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When presidential candidate Bob Dole castigated the entertainment industry for excessive and graphic use of violence, it was only the latest salvo in a culture war that has been raging for some time. Arguments over government funding of offensive art, renewed efforts to restrict pornography, initiatives to curb violence on television, and attention to smut in cyberspace all indicate a backlash against the ongoing “liberalization” of our allegedly puritanical society, manifest from the founding of Playboy to the controversy over Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita . Though the critic Simon Karlinsky declared that the publication of Lolita signalled at last the “collapse of the Victorian moralistic censorship that had persisted in Western countries till the end of the 1950s,” it appears his pronouncement might have been premature.

As efforts to reverse the trend toward a lax society clearly gains ground, it may be worthwhile to look back at an earlier skirmish”one in which, I believe, the battle lines may have been drawn erroneously. Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ was based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1955 novel in which Jesus appears as a tormented, fearful young man confused by sex and uncertain of his path in life. The film was condemned by virtually every Christian denomination, both here and abroad, was protested, picketed, subject to boycotts and bomb threats, and excluded from the titles carried by the huge Blockbuster Video chain.

Joseph Reilly of Morality in Media described the film as “an intentional attack on Christianity,” and James Dobson of Focus on the Family warned ominously, “God is not mocked.” In Hollywood vs. America , a classic account of the depredations Hollywood has visited on America since the 1960s, Michael Medved described The Last Temptation of Christ as rising from the “urge to assault the cherished recollections of even universally esteemed figures in our culture.” Medved compares the film to King David (1985), the only other recent Hollywood film to treat biblical material, in which David is shown as “thoroughly embittered and disillusioned at the end of his life.”

A summary of The Last Temptation would seem at first to support this view. Jesus is shown at the outset as a lonely, masochistic soul full of self-contempt, plying his carpenter’s trade making crosses for the Romans to use to crucify zealous Jews. He writhes and agonizes in fear and doubt over the voices and visions to which he is subject, whether from God or Satan he knows not. At one point he is shown watching while prostitute Mary Magdalene services a string of clients. Finally, he is shown tempted to leave the cross for the life of an ordinary man who knows the felicities of marriage, sex, and family: this is the “last temptation” that nearly wrenches away the meaning of his sacrifice.

The film drew criticism not only for its affront to conventional piety but also for aesthetic reasons, as Scorsese’s usually sure artistry seemed to falter. Certain features of the film”such as Harvey Keitel’s Judas with a Lower East Side accent”were extravagantly mocked by critics. The whole thing seemed a textbook case of blasphemy and artistic failure”a film both “silly and offensive,” as reviewer Bruce Bawer put it.

And yet, many members of the opening day audiences who defied pickets and anathemas to see the film found it very moving. While opposition to the film is understandable, I believe it to have been in many ways wrongheaded. The fact that The Last Temptation of Christ has become shorthand for cultural degradation ought to disturb anyone who wants to preserve art’s power to engage the moral imagination. If cultural conservatism is not to produce a backlash against itself, we must distinguish between seriously attempted efforts within the legitimate bounds of artistic creativity and ad hoc throwaways like Piss Christ.

Even the offended Bruce Bawer acknowledged the film as “the work of people who thought they were doing something devout.” The film, like the book, seems to take as given that God exists, that Jesus is the Messiah, that he performs miracles, and that the culmination of his mission lies not in social gospel or liberation theology or societal revolution or even ethical teaching, but in the Cross and all the Cross entails. Medved’s comparison to King David is inaccurate inasmuch as this Jesus, far from ending in bitterness and disillusionment, realizes that his “last temptation” has come from Satan, repudiates it, and in the film’s final frames triumphantly declaims on the Cross, “It is accomplished. It is accomplished.”

Scorsese’s desire to film The Last Temptation of Christ dated back to the seventies, and the project aroused opposition long before shooting even started. He lost Paramount Pictures as a producer when the studio heads decided the protest was simply too great to challenge, even after a studio”sponsored “theological seminar.” Eventually, Scorsese was able to enlist Universal Studios behind him, but he decided to keep the budget to a meager Hollywood minimum of $7 million because the project was “not a commercial mainstream movie.”

