Sunday, April 08, 2007
The Last Temptation of Christ
For one of our Easter activities as a church we decided to have a viewing and discussion of the controversial Scorsese film, The Last Temptation of Christ. It was tonight and I think it went really well.

This movie is perhaps one of the most misunderstood movies of all time. I grew up in the conservative Christian subculture which boycotted and largely scorned and ignored this movie, thus I had always heard that it was blasphemous and "liberal" reinterpretation of who Jesus was. It was only after actually watching the movie that I came to a realization, this movie really isn't about Christ! It's about us, human beings. Perhaps we all fast forwarded through the author's note at the beginnning of the movie where he declares his purpose for the story. He wrote it as an exploration of the constant tension within himself between the sinful and divine elements warring against each other in his own soul. In other words, the movie uses the orthodox doctrine of the dual nature of Christ (i.e. Christ is equally human and equally Divine) to illustrate the tension that exists within every human being between goodness and evil. In fact, I found the final scene where Judas rebukes Jesus to be a powerful apologetic for the necessity of Christ's divinity and death on the cross, "Without sacrifice there is no salvation."

Granted Nikos Kazantzakis is certainly no conservative Christian, and I suppose that he may in fact concieve of Christ as actually being close to the way he portrayed him in his book (and in the movie - which follows the book fairly closely). Nevertheless, I contend that it is a mistake to view this movie as if its intent were to present a revisionist view of Jesus Christ. The issue in this movie is not whether or not you agree with its theology; but whether you can identify with the hero's struggle. The struggle between following the hard and painful will of God or succumbing to the temptation of the ordinary, the sin of being comfortable. In many ways this message reminds me of the words of C.S. Lewis in his essay "The Weight of Glory". He writes, "The problem is not that our desires are too strong but that they are too weak. We are dissatisfied creatures fooling around with drink and sex when infinite happiness is offered to us; like a child who goes on making mud-pies in the slums because he cannot imagine what is meant by a holiday at sea. We are far too easily pleased."

Even if you're a conservative Christian and have warned away from this movie, I encourage you to go back and give it a chance. But remember, go to it, not to argue and debate what you think it's saying, but to learn what it's really saying. You'll be surprised at what you find.

posted by Mike Clawson at 12:13 AM | Permalink |


At 4/08/2007 08:28:00 AM, Blogger patrickimo

Mike, THANK YOU for giving this movie a chance. I found Last Temptation of Christ to be a wonderful movie, and I certainly have no problems with the way it ended!

Now, about these "Exorcist" movies... :)


At 4/10/2007 09:15:00 PM, Blogger Dan Harlow

I have often seen the outrage and misunderstanding certain works of art receive from the religious community and have always wondered why it takes years and years for people to see the actual meaning of the work.

Needless to say I am glad you gave this film a chance because it raises many important questions (both for believers and non-believers). True, art can often be controversial but very often the real meaning is lost in all the hype surrounding it.

More often than not the really important things in life do not lay on the surface, a person has to dig to find truth and meaning. Also when dealing with important issues it is almost impossible to do so without controversy. Really, if there was no controversy the issue probably wasn't that important anyway :)

Hopefully we are seeing a paradigm shift in how art is viewed in our culture. Where as before anything controversial was railed against and tossed in the fire, today we are seeing more and more people willing to look past the surface and find the value hidden under the waters.

I have a good friend who is very religious but also enjoys South Park. Needless to say I was surprised but she told me that what she was watching was more of a social commentary and not just potty mouthed 10 year olds. Granted, she takes issues with the language and violence but she also understands what the creators of the show are trying to say.

Now you may not like South Park at all (and to be honest I rarely watch the show myself and I'm an atheist) but the point is that to just dismiss something because a person finds parts of it to be objectionable means a person can be missing out on the deeper meaning of an issue and in the long run they may fail to further educate their own thoughts and beliefs.

To sum up, I have seen your comments over at The Friendly Atheist and in fact right now you and I are having a good debate about science and religion but I just wanted to stop by, say hello and tell you that I appreciate your willingness to be open minded because it encourages me to be open minded as well.


At 4/10/2007 10:56:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Dan, thanks for stopping by. And I completely agree with you about being open to controversial art. That's kind of the point of art - it's supposed to be a prophetic voice challenging the power structures and established norms of our society. If it isn't then it's merely decoration or entertainment (not that there's anything wrong with decoration or entertainment).

Take this recent chocolate Jesus controversy for example. I can't believe how quick the Catholic Church was to condemn it. Did they even give it a chance? What was so awful about it? Seems like a rather positive portrayal of Christ if you ask me - likening him to the sweetness of chocolate. Or on a deeper level, maybe you could say it's a way of identifying Christ with the suffering of the thousands of kids currently enslaved on chocolate plantations so that we can have cheap Nestle bars. Anyway, we miss all that if we're so quick to condemn and ignore art that is a little bit jarring.

