because Jesus (among other things) stands for ideal humanity (the second Adam), his life has become a way for narrative writers to explore what it really means to be human. That is what Scorsese (wittingly or un-) does here. And that is where the film falls far short of the truth.

All the detailed inaccuracies of the film pale compared to its big message: that there is a strong tension between our physical and our spiritual existence, and that a choice must be made (preferably in favor of the spiritual). The irony here is that the filmmakers have been talking about their film as an affirmation of Christ’s humanity (something orthodox Christians affirm). Yet the film seems to preach a dualism that condemns the flesh and exalts pure spirit. Death, it says, is “a door that opens, not a door that closes.” Death, Saint Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 15, is an enemy. Human beings, the film seems to say, are torn between physical and spiritual existence. Human beings, Scripture says, are psychophysical unities who even in the resurrection will not be pure spirits, but will continue in some sense as embodied creatures. It is this dualism that is the most dangerous and most deeply misleading thing about this film.

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The Wax-Nosed Christ

In Christology, the liberal temptation is to worship the Jesus of the wax nose. That is to say, as world views come and go, the liberals succumb to their desire for relevance, for addressing the cultured despisers of religion in their own terms, for trimming from the gospel that which offends the spirit of the age and dressing what remains in the robes of the Christ. And here Scorsese follows that tradition, surrendering to an age fascinated with violence, sexuality, and the paranormal.

But the evangelical temptation in Christology is the ancient heresy of docetism, the denial in practical piety (if not in theology) that Jesus was fully human, but only appeared to be so. Of course a fully human Jesus would feel sexual attraction. Of course a fully human Jesus would have to make real choices about his calling.

And we know clearly from the Gospels what Dafoe portrays so well: Jesus’ pure joy in the merriment of the wedding at Cana. Scorsese’s film, from the dirt and the blood to the wine and the dancing, forces us to evaluate our understanding of the human side of Jesus.

So should evangelicals see this movie? Probably not. No one who objects to the nudity, sex, and violence routinely depicted in R-rated films should support this one.

And no one for whom even symbolic mishandlings of Jesus would be disturbing should subject himself to this powerful portrayal. (And no one who cannot sit through two hours and 40 minutes of unrelenting seriousness should even try.)

The Protest

The conservative protest against the making and distribution of Temptation may turn out to be one of the top religious news stories of the year. While some protesters were made to look foolish in the news media (and others indeed acted foolishly), there is no doubt that the protest had its effect: Scorsese made a better film because of it. Most of the elements of the purloined screenplay to which conservative Christians took strong exception were deleted before the film was released. And the disclaimer that clarifies the film’s nature as “a fictional exploration” was added in response to the complaints. Christian protest may not have prevented the film’s distribution, but it did have its effect.

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The effectiveness of that protest, however, must be weighed against other factors: (1) the undue publicity given a film that by its very nature would normally be restricted to isolated art houses or short runs in regular theaters; (2) the embarrassment caused by those with hair-trigger tongues, who could not wait to see the movie before pontificating before the television camera.

Let no one, however, take seriously the accusation that Christians want to practice “censorship.” Any time influential filmmakers take it upon themselves to offer an interpretation of a historical figure whose life and teachings have shaped the identity of vast numbers of people, there is bound to be protest.

Certainly, the life and teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr., have profoundly shaped black identity in the United States. If, for example, some Hollywood mogul were to produce a film portraying this great black leader as a communist dupe, would there be howls of protest? Of course there would. Would the film make it to the local mall theaters? Maybe it would—but probably not. But such protest, whether it is over a film interpretation of Jesus or King, or over some other leader with whom people identify closely, could hardly be called “censorship.” Such protest is merely an exercise of the First Amendment right to free speech—a right both Scorsese and his critics are welcome to exercise.

By David Neff.

Wrong Numbers

Dial-a-porn is the most publicized of recent entrepreneurial innovations involving your homely telephone.

For a few dollars, you (or your children) may dial a recording of a woman who makes as if she can’t wait to fall into bed with you, then narrates your desperate lovemaking like a minor-league sports announcer (“You’re kissing my neck and the sensations are radiating throughout my body”), and eventually gives in to paroxysms of panting. Another service has wondrously evolved to the point that pushing different numbers on your Touchtone simulates touching different erogenous zones on the body of this extraordinary lover. It lends a whole new meaning to “reach out and touch someone.”

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But there is much more that can now be done with your telephone. There are stocks and bonds reports, lottery information services, and sports handicappers. You can dial and hear a tape of Elvis, alive and hiding in Hawaii, tired of “growin’ beards and that kind of stuff” to forever elude the masses.

Are you sad? Pick up the phone and listen to a few minutes of jokes. Want a fright? There’s a fellow with a menacing laugh who will lead you into a dark basement and taunt you about the sound of dripping water—” Or is it blood? Ha-ha-hee-hee-hoo!”

Want some gossip? Celebrity gossip is available, updated every few hours. If your voyeuristic appetite is really strong, however, you may prefer “Soundoff,” messages from guilty souls who call and confess transgressions, or angry souls who rant about others’ transgressions—all for the therapeutic value of unloading. So a woman bitterly denounces her former boyfriend and best friend after finding them together in bed. A raspy-voiced man tells his lover he never appreciated her as he should have and begs her to return. A boy complains that his parents still diaper him, bathe and dress him, give him a bottle: “I’m just tired of it, that’s all.”

When you’re tired of listening to the recorded material, you can try a live party line. This allows you to discuss, with several other callers, your sex life, the weather, your sex life, how the garden is doing, your sex life, some friend’s problems, and your sex life.

Add to all this the burgeoning practice of telemarketing. It means that, after a day of doing your morning devotions, playing, gossiping, shopping, undertaking therapy, placing bets, and making love on the phone, you can be badgered by people who make a living with it.

Who needs church, family, neighbors? Who needs to make the effort of meeting a friend at the park or coffee shop? Who needs to read a book or make up a game or search for a joy more lasting than easy titillation? Who needs to leave the house and face the world?

There is only one thing wrong with the protean power of the telephone. It doesn’t leave much time for television.

By Rodney Clapp.

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