If his motives were not commercial, neither were they simply to shock. Scorsese claims he had learned “from a priest friend that the Kazantzakis book is used in seminaries, not as a substitute for the Gospels, but as a parable that is fresh and alive, which they can discuss and argue about. And this is what I hoped the film would do.” Scorsese was raised a Catholic and at one point wanted to be a priest. Although he no longer practices his religion and has been married four times, Scorsese claims to be a believer still: “I believe that Jesus is fully divine,” he has declared, “but the teaching at Catholic schools placed such an emphasis on the divine side that if Jesus walked into a room, you’d know he was God because he glowed in the dark,” instead of being someone “you could sit down with, have dinner or a drink with.”

For Scorsese, if Jesus was so easily, so effortlessly, so unambiguously divine, “then when the temptations came to him, surely it was easy to resist them because he was God. He could reject the temptation of power in the desert; he could reject especially the temptation of sex, and he could undergo the suffering on the Cross, because he knew what was going to happen.” Thus, Scorsese was drawn to a portrayal of the human Christ who had to struggle with fleshly desires and limitations. It is the gradual assimilation of Jesus the man into Jesus the Christ, i.e., the quenching of all earthly fears and longings in the movement toward union with God, that brings out the meaning of the Cross.

If Scorsese’s opponents don’t acknowledge his sincerity, at the same time the defenders of the film oversimplify their support. Scorsese was assured by Bishop Paul More that it is “Christologically correct” to insist on Christ’s human side, that the Gospels suggest it when, for example, “the Pharisees and the Sadducees complain about his eating and drinking, saying he wasn’t in the tradition of prophets like John the Baptist.” Critic David Ehrenstein notes that “the Scriptures indicate the importance of Jesus’ human dimension,” and producer Tom Pollock observed that some Christians “are very uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus is fully human.”

Christian theology certainly holds that Jesus was fully human: it is as heretical to deny Christ’s humanity as to deny his divinity. But the markers of Jesus’ humanity in the Gospels (weeping at Lazarus’ tomb or struggling in the garden) don’t come close to the prolonged identity crisis of the film. As Ehrenstein himself daintily concedes, “the psychological depth” that is “prerequisite for fiction is bound to be strongly resisted when the character is Christ himself.”

Moreover, it is helpful but insufficient to insist that the work is not meant to show the gospel story itself, as Scorsese does by introducing the film with a disclaimer to that effect. Clearly some of the plot is fabrication, but there is more than enough dialogue and connection with the Gospels to bring the thrill, or shock, of recognition. Likewise, insisting that the “last temptation” is only fantasy is insufficient to deflect all criticism (and in the film the coupling is more graphic than in the novel). Protests that the sex is performed for procreation within family are not totally unimportant but hardly sufficient when the man in question is the Son of God. It is true that Jesus repudiates the fantasy but, given the demands of fiction and film, it has to be depicted before it can be repudiated. Kazantzakis’ widow, Eleni, thought that her husband had made the temptation scene too long and that readers need to realize the sequence is only a dream that passes in seconds. Kazantzakis tries for this effect by having the whole episode occur as Jesus utters the sentence, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” But the sequence is too long for the effect of instantaneousness to be achieved.

The Epistle to the Hebrews asserts of Jesus that he was “not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” There is a biblical basis for what Kazantzakis and Scorsese attempt, but their ultimate defense must lie in ordering their sensational material toward a new and higher understanding, toward what Flannery O’Connor meant by the “total effect.”

Controversy over this retelling of the Christ tale did not begin with Scorsese. The Last Temptation of Christ almost led to Kazantzakis’ excommunication from the Greek Orthodox Church. The novel was placed on the Roman Catholic Index of Forbidden Books, and Protestant fundamentalist groups in the United States tried to have it banned from libraries (thereby helping to make it a bestseller). Yet Kazantzakis was a serious spiritual seeker. His search took him through Bergson, Nietzsche, Buddha, Mussolini, Marx, and Lenin, but ultimately all roads led him back to Christ. The latter part of his career was devoted to an exploration of Christian concepts, not only in The Last Temptation but also in other novels, including The Greek Passion (1951), in which a Greek village under Turkish occupation becomes involved in staging a Passion Play, and St. Francis (1956). The Last Temptation of Christ is prefaced with his remarkable statement of spiritual and artistic purpose, an excerpt of which Scorsese uses to introduce the film, and and some of which appears in a fuller context in Kazantzakis’ spiritual memoir, Report to Greco (1961).

My principal anguish, and the wellspring of all my joys and sorrows, has been the incessant merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh . . . . Every man partakes of the divine nature in both his spirit and his flesh. That is why the mystery of Christ is not simply a mystery for a particular creed; it is universal . . . . Struggle between the flesh and the spirit, rebellion and resistance, reconciliation and submission, and finally”the supreme purpose of the struggle”union with God: this was the ascent taken by Christ, the ascent which he invites us to take as well, following in his bloody tracks . . . .

