It may have been the Church that taught me the necessity of accepting Jesus as my Personal Lord and Savior, but it was a movie that introduced me to Him.
I started really paying attention to movies the same time that I learned to read. Before, they were just background noise – like how words on a page were simply gibberish. But once those words started to make sense, something inside of me woke up in a way that I starting observing life’s details with a little more clarity. I began to see the world as a narrative unspiraling around me – it’s how I’ve always seen it, ever since I could identify the words staring up at me. I suspect that seeing my world in that way since I was so young is why, since literally as far back as I can remember (Scorsese fans will see what I did there), I read movies in the same way that I read books – by completely immersing myself in them.
The truth is, I never watched movies the same way that my friends on the playground did. I’m sure all those kids from kindergarten and first grade remember me as quite the odd duck. They got so tired of me getting into long-winded interpretive rants about the plots (“Lando didn’t betray Han – he didn’t have a choice!”) when they just wanted to act out what they’d seen. They liked to talk about all the movies that they’d just watched in theaters (a rare treat for my family); I got overly excited about all the old black-and-white flicks that I’d seen on television. I was finding clear parallels between the 1931 “Frankenstein” and what they were describing as the plot of “E.T.,” but they didn’t seem interested in talking about any of that. My friends preferred to reenact action scenes and explosions – and sure, those were cool, but I was drawn more to the acting, the costumes, the camera angles – that were all being used in service to story.
Because of this clear disadvantage seeing the world as a story in the constant state of telling itself, sometimes I wondered if learning to read had actually been some kind of curse. I wondered why everyone else who’d learned how to read didn’t see the world like I did – the awakening of an exhilarating narrative. I mean, there were a few (almost exclusively girls) who had simlar quirks – like the artist girl in third grade who created whole comic book world based on me, her, and our pet rabbits (hey, Beth: If you’re reading and are on social media – FIND ME) – but we were the odd ducks and the outcasts. I couldn’t help but fear that maybe there was something wrong with people like me.
It certainly did not help that in my upbringing as an evangelical kid, I hadn’t exactly been bred to ask a whole lot of questions about the way the world works. The Church was “us,” the world was “them.” I’d read the Bible with as much fervor as I’d read so many other books that I absolutely consumed – there was come really interesting stuff in there, even if it required slogging through a lot of really boring shit. But whereas the works of Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Edgar Allen Poe, and some of the other writers that I absolutely adored were always safe places to absorb stories and deeply contemplate their meaning, the Bible never felt like that kind of safe place. Every day of my life, I was being told what the words in the Bible meant and how I was supposed to read them. I wasn’t really allowed to ask questions – at least, not challenging ones. When I did, my parents and Sunday school teachers’ faces would screw up, and they’d just provide variations of the basic “God’s ways aren’t are ways” answers that I’d heard over and over again.
It was hard liking movies as much as I did as a little kid. Keep in mind, this was the 80s – when Satanic Ritual Abuse was running rampant and evangelical households were being instructed by James Dobson and his cronies that Satan had infiltrated every level of our great nation. My parents, like all evangelical parents, were on high alert to make sure that “secular” TV was not transmitting their subliminal, liberal messages into our impressionable, underdeveloped subconscious. The Moral Majority targeted rock music, Dungeons & Dragons, television (I couldn’t watch He-Man because when I did, I started pretending to have magic; that’s demonic) – so of course, movies were also a primary target. I missed out on a lot of the blockbusters that my friends were talking about, because they had “too much cussing,” or “that story wasn’t Christian,” or “That one’s got a lot of Satanic stuff in it, with all that magic.” I practically didn’t even know what a Ghostbuster was until I was a teenager – and even then, I had to sneak it. (Sci-fi was okay, thankfully – even bad science isn’t magic.)
In 1988, when I was seven, I distinctly recall one film being attacked aggressively and with furious righteousness from my church that seemed loaded with a particularly passionate vitriol. I woke up one day, and all of the sudden, this movie’s title – “The Last Temptation of Christ” – was being blasted all over Focus on the Family radio, from behind pulpits, in Sunday School classes, and especially in my household.
