The following column was printed in The Sunday Journal of

Wheaton, Illinois on August 14, 1988. Copyright 1988 by The Copley



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

rolled away.

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

shocking indeed.

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

wedding night.

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

social civility.

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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