I am truly befuddled to discover that, amongst the literally millions of words which I have published in one place or another over the last two decades, I have yet to write anything about Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ–the work of art that has without a doubt been the most influential on my life.
I’m currently making my way through A.O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. In one of the opening chapters to the book, which I read on Wednesday, he makes an off-hand reference to Scorsese’s 1988 adaption of the Nikos Kazantzakis novel. Oddly, the next morning, I would run across Loren Rosson III’s comments about Last Temptation in his blog entry reviewing Scorsese’s body of work. That Scott and Rosson completely disagree about the merits of the film is irrelevant.
What is relevant is the coincidence of those two mentions while the question “What are you becoming?” bounces around in my head this week.
Have you ever heard a movie trailer intone, “His life would never be the same again”? If you have heard it once, I imagine you’ve heard variations hundreds of times. Transformative experiences are a staple of the cinematic marketing machine. But most of what Hollywood has to offer us is so cliched as to render the concept meaningless. After all, our lives are always mutable, and we are never the same as once were. It’s not possible to remain the same. As motivational speakers will tell you, you are either getting better or you are getting worse.
What the trailers are really trying to tell us, of course, is that their characters are experiencing some truly remarkable change.
Well, Last Temptation produced that kind of remarkable change in me, and my life truly was never the same again.
In 1988 I was drifting along in my engineering career. In August, I had just completed producing and directing my short film Who Shall Stand, and was feeling pretty bored with software. Compared to producing films, the challenges were looking awfully small. Spiritually, I was awake, but on another level I was also kind of sleepwalking.
One Sunday morning, Roy Stedman told our church congregation that we should avoid seeing The Last Temptation of Christ. It showed Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalene, and claimed that he came down off the cross and lived and died as an ordinary man. It was blasphemous, and would destroy a person’s faith.
I was not particularly a fan of Scorsese’s films, and hadn’t really planned on seeing Temptation; but being 26, Greg, and generally consumed by cinema, I couldn’t resist the intellectual and artistic challenge. So on Wednesday that week, I skipped out of work early and wandered over to the Cinerama to catch a matinee.
The opening of the film is absolutely arresting. Even those who hate the film agree that Peter Gabriel’s score is one of the all-time greats, evoking an apocalyptic semiticism that is palpable. An adult Jesus on the verge of beginning his ministry is literally tortured by the Spirit descending on him not like a dove but a raptor, and he sees himself more as dithering lunatic than burgeoning messiah.
The film has its faults, of course, and they become quickly apparent. Its primary fault is its budget, which dictates a guerrilla film style with characterizations, performances, and accents that feel more workshopped than very well thought-through. But I would argue with anyone who says the script is poor.
Key to understanding and appreciating the film (which I don’t expect anyone to rush out to do) is the question of the film’s and book’s titular temptation. The “supposition,” to co-opt a critical dialectic from C.S. Lewis, is that the greatest temptation Jesus faced was to simply be an ordinary man rather than the Christ. In Kazantzakis’ supposition, the moment when Jesus is most vulnerable to that temptation is when he is hanging on the cross–and Satan comes to him in the guise of an adolescent angel, presenting him with a detailed vision of what that future could look like for him, if he would just renounce God’s will and leave the cross behind.
And so, for forty-odd minutes, Jesus fast-forwards through this living vision, coupling and living with Mary Magdalene, grieving her premature death, siring children with both of Lazarus’ sisters, encountering a creepily convicted conspiratorial Apostle Paul, and eventually lying on his deathbed awaiting the consequences of natural causes. But Judas enters the vision, spoiling the illusion that Satan has so cleverly crafted, and the aged Jesus crawls his way back to the cross to claim his rightful place as God’s obedient son.
I found a good many scenes in the film remarkable–Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness, Andre Gregory’s John the Baptist, Jesus’ first on-screen encounter with Magdalen, Harry Dean Stanton’s portrayal of Saul/Paul.
But what really struck me, profoundly so, was the presentation and conception of that central temptation. The film’s and book’s contrived relationship between Jesus and Mary is of course absurd, even childish; but the idea that living an ordinary life can be a powerful temptation is pretty profound. After all, isn’t that the American dream? That’s what I saw Scorsese portray onscreen, in a particularly first-century Judean fashion.
In 1988 I didn’t have the theological sophistication or scriptural knowledge to observe that God is able to do far more than we ask or imagine, but my heart told me something more concrete: God wants a lot more for us than a two-car garage, 1.4 kids, and a white picket fence. One helluva lot more.
And as I sat through the film’s closing credits, I said to myself, “You know, in particular, God wants one helluva lot more from me than this nine-to-five grind, nachos and margaritas on demand, and Seahawk season tickets. I’ve been running from God all my life, living the temptation rather than the calling. And I didn’t even have to come down off a cross to do it. I really have no idea what God wants from me, but I guarantee it’s not what I’m doing now. It’s time for a change.”
What I didn’t realize at the time, and this is pretty profound, is that God had already prepared that change for me. As I walked out into the hazy afternoon light behind the Cinerama after the screening, I clutched in my hand a copy of a movie news rag that was published by one of the Seattle area film exhibitors. I had read through it before the screening of Temptation began, and had run across an advertisement for Redwood Theater’s auditions for The Hound of the Baskvervilles. The ad intrigued me because of my experience directing Who Shall Stand. “If I’m going to continue directing actors,” thought I, “I’d best get to know some better actors–not to mention get some real acting experience myself.”
And so, seemingly unconnected to my spiritual and emotional awakening that day, I left that screening of The Last Temptation of Christ with that movie news rag rolled up in my right hand and Redwood Theater’s phone number circled.
The rest, as they say, is history–but a story for another day.
“What are we becoming?” Indeed. I dare say we have precious little idea. But I guarantee that when God takes over the helm, he takes you all sorts of surprising places.