In a review that I was working on for The Englewood Review of Books I quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As I was searching my own hard drive for the citation of that quote, I came upon this little essay. I wrote it for a class on Christology over two years ago. I thought that there might be some interest in it. It is a theological analysis of the film The Last Temptation of Christ. Besides the occasional embarrassing typo, I have refrained from editing it.
Any film that seeks to portray the life of Jesus of Nazareth is bound to have some level of controversy surrounding its reception. When a film is made that attempts to interpretively portray Jesus, who is an object of faith for so many, such controversies seem inevitable. When the interpretation greatly differs from the gospel accounts, or creatively fills the gaps which the gospels so carefully construct, the controversy has the potential to become a full-fledged hostile reaction. This has been somewhat true in all the portrayals of Jesus in twentieth century film, but especially with Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, released in 1988. The film, inspired by Nikos Kazantzakis’ influential novel, encountered this controversy from the very beginning. The Paramount film corporation originally approved the film, but abandoned the project in response to an intense letter-writing campaign initiated by The National Federation for Decency. Three years later, the project was picked up by Universal Pictures. Upon its release, Christians, especially Evangelicals, labeled the film as blasphemous and called for its boycott.
In response to the gathering storm of indictment against his film, Scorsese included an epigraph and a disclaimer, both of which appear on the screen before the title. The epigraph is a quotation from the Kazantzakis novel:
“The dual substance of Christ–
the yearning so human,
of man to attain God…
has always been a deep
inscrutable mystery to me.
My principle anguish and source
of all my joys and sorrows
from my youth onward
has been the incessant,
merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh…
and my soul is the arena where these two armies
have clashed and met.”
This is followed immediately by the disclaimer, the addition of which was surly an attempt by Scorsese to somehow quiet the gathering controversy. It reads:
“This film is not based on the Gospels, but upon the fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict.”
Tatum posits that this disclaimer disclaims too much. “As with the Kazantzakis novel, the film is based in some sense on the story of Jesus as narrated in the four gospels.”1 While this observation is correct, it misses the point of the disclaimer. The point of Scorsese’s disclaimer is not to states that the film is not influenced by the accidents of the encounters and teachings of Jesus as recorded in the canonical gospels. It is a matter of course that Jesus is shown in both the book and film as doing and saying many of the same things as the Jesus of the gospels. Rather, Scorsese is distancing himself from the aims of the gospel writers. Instead of telling these stories in such a way as to highlight Jesus’ mission or identity, Scorsese seeks to use these stories to highlight the ‘eternal spiritual conflict.’ Here, Jesus is meant to be the everyman who undergoes the same struggles between spirit and flesh with which all humanity must grapple. Because of his unique divinity, Jesus is able to be flesh and choose spirit. The difference between the struggle of Scorsese’s Jesus and the rest of humanity is one of vocation, not one of kind.
For Scorsese, Jesus is a tragic figure. Jesus himself, and not the later church councils and dogmas, is the battleground between the two natures of Christ–humanity and divinity. Scorsese recognizes that if Christ is at once fully God and fully man but only one person, then that person is full of doubt, of questioning and uncertainty. Scorsese is able to portray this oscillation and questioning by showing the inner life of Jesus. From the opening scene onward, Scorsese makes consistent use of voice-over to demonstrate this struggle. The audience hears the inner dialogue of Jesus himself. Jesus is aware that voices are telling him that his life is to be significant in a unique way, but he is unsure of whether these voices are coming from God or the Devil. Throughout the film, and particularly as Jesus attempts to discern his mission in the desert and through his encounter with John the Baptist, it is clear that Jesus is searching for how this significance should be enacted. He oscillates between proclaiming a message of love and a message of revolution and concludes with the understanding that he himself must choose death to bring about real salvation from the flesh.
All the while that Jesus is struggling with these questions, he is longing to embrace his humanity. He encounters Mary Magdalene early in the film. She is a prostitute and Jesus goes to her for conversation instead of sex. It is clear in this encounter that Jesus and Mary are childhood friends. Jesus has failed to marry Mary and is therefore to a certain extent responsible for her current position. Jesus obviously cares deeply for her, but is prevented from being with her by his own deepening understanding of his vocation. Here, it becomes apparent that for Jesus to fulfill his mission in the world, he must forsake his humanity. For Scorsese, Jesus is fully human, but that humanity is must be quelled in order for him to embrace his true calling—divinity.