A conversation about this toxic, sacrilegious movie got so heated in my family’s kitchen that my gentle, beautiful, very evangelical grandmother screamed out in clear, livid anger – the first and only time I ever saw her get so upset. My father and mother were both there, I think one of my aunts – they were talking about the terrible, ungodly Jesus that it depicted (“They show him having sex,” “Jesus and Judas are homosexual in the film,” “It denies Jesus’s divinity”), that Grandma, increasingly horrified as all of this was being explained to her, slammed her fist into the kitchen counter and screamed, “That’s OUR Lord! They can’t do this to Him!” From my place at the table, my little heart quivered as I saw rage in her eyes of which I didn’t know her tiny body was capable.
The campaign against this film resulted in a torch-and-pitchfork frenzy in our churches for a while. Even when it died down a few months later, we did NOT talk about “The Last Temptation of Christ,” except to damn it to hell. In fact, we were pretty proud of how little anyone talked about it at all – most theaters didn’t play it, the majority video rental stores didn’t dare carry it, and it was even banned in many third-world countries with strong theocratic ties to both Catholicism and evangelical Christianity.
In retrospect, I’ve come to realize that the aggressive campaign against “The Last Temptation of Christ” was in fact a rare union between the Evangelical and Catholic Churches, in a time that both found their powerful positions as moral authorities being challenged by some pretty prolific scandals originating from leaders among their highest ranks (both of which were sexual and financial in nature – how about that?). When the film absolutely sank at the box office – leaving its makers and its studio absolutely humiliated and broke – long enough for those scandals to blow over, you could practically see Jerry Falwell and the Pope high-fiving each other for a job well done. They’d both needed the victory and distraction that this movie provided.
But I was far beyond the capacity of comprehending those kind of world-building politics at the time that my grandmother slammed her fist against the counter. I was just this kid who believed what I was told to believe. I was a kid who sometimes would hurt myself because it was the only way I could think of to prepare myself for Hell, just in case I didn’t make it into Heaven. I was this bad little kid with a soul black with sin, who God loved in spite of all my flaws because He was such a merciful guy. I just hoped He loved me as much as He hated all of the sinful thoughts I was having all the time. I assumed that “The Last Temptation of Christ” was as terrible as my parents said and didn’t think about it for a while – except as the point of reference for my grandmother’s anger.
The older I got, the more I seemed to grow into this awkward kid who just didn’t fit in anywhere. I was just too weird and literary for my Christian friends; I was too stuck in the evangelical bubble for my school friends. I absolutely believed what the Evangelical faith was the only perspective in the world with any merit at all – I NEVER questioned that truth. But reading the stories I did, watching movies that few of my friends were interested in – those experiences did make me realize that there were more perspectives out there than just the one that I’d been trained to believe. So many stories from people who were not raised in my belief system were out there – stories that were beautiful and safe to deconstruct, because they were not infallible. I often wondered if I sinned when I pursued those stories and absorbed those perspectives with ravenous hunger, because I was so often treated by those in my household and churches as if I was.
All this to say, I spent my childhood and teenage years with a sense of profound longing – and guilt for letting God and my family down when I felt it. I knew what I needed to be in order to follow God – and I was prepared to do it with all of my heart. But there were the days when I found myself really craving additional perspectives outside of my own – just because sometimes, I was bored and wanted to challenge myself a little. When I felt that kind of longing, I’d sometimes need to hurt myself to stay on track – to dull my senses a little and remind myself that those kinds of reminders were a small price to pay for eternal salvation. I spent more time than any child should hating myself for sometimes wishing that I could have just been the person I felt like being instead of the instrument that God intended for me to be.
I was told, from my earliest memory, that I needed to trust Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior. I had done exactly that – as sincerely and authentically as I could possibly perceive the concept of atonement as a five-year-old. It was easier back then, because a kid barely comprehends that there’s more out there than the world surrounding them. But the more I read, the harder it got not to notice that world. I was being groomed to be a pastor from a young age; it was a family tradition to churn out soul-saving evangelists. Entering into middle and high school, I preached the Word from pulpits as a sold-out child of God. Learning how to tell a story made me a pro at it, whipping up some great anecdotes that all pointed back toward our need for Christ’s redeeming blood to cover our sins.
