Irreverent Movies About Jesus: a literature review of a movie about a kind of Jesus

Disclaimer: I wrote this as a Literature Review for my Sociology of Religion class, for which I received full credit. Now, I know this is a controversial movie, but I chose it so that I may wrestle with the portrayal of Jesus as a wandering existentialist attempting to do something he feels physically burdened to accomplish: his death on a cross. I do not think it is a compelling interpretation, but I use it to make sense of how others outside of the church may wrestle with the reality of Jesus within their own struggle, and for that I am grateful. I initially titled the review to reflect how I saw the movie as a secular attempt to find meaning in a life that is unintelligible to the secular construct built around violence. Finally, I do NOT recommend this movie to anybody. It is incredibly inappropriate at times, and mostly unnecessary in said scenes, but it was one of the better options presented to me by my professor.

In The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), the character of Jesus is lifted from his historical moorings and dropped into the world of existential wonder and anguish. There is a deeply human touch brought to this man of mystery that has captivated the hearts and minds of people across time, and it precisely this word, human, and all of its mythic dimensions that is communicated to us. The subjective experience of the hero is first and foremost in the mind of this Jesus portrayed in the film, as well as in the novel. All of the reactions to his struggle, enlightenment and eventual death almost seem surreal or unreal in their expression, mainly because the only real experience is the one that we have in witnessing the character or the hero. For the hero here is human, and to accept his fate is an act of divinity, which is why the existential wrestling of the individual is likened to an act of divine wrestling, or perhaps even like Jacob when he wrestles with God in the book of Genesis. But when one decides to “wrestle,” they find the offended world exposed to them in ways it had never been before, not unlike the Christ of the movie who rejects the promise of secularism in order to find true enlightenment. I know this sounds strange, because secularism wasn’t at work in second temple-Judaism’s; nevertheless, there is an anachronistic claim at work here that is engaging with the struggle we all feel about the push to be happy by having certain things, rather than fulfilling some kind of calling.

When we speak of groups and their leaders, the struggle of those individual’s are usually forgotten in order to form the cohesive institutions that bind them. In Michael Antonake’s article (2004) on the Christ-hero and the novel by Kazantzakis that inspired the movie I am writing about, Kazantzakis doesn’t claim to have historical access to the man, Jesus Christ. But what he does claim is what it means to be human, and to be human is to struggle: “Kazantzakis’s Jesus moves in a upward direction, towards a Nietzschean struggle to will his own saintliness. He confronts his subconscious as he defeats his fear, sexual desire and his longing for an ordinary life…Jesus awakes and he realizes that he was dreaming while he was nailed on the cross. Jesus understands that he has kept his word and he is joyful that that came through with his final promise (Antonake 2004).” It is here that Antonake wants the point to be made that in this variation of the classic story, the subjective experience and triumph is “Christlike,” not simply the act of dying but the act of accepting one’s personal destiny and making that decision a public one. And what of this public vocation?

When it comes to the increasing impact of modernity in our world, and the increasing availability of material functionality, religion should be waning. Even if sociologists were noticing why church participation was on the decline, the search for meaning and the purpose of life seems to be ever on the rise. In Breen and Healy’s article, Religiosity In Times of Insecurity (2012), they want to help people see how the search for existential security occurs in the age of secularization: “Certainly, society does not develop in a linear way. One thing that is missing from traditional secularisation theory is an explanation or prediction of what will happen to religious practice and belief when a society has a crisis, i.e. when development halts or, indeed, goes backwards (Heely & Breen 2012).” In other words, once we arrived in the age of human intervention in areas we thought we needed religion for, we realized the terrifying truth: we still seem to need religion. Instead, it would seem that secularism has reversed on itself, realizing that religion as the “security” of the past, has been replaced by secularism. Therefore, by “religion” we actually mean “secularism.” So the answer to the existential insecurity is not necessarily found in secularist theory, but in the traditional pursuit of meaning within the varying options. Once again, this brings me back to my original point about the wrestling that occurs in the subjective experience of life, which is not found in secularism and also within our interaction with groups.

Different groups respond different ways when their leader is portrayed a certain way. In the movie, The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus I shown to have real struggles with real issues like sexual desire—something every single human being (with possible exception to a-sexual people) has been through. But however real or irreverent the interpretation, the sheer irreverence doesn’t make it “true” in the sense that Kazantzakis means it to be true as an epic character. According to this older National Review article, Hollywood was simply promoting this “New Morality” by releasing such a movie: “But you’d think it had never occurred to the Universal producers that Christians might find it blasphemous to depict their Savior in bed with a mate. Why, the studio merely invested a few million in Art, hoping to gratify the public appetite for theology, and for some reason these yahoos are screaming (1988)!” Here, they are poking fun at the frustration from the amount of offendedness towards Universal for putting out such a movie, but what does this say about the religious public in sociological terms? Is it “new morality” to struggle with how one’s calling mingles with sexual desire, hunger, and poverty—all things that the character of Jesus is portrayed as struggling with?

Finally, the search for subjective meaning in a world of offended groups is harder than ever. The divine wrestling of the individual, and eventual acceptance of the inevitable calling is then transferred into the public sphere where the sociological impact begins to take shape. The struggle in the novel is clearly revealed in the movie as people respond in ways that are characterized of groups who struggle with the leader but then conform and create institutions around the “leader” that eventually look nothing like said leader. This is how I understand the Jesus portrayed in this story, as he confronts secularisms claim that in order to be happy, in order to be complete and whole, one must embrace these social norms – perhaps even in having a family – but this is what the Jesus character has to reject to be truly free. And this freedom is found in the dust of existential pain and wrestling.