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A Better Jesus Film

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), directed by Martin Scorsese and based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, was condemned by both Catholics and evangelical Protestants even before its first showing in England. I watched it for the first time this week and thought it a more respectful presentation of the story of Jesus than Catholic Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004).

The Scorsese film doesn't pretend to be true to the Gospels. It begins with a Jesus who is running from his destiny. To make God hate him he is using his carpenter's skills to make crossbeams for the Romans. He even carries them to the place of crucifixion. His best friend, Judas, berates him for helping the Romans.

Instead of depicting the character of Jesus as knowing his destiny from the beginning, The Last Temptation shows his understanding of God's purpose for him as an unfolding discovery.

Judas Iscariot also receives untraditional treatment. As a Zealot, Judas belongs to a violent underground movement intent on driving the Romans from Israel by force. He is sent to murder Jesus as a collaborator. Judas cannot do it. Instead he becomes a loyal follower and the Master's staunchest friend. His betrayal of Jesus at the Mount of Olives stems from love. He does it only because Jesus insists that it is necessary to fulfill God's plan for him.

Scorsese's film is a spiritual experience in a way that Gibson's is not. It is respectful of Jesus as Gibson's film is not.

Some Christians want it both ways, that Jesus was human and divine, but the only "human" experience they are willing to acknowledge in his life has to do with pain. His suffering on the cross is seen as the be all and end all of his human experience.

Pain is not the only thing that human beings experience in their lives. They also experience joy, love, and fellowship with other human beings. Why should it be considered blasphemy to speculate on the other human experiences Jesus may have shared while incarnate? How is seeing him making love to the woman he loves more of an obscenity than the image of him beaten and bleeding and nailed to a cross?

Sanctity is not a synonym for prudery. Sainthood is grown into, not bestowed. It only makes Jesus more endearing to think that even he had his ups and downs as he tried to fulfill God's plan for him. Orthodox Christian doctrine teaches that Jesus was as human as he was divine. What human being wouldn't be terrified at the thought of death by crucifixion?

I haven't read the Kazantzakis novel so I don't know how true Scorsese's film is to it. The movie takes liberties with some strongly held beliefs about the historical Jesus, but it is neither sacrilegious nor unbiblical. It depicts the raising of Lazarus, the healing of the blind, the upsetting of the money-changers' tables in the temple, and other events mentioned in the gospels. The horror and pity of the crucifixion is included and the few film minutes it takes for Scorsese to show it is sufficiently painful.

The Last Temptation of Christ is thought-provoking and spiritually uplifting. Unlike the one-note Mel Gibson obscenity, the Scorsese film can be watched more than once.

I've deliberately left out actors' names up to here. Both Willem Dafoe (Jesus) and Harvey Keitel (Judas) have become associated with some extremely unspiritual roles. Both, however, are excellent in their parts in The Last Temptation. Of all the actors I've seen play Jesus on the screen, Dafoe is the only one who conveys a sense of courage and manliness as well as the softer attributes.


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