Heat excites the senses but dulls the brain. Yes, that must be it. All those days of 90°-plus weather finally prompted a series of intellectual implosions and alarming reverse Richter-scale readings. Agitated and combat-ready, America’s morality police deployed themselves outside select movie theatres so as to redeem a floundering population—to convert those sinners before they purchase tickets or at least apprise the poor souls of precisely what risks they take.
“Blasphemy,” said a placard displayed in Washington, D.C., prior to a showing of the summer’s most controversial film, The Last Temptation of Christ. “They know not what they do,” declared another near Universal Studios in Los Angeles. “Father forgive them,” read a poster in New York City. Coast to coast, the sanctified were in a terrible stew. Sighed a churchman after a special screening of Last Temptation: “He’s not our Jesus, the Jesus anchored in the Bible.”
Not for the first time, Christ is the subject of fervent debate. While the religious right contends that director Martin Scorsese maligned Jesus, others maintain that fundamentalists have seriously and studiously misinterpreted the movie. What spooks conservative Christians is the portrayal of Jesus as one of the boys—somebody who isn’t sure he wants to be Savior if crucifixion is among the occupational hazards and who imagines himself in blissful combination with Mary Magdalene.
The view is not one likely to prevail at seething tent meetings nor in television studios where the nation’s few remaining unscandalized showbiz evangelists protest their virtue, rebuke the devil and fleece the innocents. Whether he made a swell film or a mediocre one, Scorsese has given audiences a Jesus with unusual instincts and appetites, and in the straight-up world of faith healers and hard-liners, mischief on such a grand scale cannot be tolerated. Preachers called for a boycott of theatres showing Last Temptation and, in a righteous thrall, one pastor hinted at guerrilla action. “If they are going to leave the sex scene in,” said Rev. R. L. Hymers, a California protest leader, “they can probably expect violence.” Those at peace with Scorsese’s vision wonder why it strikes some as scandal-
ous that Christ had sexual longings and dreams of marriage and family. “I felt I was seeing Jesus on the screen,” said Rev. John Steinbruck, a Lutheran minister who runs a shelter for the homeless in Washington. When asked why so many clerics seemed exercised by Last Temptation, Steinbruck replied: “Perhaps those men are too religious. I believe this is the Gospel.”
Scorsese and supporters of the movie say that Christ was bound to know the usual stirrings of the species since, after all, he walked the earth as human. “The last temptation, for Jesus, is the temptation to live an ordinary life,” explains the film-maker, a Roman Catholic. In a New York Times article, Rev. Andrew Greeley observed: “If such feelings were sinful, Jesus would not have experienced them. But is desire itself sinful, or the behavior that might result?” When passion is declared off limits, Greeley suggests,
Because conservatism of an especially lunkheaded sort is still in vogue, The Last Temptation of Christ is a natural target
Jesus won’t be the only one in trouble.
Greeley, a novelist and Catholic priest, claims that anti-Scorsese forces are embracing the doctrine of Docetism, a third-century heresy that insists Christ only looked human—a sort of clever, inside joke between God and the pure of heart. Those who want to rob Jesus of his libido are modernday Manichaeans, Greeley complains— faint spirits who divide existence into realms of light and dark and despise the flesh and all its pleasures.
It’s a safe bet that many of the stalwarts recently demonstrating against The Last Temptation on any other day would be picketing abortion clinics or suing for prayer in public schools, as though the students of America would pray for anything but a cessation of classes, anyway. There is something in the ardor of these dedicated foot soldiers, something in the tenacity of their arguments and timbre of their voices, that identifies them as our most resolute guardians of the faith—those who know what is meet, right and salutary and are determined to haul the rest of us toward enlightenment.
Here, revealed by a passionate minority, is the lingering malediction of our Puritan heritage, our uppity European tendencies, our maddening urge to be viewed as a “Christian nation,” whatever sort of nation that might be. In our dreams, we see ourselves as a fire wall against the exhaust of modern society. If not Americans, who will shield the global community from the onslaught of a tainted age—from social workers and government spenders and sexual liberationists and Daniel Ortega, from that which threatens life as, thus far, we have willed it to be?
Ever vigilant, Christian crusaders acted quickly against this latest threat to the future of Western civilization. “Never have we seen anything, anywhere, at any time, that would begin to hold a little bitty flicker to the reaction this film is receiving,” said Rev. Donald Wildmon, a Methodist minister in Tupelo, Miss., who heads the American Family Association. “People are angry,” said Wildmon, “down to the grassroots.”
Wildmon, a leader of the movement against Scorsese’s film, has a special knack for spotting dangerous material. His last victory came in July, when CBS snipped 3 */2 seconds from a Mighty Mouse cartoon because Wildmon’s group complained that the character appeared to be snorting cocaine. Mighty Mouse’s indiscretion was nothing compared to The Last Temptation, of course. Wildmon said that the script, based on the 1951 novel by Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis, was “the most perverted, distorted account of the historical and biblical Jesus I have ever read.” His followers, Wildmon said, simply were doing for community values what Martin Luther King Jr. did for civil rights.
As anyone who watched the Republican convention in New Orleans can attest, conservatism of an especially lunkheaded sort continues much in vogue. The national mood is to close down, not open up—to deny sooner than accept. In Scorsese’s movie, Americans at the vanguard found new reason to retrench. But by protesting so garishly, the aggrieved mostly assured success for The Last Temptation. Audiences have been large, receipts impressive. Somehow, opponents neglected to consider that in America, almost everything sells, blasphemy included.
Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.
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