Born: November 17, 1942
Martin Scorsese has claimed to be a Roman Catholic in the past, but many have doubted the sincerity of his faith, especially after one film: The Last Temptation of Christ. Whether he is, still is, or was ever a Christian, is not my concern for today’s post. Instead, I want to argue instead that Martin Scorsese is an “Artist for the Gospel,” in a similar way to how I considered Friedrich Nietzsche one.
Why? Because of his work on that controversial film about the unforgettable figure Jesus of Nazareth. Maybe Nikos Kazantzakis is more deserving of this dedication, but I have not read the book. It is clear though, that no matter what Kazantzakis contribution was to the film, or how many of the film’s ideas or scenes existed in the book, Scorsese meant for the audience to see Jesus in the way he was depicted in The Last Temptation. And through this version of Jesus, Christians have gained a tremendous theological resource for a more robust and complete Gospel message.
Here are three ways Scorsese gave Christians a great resource:
(Disclaimer: Scorsese and Kazantzakis make it clear that The Last Temptation of Christ is not supposed to be the Gospel truth, but an attempt to make sense of the theological cat’s cradle that Jesus is both fully God and fully man. I don’t claim perfection in my post either. I am not particularly worried about accidentally pointing out paradoxes/contradictions or accidentally creating them either—-though neither possibility is my intent. If I do something write something untrue or damaging, I believe that the God of the Bible will be able to handle it. Easily. What I am attempting to do is like I said earlier: to argue that from at least one angle Martin Scorsese is an “Artist for the Gospel” in that he gave Christians a great resource for a more robust and complete Gospel message. )
1) Jesus increased in wisdom and in statureand in favor with God and man:
In Luke 2:52, the Bible makes this statement. What does it mean? What does it assume about Jesus? Some translations use the word “knowledge” instead of wisdom, which is more controversial, but in either case, doesn’t this statement imply something strange about the Jesus we hear about in church? If Jesus grew in “knowledge,” then that means he learned things. He was ignorant of certain things at certain points in time. He did not know everything at once. If the word is “wisdom,” then Jesus who reportedly was there before all creation learned how to apply his knowledge in a new way as a man on earth, than he did in heaven, even though time does not apply to God. It would be easy at this point to blow Jesus off as fully human, imperfect, a sinner, but that does not seem to be Scorsese’s intent. Jesus in the film does in fact have divine powers and does fulfill his mission on earth in the film and he does so in a very satisfying and powerful way. Perhaps, Scorsese shows us that a deficiency in wisdom or knowledge or both does not necessarily make someone sinful. In fact, in certain translations in Matthew 24:36, Jesus admits that his knowledge is imperfect. I am not sure what the oldest manuscript says, however, no matter what it says, this would not to my mind mean Jesus was less significant. He means he is more significant. He had to struggle with human imperfection and development too and he did so without sinning. Like growing in wisdom, growing in favor with both “God and man” implies that Jesus at one point had less favor. Again, while not traditionally said, this statement is very powerful and potentially revealing. While this statement was probably not perfectly portrayed in The Last Temptation, it was portrayed more honestly than in any other film.
2) Jesus’ possible reality:
The largest controversies in the film revolve around the nature of Jesus’ temptation and the depths to which he experiences doubt. I will come back to the temptation in a moment. But when it comes to Jesus’ controversial words of doubt, many don’t realize that some of the most historically reliable evidence for Jesus’ existence are his statements of doubt. The fact that Jesus says in the New Testament, “take this cup from me,” or “why have you forsaken me,” is evidence for his existence. Why leave in something controversial and possibly blasphemous, about a perfect God/man unless he really said those things? Jesus would look at least a little bit better if he hadn’t said those things. Yes, at least one of these statements is a sort of a harkening back to the Old Testament, but the New testament does not give examples of Jesus following every single minute law/prophecy of the Old Testament. The reality is that, this “judgement by controversial statements,” I’ll call it, is a real method used by historians to evaluate the historicity of a text. These words are valuable evidences that Jesus existed to some capacity mentioned in the New Testament. It was important and great for Scorsese to leave these comments and others like them from either his or Kazantzakis’s imagination in the film.
3) Jesus’ human realities:
Jesus’ human realities do not end with wisdom and favor. They extend throughout the film. Jesus bleeds, feels pain, upsets his friends, experiences agony, fear, doubt, is tempted heavily, says things that seem blasphemous, is played by William Dafoe, who while still very romanesque, and to some, handsome, is to others not handsome and a bit scary. In other words, he is a Jesus who, we believe might have experienced all of our struggles.
If Jesus’ temptations were just words or ideas floating around him, then I do not consider them temptations. If the controversial statements that came out of his mouth were only said in order to fulfill a prophecy, then they were insignificant on a human level. In both cases, it would be very hard to say that Jesus truly experienced full humanity, and it would be unlikely that he is a God who can relate to all of our struggles. If someone came up to me and said “go kill your family today,” I would in no way, shape, or form consider that a temptation. A temptation to my mind has to be something wrestled with in order to be a temptation. Struggling to me seems necessary at the very least in order for Jesus to be a God who can relate to all of our sufferings. If Jesus bleeds, he feels pain. If he bleeds from the forehead when he says, “Take this cup from me,” or when he says, “Why have you forsaken me,” he probably meant it. If he said either one of those statements and meant them, then they came from some place deep in his person—in his past—in his struggles—-and he probably said other things like them at other points in time. Was the depiction of Jesus’ nature perfect? Probably not. Did it claim to be? No. But was it likely a more correct portrayal than any other film? I say yes.
Through his depiction of Jesus, even though not perfect, I believe Scorcese helps Christians understand and explain the Gospel message more fully. What do you think? Can Martin Scorsese in any sense be considered an “Artist for the Gospel”?
Feel free to check out my Fast Food Review of the Last Temptation here.
Also, in anticipation of The Criterion Collection’s blu-ray release of The Last Temptation of Christ, here are their three reasons to see it: