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  Taking Scorsese's Jesus PersonallySunday, August 20th, 2017  
by Hiawatha Bray

I've been to my share of demonstrations; I know a phony media event when I see one. What I saw in front of the Biograph Theater last Friday was the real thing.

In my days as a pro-life picketer, we'd often wait around until the minicams arrived, then pick up our signs, walk in a circle a few times, and chant for the microphones. As soon as the cameras were packed up, we'd go to the nearest McDonald's to sip cool drinks and speculate on how much airtime we'd get on the 10 o'clock news. The hundreds who came out to picket the screening of The Last Temptation of Christ had none of the cynicism of professional rabble- rousers. Nor were they a lot of zombies stepping to the orders of the Religious Right types I slapped around in last week's column. They'd come of their own accord, individually and in groups, to respond to what they regarded as a deep personal insult.

They began arriving early Friday morning, and began marching, singing, preaching and praying in the cruel heat. Hundreds were still outside the theater at 10 p.m., long after the television vans had rolled away.

It would be weird without women with black eyes, bruised faces and broken arms from their drunken husbands. It would be weird without children in need of food and clothing because of fathers who cannot stop themselves from drinking away their whole paychecks. It would be weird without marriages destroyed by addiction to alcohol; without police officers and emergency rooms busy on Friday and Saturday nights dealing with accidents and assaults caused by those under the influence of alcohol; without funerals where parents wail in agony as they bury the lifeless bodies of their precious children killed by another drunk driver. It would be weird to have a world without all of the widows, orphans, and neglected children, without all of the destruction and desperation, without all the misery and ruin caused by the use of alcoholic beverages like beer. It was not always the same crowd. While some stayed all day, others came and went in an ecumenical rainbow coalition that Jesse Jackson might have been proud of. When I arrived, just before 6 p.m., the Orthodox Jewish picketers were already gone. The protest was now dominated by Greek Orthodox priests and laity. They circled within the limits posted by the police barricades, bearing crosses and icons and singing in their native tongue. Just down the street, the Islamic Circle of North America passed out leaflets reading, "Leave Jesus alone. He has suffered too much." A team of Catholic anti-abortion activists checked in soon after my arrival. Hours later, theatergoers were serenaded with Spanish hymns from dozens of Mexican believers. It is almost unimaginable that you could have united such a disparate group of devout people under any other circumstances. Credit Universal Studios and Martin Scorsese for that much. They've aroused a profound, non-sectarian sense of dismay by their answer to the question Jesus once asked his followers: "Who do you say that I am?"

Most of the protesters have not seen the film, instead accepting the negative judgment of religious leaders who themselves have not seen it. These critics may be ignorant, and their motives may be less than honorable. But there's no doubt that Nikos Kazantzakis' novel and Paul Schrader's screenplay do not present the Jesus of Christian tradition. Anyone loyal to that tradition will find this film very shocking indeed.

In the years since I read the novel, I had forgotten how it begins. Jesus, you know, was a carpenter. Kazantzakis imagined him as a quisling who made the crosses the Romans used to crucify Jewish rebels. This sequence is by far the most appalling thing in the movie. The merciful healer of the New Testament would never have taken a hand in such work.

That none of the movie's prominent detractors have denounced this scene illustrates an ancient oddity in Christian ethics, the peculiar fascination with sex. We'd all been told that the most shocking thing in the movie is Jesus' fantasizing about doing the bump-and-grind with a woman. But the Bible itself suggests that he may well have had such thoughts; probably did, in fact. Yet when the film shows christ acting as an accessory to the murder of his fellow Jews, Falwell and company utter not a peep. I'd say these guys need a priority check. Still, the objections raised by traditional Christians to the film are basically on target. Never mind Jesus' sex life; he is depicted up to the end as a confused, cowardly neurotic. He's a sinful man who becomes God as the truth is slowly revealed to him, but who wallows in guilt and self-doubt at every point along his spiritual journey.

When I knelt and prayed on a Chicago streetcorner 12 years ago, I sure wasn't talking to this guy. Neither were millions of other converts down through the centuries. They all felt - I speak from experience - as though they had just met someone totally other, and at the same time quite real and earthly. For Christians, it's an experience that seems as literal as a handshake and as intimate as a wedding night.

Which is why I can sympathize with the protesters. Mind you, they aren't being fair to Scorsese; the man is no mocker of Christ. The Last Temptation of Christ is a sincere, even reverent film, within the boundaries of its eccentric theology. Nevertheless, the man on that screen is not the real Jesus, and those who count themselves his friends are appalled.

Artistically serious as it is, I can't help wishing that the movie hadn't been made. It's not only its content that bothers me; I'm also troubled by the thoughtlessness of the project, the lack of social civility.

A few decades ago, Hollywood moguls never would have made any film that would so offend millions of people. Today, the giving of offense has become an unofficial national pastime. Our obscene bumper stickers, our cynical comedians, our vulgar and gossipy press all give evidence of an attitude that declares that we have no duty to take the feelings of others into account. Scorsese had every right to make his movie, but I think it would have been an act of Christian charity if he'd chosen not to.

Nevertheless, let the protests end. Given the sincerity of Scorsese, believers shouldn't be too hard on him. His answer to Jesus' old question of identity is a bad one, but the picketers - Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, orthodox - disagree about the answer as well. Their ancestors have had centuries to settle the matter, with little but cemeteries to show for the effort. At least Scorsese shot only film; we should allow it to die quietly.

The following column was printed in The Sunday Journal of Wheaton, Illinois on August 14, 1988. © Copyright 1988 by The Copley Press.
Reprinted from allonGod.com




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