With the appearance of several new movies based on biblical narratives, Christians are debating whether or not movies should be deemed “appropriate,” especially as writers and directors take artistic liberties. There’s been significant uproar about the license filmmaker Darren Aronofsky took with Noah, which hits theaters today. And the recent Son of God has raised questions about the second commandment and complaints of sloppiness, while garnering just as many defenders for the film.
Recently this debate unfolded over email between me and Joe Carter, a colleague and fellow editor at The Gospel Coalition, as we discussed articles about Son of God. After TGC linked to an article critical of the film, a reader told us, “Here is a good effort to put Jesus in the public square and we pick away at it with a response like this. Sad to see.” To which Carter replied to TGC staff, “If the standard is now that we should defend any movie that ‘as a whole presents Jesus in a most positive light’ then we all owe Martin Scorsese an apology.”
Carter is referring to Scorsese’s 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ, which radically departs from the traditional Gospel narratives and portrays a Jesus as a weak, fearful, and reluctant Savior who is tempted to get down from the cross and abandon his saving mission. (Spoiler: he does come down.) At the time many Christians denounced the film.
I responded to Carter’s email saying, “I loved Last Temptation, and I think every Christian should too. It supports the foundation of the gospel more than you think!”
Then the discussion picked back up.
JOE CARTER: I really hope you’re kidding, but I can’t tell. If for no other reason, Last Temptation qualifies as heretical simply for having Willem Dafoe play the part of Jesus.
JOHN STARKE: Nope. Not kidding.
Last Temptation actually gives us the world that would have come about if Jesus had given into the temptation to not die on the cross for our sins: hopeless and embattled against itself, finally leading to destruction and ultimate despair. In other words, if Jesus didn’t come to pay for sins, there would be no hope.
People think it’s heretical because it gave the story of the Son of God abandoning the cross and marrying a woman instead of giving up himself. But it shows the misery of Jesus and the hopelessness of the world because of it.
CARTER: I could have excused that last section of the film (though I thought it was terribly boring). But I think even before the “temptation” part the film presented an inaccurate representation of Christ. I thought the movie incorporated the monophysitic views from Nikos Kazantzakis’s book (on which the movie was based). For example, Kazantzakis says, “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.” Kazantzakis’s view is that Jesus became divine by his obedience and refusal to give in to temptation.
I also thought the film presented a completely external view of temptation. For example, when Jesus was watching the “prostitute” Mary Magdalene have sex with her johns, it seems that he has a lustful interest in her (he later admits as much). Yet because he doesn’t physically act on the temptation, the movie implies that he hasn’t sinned. It’s that view that I think is most problematic. In fact, I think this one scene (see below) alone is enough to damn the movie as unsuitably heretical.
STARKE: Two things:
First, the narrative itself is meant to be “unreliable.” Of course the story swerves away from the truthfulness about the nature of Jesus when he ends up abandoning the cross in the end. The whole point of the movie is to question the narrative of the movie itself as being true. The film isn’t interested in giving us truth about Jesus; it’s interested in giving us what we want in Jesus and then show us how dissatisfied we are with it in the end.
Second, this is a larger discussion, but I think movies like Last Temptation don’t aim to communicate didactically—which is what you’re concerned about. No one coming from the movie is going to be learning or changing their view of how human nature relates to divine nature. But they will go away feeling the emotional message and wondering, Where is hope if we do not have atonement for sins? That’s what viewers feel from the movie by the end, whether they have an accurate depiction of the hypostatic union or not.
CARTER: I sort of see what you’re saying, but that sort of interpretation relies on the movie watcher being somewhat theologically sophisticated. The problem with these types of movies that take artistic license with a Bible story is that many people can’t distinguish between the presentation of biblical fact and Hollywood fiction. For far too many Americans, these types of movies are their primary source of knowledge about Jesus—which is why so many think Jesus is a non-judgmental hippie who loves everyone the way they are (i.e., unrepentant and unapologetic sinner) and was crucified because mean-spirited religious folks didn’t appreciate his “be yourself” message.
What would a viewer who is unfamiliar with Jesus take away from the movie? How are we supposed to distinguish between the actual biographical details about Jesus, the parts that are intended to be an unreliable narrative (e.g., the temptation part on the cross), and the sections that reveal what the author/director really thinks about Jesus (e.g., he becomes divine through his actions)?
Also, what does it mean for Jesus to atone for our sins when, as in the movie, he is a self-professed sinner who only becomes one-with-the-divine through his obedience to God? It may seem rather nit-picky to point out the film’s confusion about the hypostatic union, but the film is presenting a particular—and particularly heretical—view about the divine-human natures.
STARKE: I’m not saying I would’ve written Last Temptation, nor do I think it’s fully sanctified and ready to be played in Sunday schools everywhere in order to teach the necessity of the atonement.
At the same time, such movies depend on a certain level of engagement in order to be meaningful. Shocking art is trying to catch our attention, and the viewer can either just walk away from the shock with distaste in his mouth or ask what the artist is trying to say. Whenever an artist uses biblical themes to say something, he’s always trying to say something about ultimate reality (God, self, or the world). I think, for Christians, it’s worth sticking with a film long enough to understand his purpose. It will either give us a surprising perspective about God that we don’t ever consider or gives us insight into how our society views God (or what we want him to be like). I think Last Temptation gives us both.
What Christians would change about the movie is obvious. But what the film is trying to say about what happens to a world where its last hope gives into temptation himself is pretty profound and worth noting.
CARTER: I think a lot of my criticisms of Last Temptation could have been abated if it had started with a title card that read, “Based on a True Story.” Many people thought it was a movie about Jesus when it was really just about a Christ-figure who happened to be called Jesus.
I agree with you that in this movie Scorsese was trying to say something about ultimate reality. I even think he could have even been successful had he taken the elements from a standard Jesus bio-pic (like Son of God) and then, near the end of the film, thrown in the temptation on the cross. That would have been shocking and controversial and still led to outraged denunciations of the film. But it also could have (possibly) succeeded in giving us a fresh perspective on Jesus.
I don’t think the film succeeded in doing that, though, because it didn’t give us a unique perspective on Jesus; it gave us a unique perspective on a Christ-figure. The Jesus in the film was the Jesus of Kazantzakis’s imagination, not the Jesus of the Gospels. It was a New Age Jesus, a human who became a god by submitting to his divine nature.
The problem is many under-informed viewers of the film assumed that Scorsese, a semi-devout Catholic, was presenting a fairly accurate rendering of Jesus. And many people probably left the film thinking they wanted nothing to do with Jesus since they assumed he must really be a grotesque, conflicted New Age hippie. It’s one thing for people reject the Jesus of the Gospels. They are rejecting the Truth based on a true description. But it disturbs me when people reject the true Savior because they confuse him with the Jesus of pop culture.
STARKE: Okay, but isn’t the Christ portrayed in the Last Temptation the Jesus everyone wants? A hippie, sensitive Jesus in tune with the divine, though not divine himself?
And then doesn’t the film show a world hopeless because that Jesus is inadequate?
It seems to me, the film is giving us the Jesus we want, then showing us that that Jesus isn’t sufficient.
[I just heard someone from the balcony yell, “Preach!”]
I’m not sure who wins this debate. And, in the end, the debate really isn’t about any one particular movie, but how comfortable we should be with writers taking liberties with biblical narratives—especially narratives about Jesus. Carter is concerned about the worldview implications of a movie like Last Temptation and even Son of God. I want to say that what is communicated is less didactic and propositional and more aimed at our longings and hopes. One will want to preserve the biblical narrative as it’s used in films, the other will be more generous with artistic allowances.