I was nine years old when my mother told me about the worms. It was the same day that my brother and I climbed aboard something called the Joy Bus. Apparently a popular form of community outreach in the mid-1970s, it was a kind of rainbow-colored Sunday school on wheels. The idea was to cruise the streets, looking for riders, serving children who might not otherwise have the opportunity to attend church. That was definitely us. It’s hard to say how they ever chose to take a detour down the long dead-end dirt road that led to our house. However, when we were told that there would be cookies, songs, and comic books, even these two backwoods kids were ready to ride. As soon as we boarded, we were shepherded toward the furthest seats at the back of the bus. Somehow, the girl passing out the cookies reached into an empty bag just as she got to us. The songs started right up, but they were like no songs we had ever heard. No one mentioned that we’d have to hear all this stuff about Jesus. Or that we’d ultimately end up separated by age at some huge building full of crosses, listening to really serious people talk and talk and talk. In the room where I was sent, there was a lot of talk about someone named Elijah. Some of it sounded pretty cool, the parts about raising the dead, bringing down fire from the sky, and tornadoes. But most of it was completely foreign to me. The bulk of my religious education had come from an uncle who would talk about Jesus at family get-togethers, and old episodes of DAVEY AND GOLIATH (the only thing resembling a cartoon on Sunday morning). On the ride home, my brother and I were like pagan outcasts. The driver was saying something about calling if we needed a ride next week, but I was already hauling ass off that bus. Racing past our house, toward the garden, I knew that I’d find Mom there. Cassius leapt from a sound sleep, barking at my feet, as I dove into the ocean of brown and green that towered like sentinels above my head. My mother was barefoot as usual, picking bugs from her tomato plants. I stood, watching, petting Cassius as he sat panting beside me. “Mom?” She almost looked up from pinching aphids between her fingers, squashing their tiny lives. “Hey, you’re back already – ” “Yep.” “How was it?” She asked the question, as she sometimes seemed to do, like she was too far from the answer to really hear what I said. It had gotten really bad since she started the chemotherapy. “Okay,” I said, watching her murder those little red bugs. “We don’t have to go back, do we?” “No, of course not. We were kinda surprised you wanted to go in the first place.” I watched her a while longer, trying not to breathe too deeply of the garden. Most of our family pets were buried somewhere out here. Mom said that they made great fertilizer. You weren’t supposed to be able to smell them, but I swear I could. I couldn’t bear eating the tomatoes and cucumbers that ended up on our dinner table, convinced that I could taste dead dogs, fish, and hamsters. “Mom, where do we go when we die?” “In the ground,” she said, with no maternal hesitation. My child’s mind was dumbfounded, waiting for the rest of it. “But at the thing today, they kept talking about – ” “You get buried, you rot, and then the worms eat you,” she said. So this was the same child, nine years later, who saw THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST for the first time. It had to happen, really. Churches everywhere were calling this film morally offensive. Mother Theresa said that, if Catholics prayed hard enough, the blessed Mother Mary would see that it was removed from the land. Someone named Mother Angelica claimed that anyone seeing it would be committing a deliberate act of sacrilege, thereby choosing between heaven and hell. A Catholic terrorist group in France ignited an incendiary device under a theater seat at the Saint Michel, where the film was playing, setting fire to the theater and injuring thirteen people. Almost everywhere the film dared to go, there were picket signs and placards with words scrawled into them, like “Blasphemy”, “Be not deceived”, and “Jesus was nailed, not screwed.” Having left home a year before, getting that first delicious taste of freedom, I was feeling a bit rebellious. No one was going to tell me what I could and could not see. Here, in one movie, I could experience something that was both against everything my family believed in (or didn’t believe in) and seemingly forbidden by the rest of the world. Along with a few of my Wiccan friends, I arrived at the theater, full of defiant swagger, furtively hoping that some self-righteous son-of-a-bitch would challenge my right to be there. There were a few protestors milling about the far end of the theater, but their numbers were much fewer than I had expected, or hoped for. They seemed very quiet, even peaceful. With disappointment in my heart, I got in line and got a ticket for the movie. I never expected to be so moved by this film. Or so terrified. Here was an individual, a true and inspiring historical figure to many, but, for someone like myself, an intriguing but unapproachably perfect character from numerous stories and movies. Someone not unlike Superman, really. There was no way that some strange kid from a poor family, with no superpowers or basis of hope for anything in this world, could possibly identify with someone like this. It