If we are to be able to follow him, we must have a profound knowledge of His conflict, we must relive his anguish . . . . In order to mount to the Cross, the summit of sacrifice, and to God, the summit of immateriality, Christ passed through all the stages which the man who struggles passes through. All”and that is why his suffering is so familiar to us; that is why we pity him, and why his final victory seems to us so much our own future victory. That part of Christ’s nature which was profoundly human helps us to understand him and love him and to pursue his Passion as though it were our own. If he had not within him this warm human element, he would never be able to touch our hearts with such assurance and tenderness; he would not be able to become a model for our lives. We struggle, we see him struggle also, and we find strength. We see that we are not all alone in the world; he is fighting at our side . . . . This book was written because I wanted to offer a supreme model to the man who struggles; I wanted to show him that he must not fear pain, temptation, or death”because all three can be conquered, all three have already been conquered.

The Last Temptation of Christ seems to me the effort of an ordinary man to understand Christ’s sacrifice from the inside and to experience it as his own. In order to speak to modern man, arriving so late in the ages of belief, Jesus must be made to bear the infirmities of our age”the doubt, the angst, the fear and trembling, the existential dread, and yes, even the sexual obsessiveness. Moreover, in an age of complacent materialism Christ must be tempted not only by extraordinary evil but by the possibility of a life of ordinary pleasure as well”not only by lavish indulgence but also by the life of middle-class satisfactions.

Kazantzakis is not the only modern writer to reject the traditional picture of Christ. In his 1886 “Hymn to Proserpine,” Algernon Charles Swinburne embroiders the dying words of the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate, “Vicisti, Galilaee,” to launch a defiant evocation of a pagan world of energy, spirit, and erotic color untainted by what he saw as the spectral pall of latter nineteenth century Christian religiosity: “Thou has conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown gray from thy breath.” While Swinburne simply repudiated the Christ of tradition, the modernist writers in the next century would seek to revise, revision, reimagine him. Ezra Pound’s engaging “Ballad of the Goodly Fere” (1909), for example, rejects what he took to be the effeminate Jesus of popular turn of the century piety in favor of a rugged masculine Anglo-Saxon hero: “No capon priest was the Goodly Fere / But a man o’ men was he.”

Other writers looked to the pre-Christian world of pagan gods brought vividly to modern consciousness by Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough as an imaginative source of replenishment for what they saw as a dried up civilization. In D. H. Lawrence’s novella The Man Who Died (1930), Jesus revives in the tomb only to reject his previous mission and become the lover of a priestess of Isis”making him, in effect, the reborn Osiris, the lost dismembered god for whom the goddess Isis searches. While Lawrence at least allows Christ to be an avatar of the god Osiris, Robert Graves’ King Jesus (1946) has him defeated by the female powers of the earth. In this proto-feminist work Jesus fails to replace the cyclical law of nature with the transcendent masculine law of spirit that he preaches and finishes as another sacrifice to the powers of the goddess.

The total upending of the meaning of Christ by Lawrence and Graves caused no particular outcry (perhaps thanks to a lack of Christian vigilance in northern Europe), and it seems ironic that Kazantzakis’ retelling was the one to arouse controversy. (Far from having Christ yield to the gods that preceded him, Kazantzakis’ Jesus absorbs all previous myths, including Osiris, and, furthermore, pointedly triumphs over the female powers that would bind him to the flesh.) But of course it is the very closeness that caused the trouble; the fiction in such elaborate retellings as that of Lawrence and Graves is easier to perceive.

Kazantzakis presents, and Scorsese generally follows, a four-fold division of Jesus’ adult life. After a period of morbid doubt and dread, he journeys to an Essene-like enclave where is he freed of many of his besetting demons and emerges with enough strength and grace to heal and preach”though a little uncertainly and reluctantly, since each sign of his specialness brings him closer to the awesome realization that he is the anointed one. His message at first is a sweet and unnuanced flower child compendium of love, peace, acceptance, and forgiveness. But he is driven to a second stage by the harsh apocalyptic teaching of John the Baptist. He retreats to the desert, is sorely tempted, and emerges with a philosophy of the “ax””the need to destroy the world’s evil. He is for a time swayed into thinking he must be the messiah of the zealots who will transform the earth through revolution. Finally, he realizes, with the help of a vision from the prophet Isaiah, that his mission is to be the sacrifice, the complete and willing sacrifice of self that will “save the world,” “save men from their sins,” and show the triumph of the spirit over the flesh (or the “transubstantiation” of flesh into spirit, as Kazantzakis might put it). At the penultimate moment, however, Satan (who had promised in the desert that they would meet again) returns in disguise, claiming to be from God, and urges Jesus to relinquish the delusion that he is the Messiah, leave the Cross, and live a normal life instead.

