Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #17

Re: The Last Temptation of Christ: An Essay in Film Criticism and Faith (1988)

I’ve just recently seen The Last Temptation of Christ for the first time, and, as a devout atheist, can tell you that it’s the only bit of biblical fantasy I’ve ever come across that engenders a sense of plausibility. It accommodates human nature in all its facets. (And keep in mind Jesus as half-human was also possessed of human nature.)

Your believer-based critique does what believer-based opinions always do: exceedingly complicate matters in order to avoid facing the simple (usually most fascinating) realies.

For example, your assessment is tainted by your opening disclaimer “that Jesus Christ was fully human as well as fully divine.” That’s the sort of absurdity that no rational person could — even at a stretch — see as plausible. It’s just not possible to be 200% of anything.

I think the story, with the elegance of simplicity, tells the story of a zealot (Judas) who decides (or is sent) to manipulate a weak-willed, typically Jewish-mummy’s-boy neurotic, and not real bright Jesus into becoming the easily-controlled figurehead for the long-awaited Messiah who’s supposed to lead the various zealots in overthrowing the Roman oppressors. He’s the perfect target for such an ambition: thick, a traitor/crucifix-maker, afraid of pain (recall the reaction when Judas threatens to knife him if he doesn’t co-operate), and gullible enough to come to believe that he’ll survive the experience because, after all, he’s the Messiah; Judas told him so. (There’s a delicious little delight in the thought that the Romans would eventually kill their own crucifix maker in the cause of the zealots.)

But wait! There’s more! In the best traditions of film-making, there needs to be a “twist,” a logical proposal that’s unexpected. And the final “temptation” scenes provide that in droves. The “dual-spirit” of not only Jesus but all of humanity is described and employed insomuch that the temptation-experience can be seen as both “in the mind” and “in reality” at the same time.

And the “climax” is that Jesus redeemed himself in the eyes of the world, and Judas came to believe his own propaganda, thus redeeming himself in the eyes of god! Y’gotta love it! One of the five (?) best movies I’ve ever seen.

For what it’s worth, I’m not sure you haven’t misunderstood my statement that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. This thesis, which is simply historical Christian orthodoxy confessed by countless Christians every week of the year, does not mean that Jesus is “200 percent of anything.” Rather, it means that he possesses the fullness of divine nature and also the fullness of human nature.

More precisely, the eternal Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, without in any way diminishing his eternal divine nature, assumed to himself a complete human nature, uniting two complete natures in one divine Being. To call him “half God and half man” is incorrect if by this you mean that he combines partial traits of divinity and humanity into a single hybrid nature.

Ironically, the most historically rigorous movie about Jesus may be an animated film with puppets, The Miracle Maker. Thanks to expert advice from historians like N. T. Wright, the filmmakers were able to situate what is known about Jesus in a plausible Hellenistic, second-temple Jewish context under imperial Rome. For example, the depiction of Jesus living in the tiny village of Nazareth but working as a handyman (tekton probably had a broader meaning than “carpenter”) in nearby Sepphoris is historically reasonable; the depiction of Jesus in Last Temptation making crosses for the Romans is merely a conceit.

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