was hard to even imagine this kind of perfection, so I naturally rejected it. Most of the devout Christians I had known – not all, mind you, but most – had thus far seemed so utterly removed from all the qualities that their spiritual superhero possessed. The Jesus they spoke of was a kind and gentle man of wisdom. He was someone who would not merely form a judgment, but would listen, possibly argue, and ultimately understand, all the while demonstrating a better way to think and feel about things. But, if this guy’s representatives here on earth were any indication, he was obviously no more real than all the impossible superheroes of my childhood comic books. But the version of Jesus that was up on the screen now, while larger than life, was thoroughly and enticingly relatable. This Jesus was downright human. Here was a character who desperately wanted to believe in something greater than himself, but felt challenged by what that faith required him to do. He was prepared to die, even when he wasn’t entirely certain of his own divinity. In the mind of one humble non-believer, this was an even more courageous act than if he had fully known with his heart and mind that what he said was true. In the desert, he drew a circle in the sand and sat down to wait: “I’m not going to leave this circle until you speak to me. No signs, no pain, just speak to me in human words. Whatever path you want, I’ll take. Love, or the axe, or anything else.” The nineteen-year old me asked why in the hell are people protesting this? Faith, however (at least how it was depicted in this film), was a scary thing. Especially in the early scenes. Jesus of Nazareth was just a guy, trying to figure out his place in the world, but he was being plagued by voices. Footsteps seemed to follow him. He would spin around, demanding to know who was there. Was it truly God, or was it something else? In the opening voiceover, he tells us, “The feeling begins. Very tender, very loving. Then the pain starts. Claws slip up under the skin and tear their way up. Just before they reach my eyes, they dig in. And I remember. First I fasted for three months. I even whipped myself before I went to sleep. Then the pain came back, and the voices. They call me by name.” When he speaks to his mother about the voices and the pain, she seems to think that it could be cast out. But Jesus knows that if it’s God, there is no way to cast out God. But wait a minute, I thought. Wouldn’t his mother know exactly what it is, since she was impregnated by angels or God or something? I was certainly no student of the Bible, but even I knew that much. Well, now here’s where some of the arguments outside the theater began to creep in. I knew all about the dream sequence, when he’s tempted down from the cross by an odd little girl who claims to be his guardian angel. Predictably, she turns out to be Satan, but Jesus doesn’t figure it out before we get to see him having sex with Mary Magdalene, raising a family, and growing very, very old. None of this bothered me that much, understanding before I even bought a ticket that it was kind of a religious version of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, that most of these scenes everyone was freaking out over were all part of Imagination Land. Not to mention that, as one of the uninitiated, I didn’t really have a horse in this particular race. But, if Jesus’ mother was talking like her son could actually be anything other than the child of God . . . No matter, I thought. None of this really applies to me anyway. Instead, I found myself lost in the more horrific aspects of the story as it had played out on celluloid. There was the crucifixion, of course. It disgusts me that people have actually done such things, and worse, to each other in the name of religion. Or anything else. This particular version of Jesus’ death was more effective than the ones I had seen on late-night cable TV in THE KING OF KINGS, BEN HUR, or JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. There was pain, so much pain, telegrammed directly from the screen to the audience in this sequence. It was filmed so simply, with Peter Gabriel’s evocative score vibrating behind the images. It made me want to shout, or to reach out and do something to stop it. That’s powerful filmmaking. But the worst part, for me, was Lazarus. In my admittedly limited exposure to this story, Jesus’ raising of this dead man had always been approached with reverence and awe. Not this time, folks. Jesus is seen to gag and cover his face along with everyone else when the rock is rolled away from the tomb. He approaches the opening, seemingly uncertain himself what might happen, and peers into the deathly still abyss. There’s a little hocus pocus, Jesus tells Lazarus to rise. A momentary horror-movie beat, with the heartbeat ratcheting up . . . and a moldering hand reaches out from the tomb. Holy shit, that actually made me jump. The image from the film, of this man wrapped in his funeral rags, his face beginning to decompose, haunted me for a long time. This was rather odd, since I’ve been a rabid consumer of horror movies and novels since long before I should ever have seen them. There’s nothing about this that should have shocked me. Ironically, seeing Lazarus in a movie about religion fueled a renewed interest in all things horrific, especially where folks came back from