Thursday, 1 November 2007

The Gospel according to Martin Scorsese

A guest-post by Scott Stephens

In his infamous lecture, “Why I am Not a Christian” – presented 80 years ago this year – Bertrand Russell remarked that the word Christian “does not have quite such a full-blooded meaning now as it had in the times of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. In those days, if a man said that he was a Christian it was known what he meant.… Nowadays it is not quite that.” This comment reflects the state of atrophy into which Christianity has descended, the continual process of being alienated from its own essence, of growing ever more vague and indistinct.

And yet it is truly a peculiar aspect of our time that shards of a lost authenticity can be found in the most “anti-Christian” of sources. Indeed, the offensive strangeness historically embodied in the Christian message is frequently more discernible in such sources than in the impotent expressions of official Christianity. As usual, Karl Marx said it best: “Shame on you, Christians, both high and lowly, learned and unlearned, shame on you that an anti-Christian had to show you the essence of Christianity in its true and unveiled form!”

Perhaps one of the paradoxical tasks left to us, then, is to try to make out the truth in the likes of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, or buried deep in the pages of Darwin’s scientific notebooks, or even amid the moving images of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

As is well known, Scorsese received one of his six Oscar nominations for best director for this film, not least on account of the sheer gall and long term commitment this project demanded, and that in the face of intense opposition. But, as on every other occasion until recently, he missed out. We should not be in the least surprised that the Academy seemed so reluctant to confer its highest honour on Scorsese. It is, after all, notoriously conservative and Scorsese’s films are uncommonly brutal (several scenes in Taxi Driver and Casino are quite simply unwatchable).

But there is a disturbing dimension to Scorsese’s films that is far more profound than just on-screen violence. It is conveyed by the stark inelegance of the cinematography, the absence of warm tones, the chilling sense of an austere world in which kindness, let alone love, is not possible. Scorsese’s is a fallen world. Like Cain, his tortured characters are driven further into the wastelands – whether the desert or the untamed streets of New York – by their acts of almost mythical violence, until any remaining vestige of hope or virtue is finally extinguished.

And it is into this world that Scorsese – like those great Italian auteurs before him, Pasolini and Zeffirelli – conceived his own Christ. Drawing inspiration from Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ presented a radically different version of the Jesus story than other, more sanitized depictions. Scorsese’s Jesus, like all of his protagonists, is a tortured soul, haunted by a divine vocation that brings with it, not enlightenment, but darkness, confusion, oppression.

Jesus’ experience of God is of an expansive, entirely free presence that can no more be apprehended by the young Galilean’s marginalized psyche than it can by the temple in Jerusalem. The psycho-spiritual journey of the film, then, is not toward some deep sense of Jesus’ “secret identity,” a clearer realization of who he is and what he must do, but rather away from any such security. He is plunged into the divine void, and need only be willing to resign himself to it to find salvation, and sanity.

This is where the film’s near fatal weakness lies: it reduces Jesus’ message to an antiestablishment spiritualism, or even vulgar pantheism over against the rigid formality of Jewish ritual. (As Jesus puts it at one point in the film, “God is an immortal spirit who belongs to everybody, to the whole world!”) By casting God as an all-embracing life spirit, rather than some tribal deity, the film locates the critical opposition as one between Jesus’ free spirituality and Judaism’s stale religion.

But although The Last Temptation of Christ is undeniably wrong here – in the Gospels, Jesus sets the conflict within Judaism itself, between the holiness code and prophetic traditions – the film in equal measure gets something remarkably right. A strong temptation did bedevil Jesus his entire life, one that was fully as much domestic and familial as it was national and political. And while this temptation wasn’t purely internal (an “illness of the soul,” as the Puritans used to put it), neither was it entirely external, for it went to the heart of Jesus’ self-understanding.

Take, for instance, the Gospel of Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. What is usually missed in those banal readings of this account is that the expectations and birthright of the messiah – refracted here through allusions to Psalms 2 and 91 – are themselves presented as temptations, and from the devil’s own mouth, no less! The effect of this outrageous assertion is that one is forced to reinterpret Mary’s and Zechariah’s hallowed songs – both of which eagerly anticipate the coming deliverance of Israel from its Roman oppressors – as nigh on “satanic utterances.”

Jesus’ refusal was an absolute rejection of the notion of “messiah,” and thus of his family, his nation, and ultimately, of that God known as “Yahweh” – an implication perfectly captured by Scorsese’ Jesus when he cries, “God is not an Israelite!” The prophetic path on which he then embarked was one of urgent warning: that the nationalized structures of holiness and resistance will lead unavoidably not to deliverance, but to the destruction of Jerusalem. And it was the necessity of this protest – which entailed an altogether different conception of God, defined by mercy, but whose dark purposes include his own death – that was burned indelibly into his self-understanding.

Jesus’ crucifixion – a form of execution reserved exclusively for insurgents, rebels against the Roman occupation – was then the final symbolic act to warn that further revolt would end in national catastrophe, that this was the fate that awaited them all if they remained fixed on messianic resistance. Or, in Jesus’ own words, “If they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

At this point, Scorsese’s is unique among those cinematic depictions of Jesus’ life, for he accurately connects the necessity of his crucifixion with the impending destruction of Jerusalem. If the “last temptation” of Jesus was to succumb to the weight of those national and familial expectations, to pull back from the darkness and uncertainty of his vocation, perhaps our temptation is to give in to the security of those all-too-familiar portrayals of Jesus, and thus miss the power of his resurrection.

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