Sunday, September 22, 2013

After All, Jesus Was Only (Part) Mortal, Right?

Looking back on things, I would have to say that 1988 was a truly transitional year.

It certainly was for me, anyway.

In July of that year, I gave my two weeks' notice to the newspaper where I had been working since 1984 (I had been reading it since I was old enough to read). In August, I moved to Texas to enroll in graduate school, which I did later that month.

I don't recall specifically what I was doing on this day in 1988. I only know that I must have been very busy with my school work — among other things. The fall of 1988 was a hectic time in my life, adjusting to a new home and a new job — and being in the classroom again.

It's safe to say I wasn't going to the movies very much. In fact, I probably didn't go to the movies at all in that first semester of graduate school.

Anyway, I know I didn't go see "The Last Temptation of Christ" when it made its theatrical debut 25 years ago today. The first time I saw it was awhile later, when it was being shown on TV, and I'm sure I would have been more impressed had I seen it on the big screen, but I didn't.

I did, however, hear of the over–the–top responses from those who are charitably called the Christian right.

The fact that Jesus' final days were chronicled on film wasn't new. That's been done before. And anyone who has had any exposure to Christianity — and I was raised in a Protestant home in which the patriarch, like his father before him, was a religion and philosophy professor — knows the story of the crucifixion.

Apparently, it was an unusually painful and brutal way for a person to die. Early film depictions weren't as graphic as, say, Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ," but they got the point across well enough.

And "The Last Temptation of Christ" pulled no punches when it sought to show how brutal the practice of crucifixion was. But that was not what troubled the faithful so.

Allegedly, it was the introduction of that old bugaboo — sex — that enraged them. Movies had never before featured a Jesus on the cross hallucinating about having sex.

Jesus' partner in his hallucination was no stranger to Christians. She was Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey), a close friend of Jesus (Willem Dafoe) whom the Gospels tell us was there in his final days, witnessed his death, remained by his side even when his disciples had all fled and was either the first or one of the first to see Jesus after the Resurrection.

An account of Jesus' death would be as incomplete without her as it would be without Judas.

And it wouldn't have been inconceivable for Christians of the late 1980s to accept the idea of a sexually active Mary Magdalene.

For centuries, Mary Magdalene was confused with another Mary mentioned in the Gospels. The other Mary was said to be "a sinful woman," a prostitute; consequently, Mary Magdalene long was thought to be a prostitute.

That idea was discredited by the Vatican in 1969, but the public image lived on two decades later; thus, the cinematic notion that Jesus' thoughts, in his final conscious moments, were of a sinful woman was offensive to believers who held that Jesus was free of sin.

Well, that was the story.

The truth was that the novel on which the movie was based had been a source of controversy ever since it was published nearly 30 years earlier. And sex was a convenient scapegoat for the temptation of the mortal side of Jesus.

But I have long believed that the exceptionally negative reaction to the movie and the book on which it was based had more to do with its general challenge to deeply held beliefs that really went beyond sex.

That is the thing about religion that really appeals to people — the idea that, no matter how sinful a person may be, he or she can always find redemption. Jesus was/is symbolic of the accessibility of that redemption. To be the spiritual middleman between a perfect God and imperfect men, it was necessary that Jesus be closer to perfect than imperfect.

"You don't know how much people need God," Paul (Harry Dean Stanton) said to him during his hallucination. "You don't know how happy He can make them. He can make them happy to do anything."

And Paul concluded that idea of the Messiah was far preferable to the reality of the man.

"I'm glad I met you," Paul said, "because now I can forget all about you. My Jesus is much more important and much more powerful."

The Jesus of "The Last Temptation of Christ" was much too human for many of the faithful.