It is not accidental that Kazantzakis, after creating a Christ figure in The Greek Passion , was led to the figure of Christ himself, for it allowed him to resolve several longstanding preoccupations. His early existential and anti-Christian view that God does not redeem man, but man God (delineated, among other places, in his 1927 work The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises ), is reformed into a serious attempt at Christian theology when the man in question is known to be the redeemer sent by God. The Nietzschean nihilism of Kazantzakis’ earlier writings is transcended here; though Jesus engages in the typically Nietzschean struggle to realize himself, the self he realizes is divine. Finally, bitterly disappointed by the failure of revolutionary Marxism, Kazantzakis could see Jesus as transcending politics toward the greatest revolution of all. Some commentators insist that Kazantzakis to the end was not a Christian and did not believe in God. It doesn’t seem to matter in this work; his theology may not be orthodox but he believes in Christ, and that seems to suffice.

Scorsese follows the book with some faithfulness, although, despite the film’s two hour and forty minute running time, much in the five-hundred-page novel is necessarily omitted. The director’s low budget and tight shooting schedule may be reflected in what some have seen as unintentional parody and even tackiness in the final product; nevertheless, a great deal of the film works well. Much of the humor and odd contemporaneity is a deliberate attempt to avoid the glossiness of previous biblical films and make us experience the story as a reality. Some of the effects that were criticized were indeed intended, like Mary Magdalene’s tattoos, forbidden by Jewish law but something a prostitute might wear to show her defiance, and the Apostles’ New York accents, which make these rugged men seem like ordinary people we might know. (Kazantzakis famously wrote in the demotic Greek of everyday speech rather than in elevated literary Greek.) At the same time, many of the scenes are unabashedly mystical and preternatural.

So compelling is the overall conception and realization that Kazantzakis can be forgiven many of the excesses of his florid novel, and Scorsese the flaws in his film. It seems astonishing that in an age of self-assertion and spiritual greed, of lengthening lists of rights and escalating demands for entitlements, the centrality of self-sacrifice should be so clearly presented, without apology, without condescension, without dismissive psychologizing. (In the film, the idea of blood sacrifice is a continual source of imagery, from the wedding feast at Cana, at which a lamb is butchered, through the Passover during which animals are brought to the temple for slaughter while Jesus, the true sacrifice, ritually bathes in the temple pool, and finally to the Cross.)

The sensational material of the “last temptation” proves necessary in order to bring out the full idea of what the sacrifice entails and some sense of the need to transcend the simple and humanly understandable desire for self-satisfaction.

The unsaved world, the world without the Cross, although still part of Jesus’ fantasy, is rendered convincingly bare and desolate. After his mostly satisfactory life as a paterfamilias, Jesus grows old and is near death. Forty years have passed and Jerusalem is burning”the march of history has continued without any change of course. Paul, because he feels that people need to believe in something, is preaching a false gospel based on the incomplete crucifixion that Jesus apparently underwent. The Apostles come to see Jesus and they are old, broken men. They reproach him for descending the Cross and leaving mankind without hope, kept going by lies and fictions during the brief, sometimes pleasant, sometimes miserable interlude before oblivion. It is then that Jesus sees Satan behind his fantasy and rejects it, begging the Father in a deeply affecting scene to take him back to the Cross, to “make a feast.” In a moment, with complete and eager willingness, he is back, and “it is accomplished.” The film memorably ends here, while the novel continues for one more sentence: “And it was as though he had said: Everything has begun.” And one can believe that it has.

Kazantzakis wrote, “I never followed Christ’s bloody journey to Golgotha with such terror, I never relived his Life and Passion with such intensity, such understanding and love, as during the days and nights when I wrote The Last Temptation of Christ .” Scorsese has said, with considerably less formality, that making the film helped him to know Jesus better. Many readers of the book and viewers of the film have shared these experiences to some extent and it can seem odd that Christians should want to condemn the works that brought that about.

Carol Iannone teaches at the Gallatian School of Individualized Study at New York University and has written for Commentary , National Review , and Modern Age.