WWMJD? (What Would Movie-Jesus Do?)

buddy_christ*Disclaimer: I write this as a staunch agnostic, having no personal attachment to Christianity whatsoever, and no intent to offend those who do.

Several years ago, as part of a course on censorship in books and film, I was supposed to watch Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. I can’t remember if I was sick, or just ditched class that day, but I never got around to it until now. I remember being fascinated by the post-screening lecture, the extreme reaction that this film produced. Hardly suprising, given the subject matter.

I don’t mean the film’s conceit of Jesus living as an ordinary man, but any film that deigns to approach religion, or any dogmatic cultural practice, head-on. (Angels and Demons, Ron Howard’s follow up to the abysmal Da Vinci Code, is getting relatively little flack, it seems, because the movie has been almost universally reviewed as one of the dullest movies ever made about the Catholic Church, conspiracy theories, Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgard notwithstanding.) But I digress (Get used to it).

Watching The Last Temptation, I kept thinking of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which I’d watched once out of perverse curiousity. The two movies chronicle many of the same events of Christ’s life–mainly, his final days in Jerusalem and his crucifixion at Golgotha. Gibson’s movie received its own truckload of flak and hype, but is generally embraced by Christian sects as a faithful account of Jesus’ torture and death (I would not say it is about the resurrection, as about ten seconds of the two-plus hour movie are dedicated to that miraculous event).

Now both movies have their flaws (hello, Peter Gabriel’s synth-tastic score and Harvey Keitel’s heinous red fro; so long, contents of my stomach, after watching Jesus being flayed with a glass-tipped cat-o’-nine-tails), but as a secular viewer, I find Temptation to be a much more interesting film than Passion.

Scorsese’s film is based on a fictional novel that posits: “What if Jesus had been spared, and lived to old age as an ordinary man, rather than the Son of God?” But what an interesting question that is–the theologists I find the most convincing are those who allow room for you to question the basic tenets of a given faith, to relate the stories to your own life, to consider the alternatives. In an extensive parsing of the film, Steven Graydanus argues that the film is blasphemous because it is impossible to portray Christ as an ordinary man while simultaneously recognizing and revering his divine nature.

But both movies were made by religious men, and in my mind, Gibson’s gore-fest passion play doesn’t do nearly as good a job at communicating Jesus’ sacrifice as Temptation does. The Passion of the Christ depicts, in excruciating detail, the exact horrors inflicted upon him, but it is all but impossible while watching the film to move from disgust to appreciation of the divine. Jesus is tempted several times over in The Bible, and even questions God in the moment before his death–to give this larger-than-life figure free will and the chance at a normal life humanizes him more than any other depiction I’ve seen–and still the final message is that choosing this life is to betray a greater purpose:

“Blasphemy” is a tricky word, entirely subjective–and I object on principle to artistic repression of any kind. But if censorship gives us anything, it’s an encyclopedia of some of the most interesting works conceived by the human mind. So thanks, Patriarchy, for making my “To Read/Watch/View” list that much easier!

I could write a whole separate post on the depiction of the devil as female in both films, but I’m a bit Jesused-out at the moment. And my guess is, so are you.