the dead. One story in particular, “Lazarus” by Leonid N. Andreyev, was the most chilling of all. Though the disintegration of his body had been halted by miraculous powers, the resurrection had not restored him in any way. His skin was bluish and blistered from the grave, a cadaverous odor clinging to him no matter what he did. Whereas he had been cheerful and full of laughter before he died, Lazarus was now grim and silent. He seemed to be staring into the unknown of where he had been, without even the implication of hope. Friends and family members suggested tying a bell to him so they knew when he was coming, so horrible it was to be near him. It begged the question, as did LAST TEMPTATION, of why anyone would ever choose to reanimate the dead. But the film would provoke different reactions when I saw it later. Against all odds, I was married to a woman who had been raised and still believed explicitly in the Christian faith. She saw my generally good nature, and undoubtedly thought that I might come to believe as she did. For a while, I thought so too. After a brief stretch of troubled water, I busied myself with all things related to her Episcopal church. I designed, wrote, and edited the church newsletter, nabbing a few extremely minor awards for my effort. There were bible studies, seminars, and endless community activities, ultimately culminating in my presence as one of the thirteen people on a committee that chose the next rector. But it was probably when I hosted a Christianity in the Movies festival in our home that I started to wonder what the hell I was doing. The featured film of our second session was THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. It was enthusiastically, though not heavily attended. There was food, fellowship, and lots of discussion afterwards, just like our bible studies. The movie was far from being condemned by anyone who saw it that night. In fact, it was mostly embraced as an example of Christ’s all-too-often underplayed humanity. But I had a much different take on the film than everyone else. Despite everything I had been doing for years now, all the prayers hurled at the sky and one-sided conversations with an invisible God whom I nonetheless hoped was hiding in the room with me, I could not see the Jesus depicted by Willem Dafoe as someone divine. For me, he was entirely human and nothing else. I wasn’t sure if this thought applied to the idea of Jesus itself, or merely to the version in Martin Scorsese’s film. But I knew that the tiniest spark of what might have led to my personal faith was in trouble. I had endured more than just a few dark nights of the soul, and there were more to come. In an attempt to force beliefs that I really wanted to have into my heart and mind, I had started to claw away at everything. It was like I was digging for the truth about life, death, and everything beyond in the people and events of my life. I proceeded from a belief in doing the right thing to a simpler philosophy: there is no right or wrong, only consequences. Then, after more consequences than I was willing to face, I headed back toward the right-or-wrong way of thinking. However, there’s not much that can withstand the kind of scrutiny that burrows all the way down into your soul. A marriage is certainly not built to take that shit, and so mine ultimately came to an end. In the prologue to his 1955 novel THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, Nikos Kazantzakis wrote, “Christ passed through all the stages which the man who struggles passes through. That is why his suffering is so familiar to us; that is why we share it.” Scorsese said that he always wanted to do spiritual films, but religion always got in the way. What he imagined was the huge Bible epics of his childhood, though shot on a much lesser budget, possibly even in black-and-white. While directing Barbara Hershey in 1972’s BOXCAR BERTHA, she gave him a copy of Kazantzakis’ novel, which he quickly optioned and passed on to Paul Schrader to adapt into a screenplay. Religion had been an important part of Scorsese’s life and films from the beginning. He wanted to make this movie for over fifteen years before it finally happened. Despite what half the world was saying, he considered the final result an affirmation of faith and hope. Outside of its supposedly blasphemous content, numerous critics would complain about the Brooklyn accents that populated these Middle Eastern characters (as if the stiff English voices typically heard were any more realistic), and that everyone seemed too commonplace. Scorsese explained that he made all of these changes because he wanted to take Jesus away from the pious and safe traditional iconography and make it relevant to a modern audience, which he had done for me. He said that Jesus’ ideas and messages are still radical and important to the world. With more biblical knowledge than I had before, however, I understood that many of these radical ideas were but one person’s interpretation of the ancient scripts. For me, interpretation was the best that any of us could hope for, but it would never be enough to unite everyone. Despite whatever hope religion provides for humankind, it does not give us the ability to just accept someone else’s perspective as being as true for them as our own is to us. Almost thirty years later, this movie still pisses some people off. I can understand the concerns of those who object to many of the ideas expressed. It’s like messing with the iconography of a beloved superhero: Superman must always come from Krypton, and he can never really be more human than Kryptonian. Most people don’t want new ideas. Most people don’t want to struggle with the bigger questions and possibilities. And most people definitely don’t want to allow anything inside that might seem like doubt. Uncertainty is terrifying. Still, when I spoke with a pastor many years ago, someone I considered a friend, he expressed his own personal belief. Doubt is a companion part to faith, he said. It keeps us, and everyone who might be using religion to guide us, honest. Doubts and new ideas both can lead to a new way of seeing something. They can give new life to even the oldest of beliefs. Meanwhile, we should not forget that this film isn’t a documentary. It’s a fictionalized portrait, based on a Marvel WHAT IF . . . style novel, filtered through the imagination of a filmmaker who believes in the story of Jesus. And, no matter how harmful we think an idea may be, it’s still just an idea. Scorsese’s own interpretation of his work has even changed over time. In a commentary from 2000, he suggested that all the criticism of his film might not be undeserved. No one had any problem when he explored spiritual ideas in any of his other films. However, dealing with these themes directly in the context of a two thousand year old story may not have been as successful as he wanted it to be. The man himself, who once wanted to attend seminary school so he could become a priest, admitted that he had doubts about how the film was made. “I’m not too satisfied with it,” he said. If you find THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (or even just the idea of it, un-experienced) offensive, there’s probably nothing I can say to change your mind. That’s not what I’m trying to do, nor do I care how you choose to believe. What you are reading here are my own experiences with the story that ended up on the big screen. I feel that religion, as expressed by the masses, frequently offers too narrow an entrance point. Everyone’s experiences, perspectives, and even thought processes are not set up to function in exactly the same way. The popular argument is that if I don’t believe this exact version of what someone else calls the truth, then the fault must be mine. The reality, however, is that I have always wanted, even needed, to believe, but there is something within me that has always prevented it from happening in the traditional way. My argument has long been that if there’s a God, then this God has created me to function and think as I do, and therefore I am exactly where I’m supposed to be. My own interpretation of this particular Jesus, the one we see in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, has changed. Jesus was just a man in this film, I decided. An extremely brilliant and inspiring man, but a man nonetheless. The god that he had lived and died for was missing in action, or maybe had never existed. This made everything that Jesus said, believed, and did all the more amazing to someone with my background. Ironically, even as the briefly-ignited spark of my own more clearly defined faith sputtered out, it was filled by this murkier, much more inexplicable well of belief. It’s more of a belief that is based in doubt, as strange as that may sound. I have sailed from the distinct atheism of childhood, across a very small island of concrete belief, into the wide-open ocean of agnosticism. True, this does not mean that I believe, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t. That might not sound like hope to those who attend church regularly. But, believe me, brother, it’s the closest I’ve ever been. – j. meredith Writing is not like working construction, but it can still be hard work. There’s a lot of time, thought, and sometimes even research that goes into every article appearing here. If you are reading this, then it was written for you. Please take a moment to “like” this, or any other piece, and feel encouraged to leave a comment (even if it’s to disagree with what you’ve read). . . . and, just so it’s been said, the opinions and perspectives expressed here are entirely those of this author, in no way meant to reflect the views of this website, it’s creators, contributors, or supporters. Any condemnation, derision, or death threats should all be directed solely at me. See larger image The Last Temptation of Christ: The Criterion Collection The Last Temptation of Christ, by Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull), is a towering achievement. Though it initially engendered enormous controversy, the film can now be viewed as the remarkable, profoundly personal work of faith that it is. This fifteen-year labor of love, an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s landmark novel that imagines an alternate fate for Jesus Christ, features outstanding performances by Willem Dafoe (Antichrist), Barbara Hershey (Hannah and Her Sisters), Harvey Keitel (Mean Streets), Harry Dean Stanton (Paris, Texas), and David Bowie (The Man Who Fell to Earth); bold cinematography by the great Michael Ballhaus (Broadcast News); and a transcendent score by Peter Gabriel. New From: $21.94 USD In Stock Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.