Oh, and btw, I'm definitely a fan of South Park. Like your friend I think it's a great social commentary (most of the time - though some of the more recent episodes have gotten too disgusting even for me).

Oh, and I'm also a huge fan of Kevin Smith movies (e.g. Clerks, Dogma, Chasing Amy, Jay & Silent Bob, etc.) no matter how potty mouthed they are. How many pastors do you know who would say that? ;)


At 4/10/2007 11:38:00 PM, Blogger Dan Harlow

I think allot of the reason why people get kind of worked up about controversial art is that it upsets the view a person may have of the world and forces them to come to terms with something they may have never thought about before.

Often we hear the term "knee jerk reaction" applied to people who get all bent out of shape when a new idea comes along and turns the paradigm upside down. Personally I do understand why people behave this way because people usually do not like to be shocked. It catches people off guard either because they live in a "bubble" or have not been fully educated on certain issues and hence they react irrationally.

Also, many people like to build up a metaphorical wall around themselves and the world around them. Some people do this to avoid temptation and vice. Others do it because they are cynical. When that wall gets chipped away people get angry because it takes a long time to build those walls.

That is why I feel atheists like myself have a hard time with religion because we don't understand why someone would want to close themselves off from the world. I enjoy learning new things, I like being surprised, I like it when science says "Hey, we were dead wrong about this because we discovered this stuff over here!"

I think it's fun to be challenged because A) I do not know everything and I rely on others to help me learn and B) by debating and analyzing new ideas I come to an even stronger understanding of my previous beliefs.

I would imagine you feel the same way. I would probably also guess that a discussion about the nature of the universe between you and I on another site may not change either one of our minds but it does help us to gain a deeper insight into our own beliefs and forces us to question what we think we already know.

For example, when you brought up the miracles in the bible I really had to sit own and think about that. I wasn't questioning my belief in science, but you challenged me to put my thoughts into words and also challenged me to explain myself. I find that to be allot of fun too. Heck, with so many people on the internet just screaming and yelling obscenities at each other I CHERISH any opportunity to speak with an intelligent, well rounded individual such as yourself.


At 4/11/2007 03:21:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

"That is why I feel atheists like myself have a hard time with religion because we don't understand why someone would want to close themselves off from the world. I enjoy learning new things, I like being surprised, I like it when science says "Hey, we were dead wrong about this because we discovered this stuff over here!"

I think it's fun to be challenged because A) I do not know everything and I rely on others to help me learn and B) by debating and analyzing new ideas I come to an even stronger understanding of my previous beliefs."

Dan, you and I are very much the same way. I too like to be challenged and debate because it helps refine my ideas and test out new ones.

I likewise don't understand religious people who close themselves off to new ideas. I'm not that kind of religious person. You and I are both Freethinkers in the truest sense of the word. We're not bound by religious dogma, but we're open to experimenting with new ideas. I don't feel obliged to just believe whatever my religious tradition has told me to believe, and yet my own freethinking has led me back to theism just as yours has led you to atheism.

(It's like G.K. Chesterton said "I set out to create a heresy of my very own, and when I put the finishing touches on it, I discovered it was orthodoxy.")

I appreciate your good questions over on Hemant's site, and I'll do my best to explain how I work them out for myself. However, I hope you understand that I'm not trying to persuade you to agree with me. My goal in any of these conversations is simply to be understood, not to prove that I'm absolutely right and the other person is absolutely wrong. I know it may seem strange to most atheists, who I have found frequently tend to view the world in very black and white terms, but I'm convinced that there are often many potentially right answers to a question, and thus it is often possible to end a conversation by saying "Well, I still disagree, but you could be right, and I respect your opinion."


At 4/11/2007 10:10:00 PM, Blogger Dan Harlow

I feel the same way. I'm not trying to convince you either. In fact I'm really sort of just writing out my thoughts for myself, and by responding to your points it helps me better understand my own ideas and beliefs. I guess that might sound kind of impersonal and I don't mean it that way it's just rarely does anyone get an opportunity to really have to dig deep within themselves in an effort to explain themselves.

You know I was kind of thinking of an idea. I think it would be interesting if there was a way to present both sides of the coin.

For example, you and I have different views of belief yet we respect each other and so what we write is well thought out and covers allot of very important topics in a easy to follow conversational tone.

Wouldn't it be interesting if there was like a sort of Siskel (Roeper) & Ebert style format where these issues could be presented to a large audience?

