The following column was printed in The Sunday Journal of
Wheaton, Illinois on August 14, 1988. Copyright 1988 by The Copley
TAKING SCORSESE'S JESUS PERSONALLY
by Hiawatha Bray
I've been to my share of demonstrations; I know a phony media
event when I see one. What I saw in front of the Biograph Theater
last Friday was the real thing.
In my days as a pro-life picketer, we'd often wait around until
the minicams arrived, then pick up our signs, walk in a circle a few
times, and chant for the microphones. As soon as the cameras were
packed up, we'd go to the nearest McDonald's to sip cool drinks and
speculate on how much airtime we'd get on the 10 o'clock news.
The hundreds who came out to picket the screening of The Last
Temptation of Christ had none of the cynicism of professional rabble-
rousers. Nor were they a lot of zombies stepping to the orders of the
Religious Right types I slapped around in last week's column. They'd
come of their own accord, individually and in groups, to respond to
what they regarded as a deep personal insult.
They began arriving early Friday morning, and began marching,
singing, preaching and praying in the cruel heat. Hundreds were still
outside the theater at 10 p.m., long after the television vans had
It was not always the same crowd. While some stayed all day,
others came and went in an ecumenical rainbow coalition that Jesse
Jackson might have been proud of. When I arrived, just before 6 p.m.,
the Orthodox Jewish picketers were already gone. The protest was now
dominated by Greek Orthodox priests and laity. They circled within
the limits posted by the police barricades, bearing crosses and icons
and singing in their native tongue. Just down the street, the Islamic
Circle of North America passed out leaflets reading, "Leave Jesus
alone. He has suffered too much." A team of Catholic anti-abortion
activists checked in soon after my arrival. Hours later, theatergoers
were serenaded with Spanish hymns from dozens of Mexican believers.
It is almost unimaginable that you could have united such a
disparate group of devout people under any other circumstances.
Credit Universal Studios and Martin Scorsese for that much. They've
aroused a profound, non-sectarian sense of dismay by their answer to
the question Jesus once asked his followers: "Who do you say that I
Most of the protesters have not seen the film, instead accepting
the negative judgment of religious leaders who themselves have not
seen it. These critics may be ignorant, and their motives may be less
than honorable. But there's no doubt that Nikos Kazantzakis' novel
and Paul Schrader's screenplay do not present the Jesus of Christian
tradition. Anyone loyal to that tradition will find this film very
In the years since I read the novel, I had forgotten how it
begins. Jesus, you know, was a carpenter. Kazantzakis imagined him
as a quisling who made the crosses the Romans used to crucify Jewish
rebels. This sequence is by far the most appalling thing in the
movie. The merciful healer of the New Testament would never have
taken a hand in such work.
That none of the movie's prominent detractors have denounced this
scene illustrates an ancient oddity in Christian ethics, the peculiar
fascination with sex. We'd all been told that the most shocking thing
in the movie is Jesus' fantasizing about doing the bump-and-grind with
a woman. But the Bible itself suggests that he may well have had such
thoughts; probably did, in fact. Yet when the film shows christ
acting as an accessory to the murder of his fellow Jews, Falwell and
company utter not a peep. I'd say these guys need a priority check.
Still, the objections raised by traditional Christians to the
film are basically on target. Never mind Jesus' sex life; he is
depicted up to the end as a confused, cowardly neurotic. He's a
sinful man who becomes God as the truth is slowly revealed to him, but
who wallows in guilt and self-doubt at every point along his spiritual
When I knelt and prayed on a Chicago streetcorner 12 years ago, I
sure wasn't talking to this guy. Neither were millions of other
converts down through the centuries. They all felt - I speak from
experience - as though they had just met someone totally other, and at
the same time quite real and earthly. For Christians, it's an
experience that seems as literal as a handshake and as intimate as a
Which is why I can sympathize with the protesters. Mind you,
they aren't being fair to Scorsese; the man is no mocker of Christ.
The Last Temptation of Christ is a sincere, even reverent film, within
the boundaries of its eccentric theology. Nevertheless, the man on
that screen is not the real Jesus, and those who count themselves his
friends are appalled.
Artistically serious as it is, I can't help wishing that the
movie hadn't been made. It's not only its content that bothers me;
I'm also troubled by the thoughtlessness of the project, the lack of
A few decades ago, Hollywood moguls never would have made any
film that would so offend millions of people. Today, the giving of
offense has become an unofficial national pastime. Our obscene bumper
stickers, our cynical comedians, our vulgar and gossipy press all give
evidence of an attitude that declares that we have no duty to take
the feelings of others into account. Scorsese had every right to make
his movie, but I think it would have been an act of Christian charity
if he'd chosen not to.
Nevertheless, let the protests end. Given the sincerity of
Scorsese, believers shouldn't be too hard on him. His answer to
Jesus' old question of identity is a bad one, but the picketers -
Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, orthodox - disagree about the
answer as well. Their ancestors have had centuries to settle the
matter, with little but cemeteries to show for the effort. At least
Scorsese shot only film; we should allow it to die quietly.
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