So I talked the talk, walked the walk – preaching and testifying about my personal relationship with Jesus. Privately, I spent so much time thinking about what that actually meant – to trust in this Savior whom I could neither feel nor hear when everyone around me seemed to do so effortlessly. I wondered why God seemed to be so silent specifically to me, and I constantly doubted my salvation because of it. I wondered if I was doing it wrong – so I read my Bible with more fervor, begging Jesus every night to show me how to do it better, so that I could feel His love within me swell and thus more joyfully share it with others. That way, maybe I wouldn’t feel like such a liar behind the pulpit. As it was, every time I stepped up to preach, I was seized with three horrifying questions: What if I said the wrong thing? What if I said the right thing? How would I know the difference?
While wracked with this doubt, I was also consuming classic literature while searching for more great films to absorb – all on my own, without a community or tribe to guide the way, because they’d all told me that I needed to be careful with what I was watching or reading so that it didn’t lead me astray. Kids at school, meanwhile, just kept wanting to talk about the explosions and sexy parts. I thus loved movies in a way that often made me feel lonely. So when we finally got this mystical new thing called the internet in 1998 or so, I took a peek and quickly realized that in these chat rooms and databases, I might actually find some people who wanted to talk about movies the same way I did.
I found them, much to my elated relief. But more importantly, I found film critic Roger Ebert, who wrote reviews that I absolutely loved. They were lyrical and funny, succinct but thorough – providing beautiful descriptions of movies that I knew I didn’t have access to and probably, given their content, never would. I came to value Roger’s reviews, because he was a film historian as well as a very talented writer who clearly thought about movies in the same way I always had. Finding him made me realize that perhaps my people existed after all. So I’d browse his film reviews in the online Chicago Sun-Times archives, looking up titles to movies that intrigued me so that I could at least experience them through Roger Ebert’s thoughts and imagine what it must be like to watch them. I always knew which reviews to click on, because his 1 – 4 star ratings displayed right next to them; whether he loved the film or not was known before you even read the review. That was useful.
Eventually, I stumbled upon a link to Roger’s review of “The Last Temptation of Christ.” And I noticed immediately that next to its title was his highest possible rating – four stars. He’d loved it – and that was a curious realization to have, since I remembered how thoroughly its sacrilege tore through the entire Christian community when I was a kid. I instantly recalled my grandmother pound her fist into the counter, and my heart quivered all over again. This movie had been erased – canceled, if you will – by the people whose perspectives I’d come to trust in order to save my soul. But Roger Ebert wasn’t about any of that – in fact, never once did I read his reviews wondering if he was a Christian. He loved movies – that was the foremost qualification that made me trust him about all things cinema. And here I was, hovering my mouse pointer over the link to Roger’s glowing review for a film that I had been taught was the compass by which we measure Satan’s deplorable poison seeping into a godless Hollywood. It was certainly an unexpected moment of my worlds colliding.
I clicked on the review. You should too – here it is. I will draw your attention first of all to the way that Roger Ebert writes – passionate, articulate, and with a sincere love for this movie. But mostly, consider what he’s saying about this film. It seems that all the information we’d been told about it – “They show him having sex,” “Jesus and Judas are homosexual in the film,” “It denies Jesus’s divinity” – had been completely false or half-truths leaving out key details.
First of all, Focus on the Family got fundamental facts wrong. After “The Last Temptation of Christ” had come out, we’d been forbidden to watch any movie again by its director – who we were told was Francis Ford Coppola (of “The Godfather,” etc.). According to Roger, it hadn’t been Coppola who’d made it, but another Italian American director, a devoutly Catholic filmmaker named Martin Scorsese – whom Roger writes “has made more than half of his films about battles in the souls of his characters between grace and sin.” In other words, Martin Scorsese was not someone who sought out to make a blasphemous film, but one who actually took spiritual themes seriously. That was interesting to me, because most of the movies on my radar with spiritual themes had been evangelical-produced and pretty embarrassing in terms of quality (read my experience with “A Thief in the Night” here, and try sitting through “The Judas Project” some time – I dare you). If Roger Ebert was right about Martin Scorsese being a deeply spiritual director, then maybe not all religious-themed movies had to be grueling experiences.