For example a topic could be chosen by both parties and that topic is presented from both points of views and is commented on and debated by both people just like Siskel (Roeper) & Ebert. I keep putting Roeper's name in () because I liked Siskel better :)

The benefits I see of such an idea is that:
A) It can be proven that people with different religious and belief systems are capable of having an intelligent discussion about those beliefs.
B) Since both sides are presenting their ideas there is then no bias of opinion and the viewer, listener or reader is then free to make up their own mind.
C)It would bring awareness not only to the differences in how an atheist and theist view the world but also show the similarities.
D) By having to intelligent people present an idea it would clear up the "bad reporting" and "bad science" that gets tossed about these days. In short it would be a place where the rhetoric is stripped away and just the good facts are presented - sort of like how the news is supposed to work (but usually falls short of doing)
E) It could be allot of fun to do.

Maybe it's been done before? I don't know.

I got the idea when I was looking at my bookcase and pulled out "The Screwtape Letters" by C.S. Lewis which is one of my favorite books. Now in the book we only see one side of the conversation and that is what got me thinking about a way to show both sides of an issue.

What do you think?


At 4/11/2007 11:47:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Sounds like a great idea! I'd watch a show like that.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure enough other people would. Our culture seems to like sound bytes and extremist rhetoric more than reasoned debate. I mean, just look at the state of modern politics.

But actually I just recently did a TV show like that called "Ask God" produced by TLN, a Christian cable channel based here in Chicago. (It hasn't aired yet; it's slated to premiere either this month or next I think.) There were four of us pastors and theologians from various Christian backgrounds and we were debating questions about the nature of Hell. (I was the "heretic" of the group. A few of the others tried to get me saved after we finished shooting.)

Unfortunately this program only highlighted differing views among Christians, not between believers and non-believers, or any other group. But it was the same concept - and I think it would be even more fun doing it your way. Know any TV producers who would be interested? :)

Or maybe a book format would be better. Aren't there any already out there where a theist and an atheist have a written debate and both sides are presented fairly and intelligently? (The recent Harris/Warren debate certainly doesn't qualify, IMO - Harris wasn't fair and Warren wasn't intelligent.) If there aren't, there should be.

Actually there is one book that I helped edit called Is Belief in God Good, Bad, or Irrelevant?, which was an email exchange between a Christian history professor and atheist (and PhD.) Greg Graffin of the punk band Bad Religion. Unfortunately most of the arguments were only half-baked and often left dangling just when they'd start to get good, so I wouldn't necessarily hold that up as an example of the kind of thing you're talking about.

Know any publishers that would want some people to write that book for them? (Actually, I know a few, but I don't know if I could convince them. ;-)


At 4/14/2007 10:35:00 PM, Blogger Dan Harlow

It's too bad there are not more examples of good dialog between atheists and theists.

Of course I have hearing allot about public debates that typically go off without a hitch so I imagine the general public is more open to at least listening to the arguments and not taking an extremist stance.

The trouble is the news media only reports on the extremist stories so it seems as if there is a "war" going on when in fact I think most people are not extremist at all.

The irony is that the media is mostly made up of liberal types who are "usually" more inclined to desire a more secular world but since they only report (and therefore popularize) on extremism, they are in effect influencing extremism (both secular and theist).

At least there are people like you and The Friendly Atheist who take a much more open minded (and reasonable) approach to things. Problem is, nobody usually clicks on a headline reading "Atheist and Theist calmly discuss the nature of the universe in a polite and rational manner" but instead they click on "Atheist bites Theist!" :)


At 4/14/2007 10:48:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

"Atheist bites Theist!"


Though I'd say that the media are only as liberal as the big corporations who own them. I don't think the media typically has any agenda except to make lots of money - which is again why they focus on the extremes.


At 4/14/2007 10:49:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

BTW, I'm still planning to respond to your questions on Hemant's blog, I've just gotten so busy in the run up to Sunday. Weekends are a busy time for pastors. :)


At 4/16/2007 12:28:00 AM, Blogger Dan Harlow

Mike, I gathered up our conversation (and some bits with Darryl too) and posted them on my site at

I'm fine with continuing the discussion over at The Friendly Atheist's site since we'll probably get more people to comment there (hopefully more people who are willing to engage in a respectful manner) and also so people can read the entire thing in it's entirety.

If for any reason you don't want me to keep a record of our discussion on my site, please let me know and I will take it down. Too be honest though, the post is SO long I doubt many people will read it :) but I will understand if you just want to keep the record of the discussion over at Hemant's site.

Also, if you notice any errors in my post or you feel I have not conveyed the message correctly in any part what-so-ever, please let me know so that I can fix it. It's not my intention to misrepresent our discussion, but I did edit it down somewhat to keep it in context since I did not want to include every comment made by everyone else. I also added in my own thoughts and reasons between each comment so let me know if I have strayed off base any.


At 4/16/2007 07:52:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Okay Dan, so I posted one part of my reply over at your blog. I figure it'll be easier just to finish it over there and not clutter up Hemant's blog anymore. :)

BTW, I love your little animations at the top of your blog. Do you make those yourself?


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