Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Last, Scandalous Temptation

Stuff Christians (like my
husband) like:
Bob Dylan's Saved...
I know it’s probably wrong, but since my husband doesn’t read my blog, I feel like I can say things about him with impunity. Not that I’m saying anything bad or anything… I’m not, or I haven’t or, or I don’t plan to… I try to convey my love while also keeping it real, and being his wife is part of my realest reality.

I have mentioned before that he and I have vastly different worship styles, and that is also real. We attend a fairly loose church, but it is comprised of an array of worshippers showing their love in various styles. While we don't have people speaking in tongues or being slain in the Spirit, we do have folks that cry and raise their hands and dance a bit during the songs... as well as those that stand still, eyes fixed on the power point screen bearing the song lyrics, quietly, reverently singing along. We as a couple run that gamut. And if you haven’t guessed, I’m the one that is dancing around with her hands in the air like she just don’t care… I mean, cares too much, if that’s a thing. While Tom, well, his caring is on the inside. He’s mentioned that he likes the music we have, but if I would not be surprised if he also wouldn’t mind if we just sang hymns like in the church he grew up in… the uber-conservative First Presbyterian Church in Greensboro. Because, after all, if you're not going to do rock/folk/pop well, stick with the tried and true, am I right? We are fortunate that our guy does the rock/folk/pop thing well.
The Swan Silvertones...

Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m a huge embarrassment to him at church. And not only does he eschew the overly emotional at church, he also is not big on the Christian subculture that surrounds us. I think that embarrasses him too. What he does love, though, is Christianity expressed through good art. In general, he experiences art as a critic. For this reason, his critic’s eye negatively assesses much “art” that communicates Christianity… for instance, those badly acted, obvious films like Courageous, and Facing the Giants and pop music by Michael W. Smith or Amy Grant.

So... what does he like? Bob Dylan’s Christian albums. One time we returned from our church’s Maundy Thursday service and in a fit of religious fervor, he immediately put on the excellent gospel record, Saved. I know most Dylan fans don’t really like Bob’s born-again phase, but this is a really good, vigorous record. He also likes the gospel group The Swan Silvertones.

...and this movie.
Another thing he really likes? Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. Not only is he a huge Scorsese fan, but I wonder sometimes if he doesn’t like the thought of doing something a bit “naughty.” You see, back when the film came out, there was some protest from the religious community. I saw it soon after it came out as a new Christian, and then again… just the other night – when Tom pulled it out to go with our observance of Easter.

I barely remember what I thought the first time I saw the it. I don’t think I was particularly offended, even though my young Christian skin was membrane thin. While watching it the other night, though, after 20+ years of Christian living, I had these thoughts:

I like how Willem Dafoe's
Jesus is regular looking...
1. The casting was genius. Harvey Keitel as Judas? I like Harvey Keitel as anything,really, but as a fiery red-headed Judas? Brilliant. Roman Grant – I mean, Harry Dean Stanton – as Saul… nice. David Bowie as Pontius Pilate… A lad insane. But most of all, I dug Willem Dafoe as Jesus. A lot of movie versions of the Bible show Jesus as a really handsome white/beige guy. Maybe it’s just that I happen to like long-haired fellows, but apparently Stephen Colbert agrees. In reference to the History Channel’s recent miniseries, The Bible, he complains on a recent episode of The Colbert Report. "Their Jesus is way too hot," he complained But not in this movie. Scorsese's Jesus, Willem Dafoe is … well, he has a nice, lean, muscular bod – but he's not a pinup. He’s got those crazy teeth and strange cheeks… He's the Green Goblin, after all.
...instead of super hot.
It made me think about this part of Isaiah 52: 
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.” (Isaiah 52:2b-3) 
This is a great description of the Jesus portrayed by Dafoe.