Reading Roger’s review now, it’s clear that it’s a reflection of the time in which it was written, because he cannot help but address the Religious Right’s vicious campaign against the movie. The review is a beautiful example of a film critic elegantly trying to shield a filmmaker from attacks being launched at them. Ironically, Roger had never seemed more Christian than in this review, in which he wrote that Martin Scorsese not “not made a film that panders to the audience – as almost all Hollywood religious epics traditionally have. [Martin Scorsese has] paid Christ the compliment of taking him and his message seriously, and [he has] made a film that does not turn him into a garish, emasculated image from a religious postcard. Here he is flesh and blood, struggling, questioning, asking himself and his father which is the right way, and finally, after great suffering, earning the right to say, on the cross, ‘It is accomplished.’ … [It] is a film that engaged me on the subject of Christ’s dual nature, that caused me to think about the mystery of a being who could be both God and man. I cannot think of another film on a religious subject that has challenged me more fully.”
This didn’t sound at all like the sacrilege that my parents had described to my horrified grandmother.
Roger then uses the rest of his review to dive into all of the controversy, deconstructing the Religious Right’s points one paragraph at a time. In doing so, he rescues Martin Scorsese from the burn pyre to reveal how much “The Last Temptation of Christ” is actually a deeply devout film from a filmmaker who sincerely wants to explore the trials and tribulations of being the Messiah; in showing these struggles, Martin Scorsese has given us an entirely new way to appreciate the story of a man whom the filmmaker clearly identifies as both God and Savior of mankind. Roger ultimately argues that Scorsese provides a deep reading of the Gospels with interpretations I’d always wished I’d had the permission to think of myself – apparently without compromising their divine authority.
I finished Roger’s review in a sort of stunned disbelief. I wondered if perhaps “The Last Temptation of Christ” was simply not the movie I’d been told about – nor my family or church. Why would Roger Ebert lie about such a thing? I wondered why a film like this felt like such a challenge to James Dobson and all the others I heard on the radio speaking out against it. I questioned why this film was pitched to us in such a way that it needed to be extinguished, when clearly – even if it didn’t get everything right – it had been made with such sincere and reverent intent. Day after day in church, our pastors and youth pastors drilled into our heads that we had to use every opportunity as a witnessing tool. So instead of destroying a movie that provided opportunities to talk about Jesus, why weren’t we at least engaging with it so that we could use it to start conversations about the Gospel?
And maybe this seems like such a small thing, but casting my doubt at our spirit-filled leaders about their hatred for this film planted a tiny seed in me. Without that seed of doubt – born of Martin Scorsese’s conviction that this was a film that needed to be made, coupled with the Moral Majority’s campaign to suppress it – I’d have never watched it. Had that never been the case, I suspect that my ultimate escape from fundamentalism would have manifested in far more harmful ways. How’s that for the faith of a mustard seed?
I read that review a dozen times over the next few days. I couldn’t get it out of my head. As that teenager I’ve described who wondered what it was actually supposed to feel like to have a personal relationship with this Jesus, Scorsese’s Jesus as described by Roger Ebert felt like a Savior worth considering. Roger painted a picture of a Messiah who wasn’t just God in a human shell, but one who actually had an idea of how hard it is sometimes to be human. I couldn’t understand why, if Jesus was supposed to be our PERSONAL Savior, the notion that he was actually relatable was so dangerous to our church leaders that they had to lie about the film’s content in order to make it go away.
Because let me be clear about something, friends: I cannot understate the righteous hatred that “The Last Temptation of Christ” inspired when it debuted in 1988. Evangelicals were ready for war – standing outside what few theaters dared to show the film as an angry mob casting damnation on people in line to see it. Catholic radicals were threatening to blow up any theater that played it. Martin Scorsese’s life was being threatened, so that they were talking about bulletproof vests at at the movie’s premiere. This was an act of complete suppression, powered by seething religious rage. It was an example of the Church not being Christ-like, but straight up bullies. (And on a personal note – I missed out on the new “Dracula” movie because it had been directed by the guy who made this disgusting Jesus movie; that director was actually, alas, Coppola).
On the other side of deconstruction, I certainly understand why the Church was so threatened by this film: The Satanic Panic was waning down just as scandals surrounding televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Baker were rocking the Moral Majority. The Mount Cashel child sexual abuse scandal was making headlines that put the Holy Roman Church under some scrutiny that wasn’t nearly as frequent back then. Like I said – they were both scrambling for a distraction to whip their base into a buzzing frenzy that would drown out their media attention. Then along comes Martin Scorsese, who decides he wants to make a movie about Jesus that actually acknowledges what has always been a fundamental component to the theology that we’d been taught: That Jesus was both God AND man. He was making a movie suggesting that the human aspect of Jesus’s nature questioned his own divine role – a movie that thus suggested that if Jesus asked questions, it was okay if we asked questions as well.
I don’t have to tell you that this kind of Jesus is quite dangerous to institutions indoctrinating its flock since they are infants that questioning anything is an act of doubt, and doubt is an act of weakness. I’ll let my readers fill in the gaps.
Though this article makes a case that Martin Scorsese is one of my deconstruction heroes, I admittedly don’t know much about his personal journey. I rarely read up on the lives of directors. As a storyteller myself, I’ve come to appreciate the way that artists hide in our narratives – because they are safe places for us to ponder our own experiences and questions in the cushion of our own worlds. But it does not take much consideration of Scorsese’s long and impeccable career to understand that in addition to his complete mastery of the cinematic craft on every conceivable level, he is a deeply spiritual man with a love and devotion to his Catholic upbringing coupled with a curiosity for worldviews that differ from his own. Even now, after I’ve walked away from Christianity completely, each film of his that I watch challenges me to still see the world as a place to have an encounter with the divine.
That being said, because I knew I couldn’t watch “The Last Temptation of Christ,” I did what I could to learn more about it – and hey, here was the internet. After some research, I learned that Scorsese had been raised Catholic, but that he lapsed and struggled with addiction early in his filmmaking career. Making movies saved him and sobered him up, and so did a book he read on a film set – Nikos Kazantzakis’s controversial novel The Last Temptation of Christ, which challenged him to reconsider his own Christian upbringing – in perhaps an act of deconstruction. In interviews about the making of his film adaptation, Scorsese explained that he found a deep sense of purpose by connecting to Christ’s divinity through his humanity. It was a message that Scorsese sincerely felt needed to be told as a film, so that it may continue to challenge viewers to find strength and meaning in the Christ story themselves – perhaps in ways that they never knew they could find strength.
In other words, Scorsese hadn’t made a religious film for Christian audiences, but a film for people who hadn’t thought about Jesus for a long time. He stated as much in interviews. In a way, that was rather evangelical of him.
Making this film hadn’t been easy. Scorsese struggled to produce it for years, pitching it to executives as his deep desire to “get to know Jesus better.” He’d almost managed to secure funding in 1983, before pressure from the Catholic Church forced the studio to back down. Still, Scorsese continued to persist because he believed so firmly in this project. He finally was able to scrape up enough funding, and he pinched pennies to assemble his talented cast and filmmaking team to fight through every production hurtle and studio interference thrown at him as they shot in Morocco.
As a master filmmaker, Scorsese utilized every cinematic trick that he knew to make the film look as beautiful as possible, thoughtful and devout. The cast included Willem Dafoe as Jesus, Harvey Keitel as Judas, Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdelene, David Bowie as Pontius Pilot. Paul Schrader, who previously wrote “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” for Scorsese, adapted the screenplay. Peter Gabriel provided what might be the most beautiful soundtrack ever constructed. The film was one stunning shot after another, while also quietly taking its time to inhabit a first-century Palestine the likes of which I’d never seen so breathing with life and detail. At its core was that central message: Jesus was just as human as he was God. Scorsese was so proud of what they’d all accomplished, of the time he’d spent in deep meditation of the Christ story that he hoped would translate with audiences and encourage them to learn how to be more like Jesus – because as a man, Jesus was like us too.
And then, all the church scandals started happening. Martin Scorsese found himself with a movie slated for release in exactly the worst time possible, when the Church needed a scandal. Scorsese may have been a Christian, but he made a movie about Jesus that wasn’t owned by the Church, nor was its depiction in line with the traditional ways of telling the Christ story. Falwell and the Vatican thus punished him for stirring the pot by transforming their base into a mob that could bury that film – and with it, all the scandals from which the campaign against it was meant to distract us. Hook, line, and sinker – like always.
When I first read Roger Ebert’s review, I hadn’t yet deconstructed enough to connect all those dots. But I comprehended that the origins of this movie’s legacy – simply put, Martin Scorsese made this movie because he loved Jesus – was something that we’d never been told. Yet encountering this movie through Roger Ebert was so encouraging, because now I knew that loving Jesus was something that I had in common with a great filmmaker. I continued to be baffled by the vitriol against the film, years later – even when I read Roger’s review to my parents and suggested that maybe this film would be worth seeing. They wouldn’t listen – they couldn’t, because James Dobson hadn’t granted them permission. So while I continued to foster a deep curiosity about this film, I knew that so long as I lived in my parents’ house, it was not going to be a film that I could ever watch. I let myself forget about it and move on to other filmmakers who continued to challenge my increasingly shrinking worldview.
It was in my first year of college that I finally summoned the courage to watch “The Last Temptation of Christ.” I bought a used copy on VHS from Ebay, and I paced back and forth nervously every day while waiting for it to arrive in the mail. I was attending a conservative Christian college, so I knew that I needed to be very careful of when I watched it, and with whom. But I was getting restless in this little Evangelical bubble, and I was trying to think of ways to challenge myself while still clinging faithfully the the pillars of my upbringing. I’d remembered “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and I finally decided that it was time. I smuggled it into my dorm room the day it arrived, locked the door, dimmed the lights, and tried not to think about what my dear grandmother would think if she knew what I was about to do.
For the next two hours and forty-four minutes, I met “my” Jesus.
Evangelicals like to talk about how they met “their” Jesus as part of sharing the testimony of their salvation story. It’s that personal relationship aspect that we always use as a selling point – all the way that Jesus chooses to speak to us in our hearts, a relationship cultivated through Bible study and prayer. I always wondered quietly what that jargon was supposed to mean – “I want people to know who MY Jesus is,” people sharing their testimony liked to say – when it seemed like our Jesus was pretty much the same silent soul-dweller for all of us. If it was a personal relationship, it was one that always felt more like one with a cardboard cut-out who actually didn’t seem nearly as invested in us personally as were trying to be with him.
But when I watched “The Last Temptation of Christ,” I was mesmerized from the beginning with the way that Martin Scorsese had so beautifully crafted Jesus’s humanity and made it an integral part of his divinity. I finally comprehended what it meant to have a personal relationship with a Jesus who understood what it was like to be me. He was a Jesus who tried desperately to hear God’s voice but often just felt silence, who nevertheless demonstrated faith and sacrifice every day by denying his own will to just have a normal life and instead pursued his Father’s perfect plan for mankind – which was coming down to Earth as a human, experiencing life as His creation sees it, and thus becoming a true example for how to live in service to God.
Scorsese’s Jesus was God living among people, without sin but seeing himself as a sinner because he is surrounded by it. Realizing your calling in that setting takes a lot of unpacking and mental anguish. Scorsese’s Jesus has authentic human experiences like falling in love, and he experiences profound heartbreak because he knows he can never pursue that love due to what he intuitively comprehends is his divine destiny. He is a Messiah who wrestles with doubt, who frets about whether or not his message is right or wrong, who learns with every step he takes that all he can do is trust his Father more fully in order to understand his purpose. He is a man who finds his tribe among his disciples, from whom he learns what it means to be human as he teaches them what it means to be God. (He and Judas are childhood friends here, and he admits to Judas that it’s far easier to be the savior than the scapegoat; I loved that kind of introspection from Jesus about their roles, because it reveals the fathomless grace he had for everyone). By being more human, he demonstrated the weight of his divinity.
In all of these profound connections to people, Jesus becomes a disciple himself, a friend, a son – a teacher with warmth and a deep commitment to learning and growing and listening and standing up for the misfits and outcasts like me – like HIM – as he continues his mission to whatever end God had called him for. He learns a startling realization that in order to serve others the way God wants him to, he has to deny every aspect of his own will. But in doing so, Jesus not only saves the souls of man, but he simultaneously shows them that God would never ask us to live a life that He himself wouldn’t live. Scorsese’s Jesus thus became man not just so that we would know God, but so that God would also know us. His connection to humanity also becomes our connection to God.
Jesus is thus portrayed not as this cosmic avenger, but often as troubled and struggling with confidence as much as any of us. Sometimes he’s so overwhelmed by his calling that he has to hurt himself to numb himself to the pain. I understood that. He is a social misfit, because he wants so much to live a man’s life while he is constantly being called back to God’s mission. God, I felt that too. It had never occurred to me, how hard it must have been to be the Messiah, trying reconcile his Divine purpose with his own will, without all of the information of his mission automatically downloaded as our traditional versions of this story depict. For Jesus here, as it was for me, understanding God’s will was a process. To think that Jesus could have felt this same longing made me feel so less alone.
Scene after scene, Scorsese’s Jesus was a Savior to whom I profoundly related. He spends years before his mission assuming there is something wrong with him – and I resonated with his angst profoundly. Persevering through doubt wasn’t a weakness, I realized – Scorsese gave us a Jesus who doubted himself and thus depicted it as an act of strength through faith. I’d never felt so empowered by my own human frailties, because I comprehended that Jesus experienced them too.
The film’s final act is a revelation that steers away from the Gospel stories but nevertheless feels like their summation – the journey Jesus takes between his final words, “My God – why have you forsaken me?” and “It is accomplished.” When he is on the cross, Jesus experiences the title’s event. Satan comes to him in the form of God’s messenger and takes him down off the cross. He sees the life he could have led if he’d just been human (including, yes, making love and having children) – and it a life is filled with all the joys and sorrows that any of us have. He is happy. “Accept this life,” the angel whispers. But upon realizing that this couldn’t possibly be God’s will, Jesus rejects this temptation – at which point it all dissolves and he is back on the cross. Having brought God and man together as the only One who had lived as both, he laughs triumphantly and dies for our sins. By rejecting his own path in favor of his Father’s, he saved us all. If he could withstand temptation at his greatest hour of pain, so could I.
Here was a Jesus who understood every aspect of my struggle as an evangelical kid. Here was my Personal Lord and Savior, at last. Maybe other Christians didn’t need a Jesus like this – the simpler model fit their bill. But as someone who saw the whole world as a story in the state of telling itself, Martin Scorsese had given me the greatest gift: He’d made Jesus an interesting character.
The remarkable part was that all of this was more or less faithful to the Gospel accounts – with some narrative deviations that fused the gospels together (about as much as an Evangelical Easter pageant would, let’s say). But it was a consideration of the Gospel stories that I’d never thought about before – a story that took Jesus seriously when he said that he wasn’t here to do his will, but the Father’s will. Never before Martin Scorsese’s movie did it ever occur to me to consider that Jesus’s will and his Father’s will may have been two separate ideas – but there it is, an interpretation of John 6:38 that confirmed Jesus’s divinity while challenging its common interpretation. “The Last Temptation of Christ” did exactly what I’d been taught to do – take the message of the Bible literally. It also did exactly what my mind had been yearning for – to fulfill my longing to consider these sacred stories in new and profound ways, allowing me space to question and thus more fully understand their meaning. Here was Jesus, questioning alongside me.
On the other side of evangelical Christianity, the irony is that “The Last Temptation of Christ” is actually too reverent for me these days. It teaches all of the destructive theology that I’ve come to see as child abuse – atonement and Hell theology, purity culture, God as a cosmic child abuser. Watching it today (as I try to do every Easter) can sometimes feel overwhelmingly too much of a Christian experience – especially the way that Scorsese really leans into the Catholic imagery of blood and guilt. For a film still accused of blasphemy, it’s actually a little shocking how devoutly Christian it feels – that its most controversial aspect remains the Church’s resistance to it. This film might reconsider the Bible, but it doesn’t really do anything to challenge the Church’s theological positions. Jesus remains God and Savior – sinless, crucified, resurrected, the Way, the Truth, the Life. The liberties it takes draw from the New Testament’s themes and approaches them with devotion, affirming everything you’d read in a gospel tract or evangecube. This wasn’t just Scorsese’s Jesus; I didn’t see anything particularly challenging the notion that it couldn’t have also been the Bible’s Jesus, merely filling in the Gospel’s narrative gaps with introspective theology that added layers to the traditional Christian version.
The film is so devout that the experience of watching it for the first time as a committed born-again Christian was practically a Big Tent revival, altar call event. Tears streamed down my face; I was shaking and quivering, down on my knees. I’d met Jesus at last – this was a Savior with whom I identified and could therefore trust with the darkness aspects of my humanity. He’d experienced that darkness too, so I could offer up those shadows to one who wouldn’t judge me as harshly because he’d conquered his own share of shadows. This was the Jesus I’d been waiting for – not just a cosmic Savior, but a personal one. A Jesus like me. Maybe I wasn’t a freak after all; maybe God had just given my a love for movies so that I could meet my Personal Lord and Savior in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.”
But then, the lingering question that now gnawed on my soul’s edges a little sharper – why hadn’t the Church allowed me to meet this Jesus? Why was it telling me that it was wrong to find my own personal Lord and Savior?
In a way, it’s strange to label Martin Scorsese as one of my deconstruction heroes for making “The Last Temptation of Christ,” because I firmly believe that watching it kept me a devoted evangelical for years past the expiration date. I was still in college, yet to be a youth pastor or interim pastor – those days were ahead of me, and it would be another seven years before I walked away from Christianity completely. I believe I would have abandoned evangelicalism even sooner, had I not deeply connected with Scorsese’s version of Christ. I wanted to share that Jesus – “my” Jesus – to a lost world that needed a Savior who truly, deeply understood our pain.
On the other hand – it wasn’t the film itself that made me start to doubt the Church, as my evangelical leaders had warned me that it may; rather, it was the senseless farce of a campaign that the evangelicals had waged against it. It was experiencing this movie for myself that became an act of defiance against my upbringing, and the lingering questions I had about how and why the Evangelical Church had done so much to censor it. Because even as this film nourished me and made me think about my relationship with Jesus on profound levels that I had not contemplated it before, I knew that I couldn’t share this elation with anyone. The moment I’d told any of my evangelical friends, family, or leaders that I’d watched “The Last Temptation of Christ,” I knew that they would shut down and be unwilling to listen to me at all. I know this, because I tried – with my parents, with my pastor, with a couple of trusted friends. None of them would hear it. I suspect they prayed for me for even suggesting such a rebellious notion.
I therefore spent my years as a Southern Baptist preacher clutching this film tightly and protectively in secret. I’d pull ideas from for in my sermons, suggesting that perhaps it was okay to think about Jesus with more layers than the simple and overly pious interpretations that had been drilled into our heads. That Jesus was so boring to me compared to the one that Martin Scorsese, in his own act of faith, had provided for me. Scorsese’s felt more human, more empathetic and patient about my my flaws and my nature – and therefore, more Biblical. Sometimes, I’d amuse myself by quoting lines from this movie from behind a pulpit and listening to my congregation shout, “Amen.” I knew I was being a rebel – and that made me feel closer to my Jesus, who’d been a rebel misfit himself. All the while, I’d quietly return to “The Last Temptation of Christ” from time to time and incorporated it into my private Bible studies (I had a whole notebook cross referencing verses that proved its interpretation was biblically sound) in order to renew my faith in Jesus’s grace. It never failed to make me feel like I was getting to know Jesus better.
It also made me wonder what else the Moral Majority, whose mandates had informed every layer of my upbringing since birth, wasn’t telling those of us under its shadow. It made me wonder what else they had to hide. This was all a critical start to my deconstruction, and I owe it to a filmmaker who wanted to make the kinds of thoughtful films I loved to watch, who had the courage and resolve to defy all odds and danger, to ask questions about the Bible in ways I’d always wished I’d had the courage to ask, and to make a beautiful movie about what Jesus meant to him. As Roger Ebert wrote in the review that pointed my way: “The film has offended those whose ideas about God and man it does not reflect. But then, so did Jesus.”
2 thoughts on “My Deconstruction Heroes: Martin Scorsese”
Pingback: Straight Deconstruction: My Escape from Evangelical Homophobia. Part 3 – “Qualm of Conscience” – Surviving the Spirit
Pingback: Exvangelical Musings: How to Talk to an Evangelical When You are Deconstructing – Surviving the Spirit