I posted this last Easter and, upon re-reading, thought it was worthy of revisiting. Happy Easter, y'all, from a fan of Grace AND Karma.
As Tom Waits once sang, "Everything is sacred, nothing is profane". And that's been my personal defense for the last eighteen years or so as I've watched Martin Scorsese's flawed but well-intended film "The Last Temptation of Christ" around Easter time. Don't get me wrong, I don't rent it every year - but it's usually Easter when the mood strikes me. Why? Well, amid the too-tidy films about Jesus' life (you know the ones, the well-groomed, too white, easy going peace-nik Jesus) and Mel Gibson's snuff-film-as-scripture flick (I swear, Mel's got a thing for torture. "Saw 4" had nothing on "Passion of the Christ"), I actually find Marty's take on the Nikos Kazantzakis novel to be more spiritually profound, largely because it takes such bold risks and raises so many dangerous questions.
I'm not going to delve into a theological diatribe here - God knows I'm still figuring the God thing out myself - but I think it's the most important question we're put here to struggle with, and whether you find the answer in Jesus, Wiccan rituals, Elvis, Vishnu, Osho, or Oreos, I think we were put here with a passion to figure the Big Question out for ourselves. So, raised Baptist, the question of Jesus has haunted me, at times I was a fervent believer, a devout non-believer, and now as I cautiously step back into the Christian faith, with the Buddha on one shoulder, and Kurt Vonnegut on the other, whispering "keep your sense of humor, kid".
OK, so with my "I'm not a holy roller" disclaimer locked in place, let's talk divinity. The big problem I always had with the way Jesus was portrayed in cinema was how effortlessly perfect he was. I mean, temptation could be shooed away like a desert fly, and movie Jesus was more fearless than the Terminator. While the humanity of gentility was there, the humanity of fear and doubt - the very traits we're asked to overcome just to have faith - were nowhere to be found.
Enter Martin Scorsese, a man who has wrestled with his apparently sincere faith his entire life. He, Ingmar Bergman, and Woody Allen made me feel theologically comfy as a college student, as I changed my major from religion to communications and waited for the lightning bolt to strike. I had doubts, and I was tired of being told those doubts were 'Satan's work', instead of part of the philosophical process.
In the Spring of '88, I drove down to Tallahassee to stay with a friend of mine for a week - we'd grown up together and he was now the youth minister at a small church. I happened to visit the very week the word was leaked to churches about the release of "Last Temptation", and it was truly a painful awakening to me to see the hearts of some purported Christians. The 'church meeting' they called to talk about how to protest this film, singlehandedly boycott everyone connected to the movie, and mostly, their fear of the unfounded threat this movie presented, shook me to the core. "Really?," I thought, "it's a film, based on a novel, not the Gospels. See, says that right here...you guys listening? Put down your torches." The discussions turned ugly - the enemies were the liberals, Catholics (Scorsese), the Jews (Hollywood Studio execs)...it so it went.
They handed me a flyer with all the disparaging material that Pat Robertson said would be in the film. I'm sure Marty invited Pat to a private screening, so it had to be true, right?
Their knee-jerk fear made me want to...you guessed it...see the movie. The day it came out. Isn't that always the way? So, I went. I was disturbed by some things, inspired by others. Mostly, I noticed that over half of their purported issues with the movie weren't even in the film. I also noticed the huge disclaimer at the opening of the film that said it was based on a fictional novel, not the four Gospels. I noticed the protesters at Phipps Plaza telling me I was going to hell when I bought my ticket. But mostly, for the first time, I noticed a Jesus on-screen who really wrestled with the reason he was put on earth, and made the harsh, painful decision to go through with his destiny after much questioning and soul searching. And that was the deal-closer for me. Regardless of how you see Jesus - messiah, prophet, or just really cool guy a'la Bono - the idea that he struggled with his choices before making the right ones somehow makes it easier for me when I have to wrestle with 'the easy thing vs the right thing'.
So, last week, I settled in on Good Friday to watch at least part of "The Last Temptation", and I was reminded that sainthood is work, that The Good Fight is, indeed, a fight, and that you've got to ride out that tunnel of doubt to see the light of any kind of faith. That Martin Scorsese helped teach me that rather than a group of Tallahassee Baptists is a damn shame. Should be the other way around. But, then, those Baptists didn't make "Goodfellas" either... And Jesus, whether human, divine, or both, was a Good Fella indeed.