2. On the other hand, the Jesus he portrays is much more confused than the one in the Bible. In fact, I’ve often thought when reading it: “Everybody in this book doesn’t have a CLUE. Except this guy.” Jesus always knows what to do and the exact right time to do it.  And while others are just floundering for words, he knows exactly what to say. In The Last Temptation, Jesus’s sufferings come not just from his earthly persecutors, but from the torment of God’s constant, but incomplete interaction with him. In other words, God talks to him and makes him doubt his own sanity, but God doesn’t tell him exactly what he needs to know. He’s left to blunder on, figuring it out himself.
Bowie as Pilate... a lad insane!
As I mentioned, I don’t imagine this is completely accurate, but it doesn’t bother me. In fact if I’m completely honest, I’ll admit that I often wondered sourly that Jesus may have experienced much of human life, but did he know what it was like to have NO idea what God wanted from him?

3. If we’re following the Bible, the inaccuracies are legion. Part of Jesus’ work as a carpenter included making crosses for the Romans? Really? Saul kills Lazarus? And this John the Baptist was an old man who didn’t know him, whereas the Bible story records that John was Jesus’s cousin, and their mother’s were pregnant at the same time. When I pointed this out, Tom reminded me, “It’s based on a NOVEL.” Fair point. It is a fictionalized re-imagining of the events of the time.
In this version, Judas is Snape!

4. Despite the biblical inaccuracies, I found the spirit of the thing to be reverent, earthy and humble… It feels like the product of an artist who loves Jesus. Here’s what Roger Ebert said that Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader "paid Christ the compliment of taking him and his message seriously, and they have made a film that does not turn him into a garish, emasculated image from a religious postcard. Here he is flesh and blood, struggling, questioning, asking himself and his father which is the right way, and finally, after great suffering, earning the right to say, on the cross, 'It is accomplished.’”

5. This story has Jesus asking Judas to betray him to accomplish God’s ends… which makes him… SNAPE! In the Harry Potter series, Severus Snape is an evil bad guy who is trusted by Dumbledore, the all-knowing, all-powerful good guy. No one can figure out why Dumbledore doesn’t notice how evil Snape is. Even devil figure Voldemort thinks Snape is evil (ie., on his side.) It is not until late into the last book/movie with this memory montage that we find out that Snape had been in love with Harry’s mom and spying for Dumbledore and trying to protect Harry all along. And Dumbledore TOLD Snape to kill him. Of course Severus did have his nasty, bitter streak, but he was essentially on the side of right. And all through his life, to protect his “in” with the Deatheaters, no one could know his secret, true allegiance. (I can hear the gorgeous, husky voice of Alan Rickman in my head saying as Snape, “No one can know.”)

So in this version of the crucifixion, Judas is actually the faithful disciple and friend of Jesus who was willing to be known as the traitor for the rest of his short life, and throughout history as Jesus’s betrayer – who sold him for 30 pieces of silver to the Jews.

6. The Last Temptation of Christ was made in 1988, which means it bears the imprint of that over-the-top decade in the form of fluffy hair and a synthesizery soundtrack by Peter Gabriel.

7. The title actually refers to the protracted dream sequence at the end of the film in which, as Jesus hangs on the cross, he imagines himself walking away and living a normal life as a man, married with children. Even as a tender young believer, I didn’t find this particularly scandalous… it being a dream sequence and all. I did think it went on a bit long, leaving the viewer to suppose that it was real.

What's a crucifixion without
a good resurrection?!
8. What I actually found a bit scandalous, actually, was that the movie ends with Jesus giving up the ghost. Now I know that it’s about that final temptation like the title says, and it was the choice the author/director/screenwriter made, but to me, what’s a crucifixion story without a good resurrection? The sacrifice that Jesus made was complete. “It is accomplished,” he says… but it’s not the whole story. Jesus's resurrection showed that he wasn't just another Messiah poser. He actually was who he said he was... I mean, is. Maybe the movement that sprang up in his name would have gone on for a while, but in the end, they'd just be following the memory and teachings of a good man rather than the Son of the Living God.

For Jesus, the cross wasn't the end of the story, no more than baptism is the end of the story for us. Our baptism symbolizes our “dying” like Christ did, but as I said, that’s just the beginning. Here’s what Paul says: 
Don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:3-5) 
Okay, so the artistic choice to end the film at the cross was not exactly scandalous, but to me, it's the resurrection that makes the story. So there you have it – my thoughts on this scandalous art that prompts my quiet husband to worship. 

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