Therefore, Jesus’ increasingly clear mission is shown as some kind of ethereal embrace of spirit and forsaking of flesh. Humanity, it seems, is entrapped in a cycle of following after the flesh and seeking ‘fleshly’ things such as family (seen in the temptation to marry Mary) and political power (seen in the temptation of zealotry offered by Judas). While Jesus affirms that the physical is good and comes from God he is unsure how that goodness can be reconciled with the call to embrace the spirit over the flesh. At one point of the film he prays to the Father, “Father in heaven, Father on earth, the world that you’ve created that we can see is beautiful, but the world that you have created that we can’t see is beautiful too. I’m sorry, Father, but I don’t know which one is more beautiful.”
In some way, Jesus’ internalized struggle is his mission on behalf of humanity. Jesus is the Messiah which means that he brings some kind of salvation. The battle where Jesus fights for this salvation is not against the Romans, the Jewish leaders, or even the sin of the people. Rather, it is in himself. Somehow, in choosing spirit over flesh (which he does at the end of the film), he offers salvation to people. Since humanity is portrayed as entrapped in feeding their flesh, Jesus’ conquering of this enslavement somehow provides a way of salvation for the whole of humanity. This is one of the vaguest notions of the film. Somehow, in the midst of a monologue-esque portrayal of Jesus, he opens a kind of salvation for the world.
The Garden of Gethsemane and the crucifixion scenes dominate the film, taking about 51 minutes. Jesus had already coerced Judas (his best and most faithful disciple, according to the film) to betray him. He goes to the garden, awaiting his imminent arrest in prayer. It is here that Jesus’ own angst concerning his mission is the most apparent. In the garden, he accusatorially prays to the Father, “I never asked you to choose me.” Judas arrives with soldiers to arrest Jesus, who accepts what is to come by praying, “take me with you, I’m ready.”
There is no trial scene before the Jewish authorities, only a brief scene of questioning between Jesus and Pilate. This further underscores the point that the real battle is not between Jesus and the Romans or anyone else, but between Jesus’ divinely orchestrated purpose and his own unwillingness to submit to it. This is followed by the crucifixion scene which is violent and realistic. Jesus is bleeding and defeated. He is crucified naked and derision is added to the equation as he hangs humiliated before a small jeering crowd. He cries out here, “Father, why have you forsaken me?!” This cry of godforsakenness silences everything. Jesus looks down and sees an attractive young girl who approaches Jesus and reveals that she is his guardian angel. She tells him, “Your Father is the God of mercy not punishment. He saw you and said, ‘aren’t you his guardian angel? Well go down and save him. He’s suffered enough.’” She then assists in bringing Jesus down from the cross, revealing to him as they walk away that he is not the Messiah, a revelation that brings great relief to Jesus.
Jesus follows his angel who leads him to a normal human life. Jesus marries Mary Magdalene and is shown having sex with her (this is understandably the most controversial scene of the film) and fathers children. After this, Mary dies, and the angel tells Jesus to marry Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus. He is shown happily walking with his family when he hears Paul the apostle preaching. Jesus approaches Paul (who, earlier in the film, killed the raised Lazarus who was the primary evidence of Jesus’ power) and hears him preaching the good news of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus calls him a liar and denies that he is the Messiah. Paul responds “I’ve created the truth out of what people needed and what they believed. If I have to crucify you to save them, then I’ll crucify you. If I have to resurrect you, then I’ll do that too.” Tatum notes, “Although this exchange between Paul and Jesus may be negated in the mind of the viewer by the realization that it occurs only in the imagination of the dying Jesus, the question of the relationship between the Christ of faith as preached by the church and the Jesus of history has been raised more explicitly here than in any other Jesus story film to this time.”2 Furthermore, this is the only reference to the resurrection in the entire film. So, while it could be argued that this encounter is later negated, the exchange does point to the resurrection as some kind of internal spiritual truth.
Jesus continues to live out his life in happiness. On his deathbed, the disciples come to visit him. As Jerusalem burns in the background, Judas calls Jesus a traitor, saying that the disciples did what they were supposed to do and Jesus failed to do what he was supposed to do. Jesus comes to the realization then that he actually is the Messiah and that his ‘guardian angel’ is, in fact, Satan. He repents of his selfishness and crawls through Jerusalem, making his way to Golgotha. Here, he prays to the Father, begging for him to listen to “a selfish and unfaithful son.” He tells God that he wants to be crucified, that he wants to be the Messiah. Then it is revealed that he is still on the cross. He smiles and cries out, ‘It is accomplished’ and dies.
It seems that for Scorsese Jesus is most clearly seen as a manifestation of God when he truly struggles with, and ultimately submits himself to, the will of the Father. It could be fairly said that the prayer “not my will, but yours be done” is for Scorsese what makes Jesus both fully human and fully divine. This is an intriguing perspective on Jesus not least because it demonstrates a confluence of desires (which is utterly human) and a humble submission of those desires (which is utterly divine). Therefore, for Scorsese, Jesus’ “last temptation” is really the only temptation he ever had, to pray ‘not your will, but mine be done.’ It does not matter if this struggling between wills is manifested in the temptation of self-preservation, sex, family, or political power. They are all the same temptation.
What makes Scorsese’s Jesus compelling is that he actually attempted to do what few have attempted. That is, to portray Jesus as one person with two natures. It is understandable then, why Scorsese’s Jesus seems to border on insanity, because he is constantly torn between himself. His temptation is not to embrace something outside of himself, rather it is to fully embrace his own human identity. His refusal to acquiesce to this temptation is a sign of his divinity indeed. But that divinity does not cancel out his humanity, because his humanity is manifested in his own struggle to choose it. Nothing is more human than a questioning Jesus. His refusal to fully embrace his humanity (and therefore satisfy the human desires) is his refusal to sin. Therefore, Scorsese’s tries to portray a Jesus that “was like us in all ways but sin.”
Despite all that is commendable and intriguing about Scorsese’s Jesus, there are still several significant theological problems with him.
One of the most significant problems with Scorsese’s Jesus is that his struggle is internalized. Yes, he has critiques to make of sin, of legalism, and of Rome. But these critiques are peripheral. Jesus’ most challenging interlocutor is himself. Since this is is biggest challenge, to quiet his own fleshly desires, it is unclear how he offers salvation. What Scorsese seems to imply is that Jesus paved the way for humanity to follow after him and choose spirit over flesh. Therefore, Jesus is kind of a vague numinous spiritual guide whose way we can follow to be freed from the flesh. This quasi-gnosticism takes the shame and disgrace of the cross and sanctifies it.
The battle between spirit and flesh can only be won when flesh has been crucified. Therefore, Jesus’ self-abnegation on the cross is actually a victory in and of itself. There is no need for a resurrection, because the cross is victory in its own right. Scorsese does this by juxtaposing Jesus’ cry of godforsakenness with the Johannine cry of “it is accomplished.” Whereas John’s cry is a statement in the present in light of the coming resurrection, Scorsese’s Jesus cries this after his own victory over the ‘last temptation.’ Because of this, Jesus was not truly and actually dying in godforsakenness. Rather than the cross being a sign of defeat and shame, it is a sign of victory, and not the retroactive victory that the resurrection gives it, but victory in itself. This identification of the cross with glory is most troublesome, it is nothing short of calling darkness light. God is not crucified. God does not die. God is not laid to decompose in a tomb. Therefore, God is not raised. What we are left with is not a Jesus who brings life out of death, but a Jesus whose glory comes in bringing of death to life.
What is absent in Scorsese’s Jesus is absence. There is no day of death. No Holy Saturday, when God lies rotting in a tomb. For Scorsese, the cross confirms Jesus’ identity, whereas for Christian theology, the cross is central precisely because it negates Jesus’ identity. This negation is itself negated by Easter resurrection, but if there is no negation of Jesus, of his mission, his teaching, and his work, then there need be no resurrection. Truly, what is missing is the connectivity between the cross and everything else. For Scorsese, the cross is exactly what makes Jesus, Jesus. It is a stand alone event, encapsulating the great spiritual struggle between spirit and flesh. However, Christian theology stubbornly holds that the cross is the last day of Jesus, utterly negating all of his life, his very identity (hence the Emmaus disciples despair: “we had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel”). At the same time, however, the cross is the first day of the great Paschal Triduum, culminating in resurrection. The absence of Holy Saturday must come. For it is in Holy Saturday that “resurrection is not permitted to verge upon the cross, instantaneously converting its death into new life, still less to trespass death’s own borders and thus to identify the cross with glory. Instead, death is given time and space to be itself, in all its coldness and helplessness.”3 This absence is absent from Scorsese’s film, and because it is absent, there need not be any presence (resurrection) that follows it.
If the salvation that Jesus offers is the same as the salvation that Scorsese’s Jesus offers, then the only hope for those dying in godforsakenness is to embrace their death and somehow spiritually transcend it. In so doing, nothing is changed. The only thing that has happened is that despair has been called hope. If the hope of the world is the hope that Scorsese’s Jesus offers, then suicide is a virtue and suffering is divine, for it is the ultimate distancing of flesh from spirit. To those dying in godforsakenness, they are without hope unless God truly suffers himself. As Bonhoeffer said, “Only the suffering God can help.”4
1 W. Barnes Tatum, Jesus at the Moives: A Guide to the First Hundred Years, (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2004) 182.
2 Ibid., 184.
3 Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001) 37.
4 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Updated edition, (New York: Touchstone, 1997) 343.