I am oddly fascinated with this article which I found while Googling Last Temptation of Christ. The author, Steven D. Greydanus, seems thoughtful and levelheaded right up until he draws his final conclusions, equating the image of William-Dafoe-as-Jesus kissing Barbary-Hershey-as-Magdalene with the imagery in racist propaganda films, and finds the racist propaganda less objectionable.
"Sometimes it’s possible to prescind from a movie’s offensive use of themes and appreciate its achievements in spite of its moral failings," our reviewer writes. "One can bracket one’s objections to the Marxist propaganda in The Battleship Potemkin, or the racist celebration of the original Ku Klux Klan in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and still value the striking imagery of the famous Odessa Steps sequence from the former, or the groundbreaking editing in the climactic chase scene of the latter.
"But I for one don’t see how it’s possible to bracket all the objections that must be raised to all that is anti-Christian in Last Temptation, and still have anything worthwhile left over to appreciate or enjoy."
Well! I strongly question his use of the phrase Anti-Christian. "Anti-Christian" suggests a deliberate attempt to argue against or belittle Christianity. I don't buy it. The film makes use of fictive paradox to examine the role of Jesus, but while I can't read the minds of the film's creators, the logic of the movie is a validation of Jesus. Even if one does consider it to be blasphemous, though, comparing it to racist propaganda is problematic. The problem with racist propaganda isn't that it takes decent-minded people out of our comfort zones, but that it endorses ideas that are unacceptable if humanity is to thrive. Now, if Christianity is fundamentally true one could argue that blasphemy also endorses ideas that are unacceptable if humanity is to thrive, but exactly what kind of blasphemy is on display here? It's the kind of "blasphemy" that takes pious people out of their comfort zones, but that's not the same as a real attack on the heart and soul of Christianity. The film is not an attack on Jesus as a person or as God Incarnate, but rather a consideration of what Jesus was not, the better to highlight what Jesus was. The complex use of paradox which is essential to Last Temptation is shocking to conventional piety, but the end result of the film, if one takes it on its own terms, is a resounding validation of Jesus. Maybe not a conventionally pious one, but a validation nonetheless. It brought a tear to this Unitarian's eye.
I'm not saying there's no case for a Christian taking offense at this film; it constantly problematizes our understanding of Jesus and his role. But I think folks seized on the wrong parts of the film to worry about. Harry Dean Stanton as Paul has a speech about how the concept of Jesus as Redeemer is relevant regardless of the facts about the person of Jesus... that's probably the part you'd wanna fight with.
I met Randall Wallace, the famously Christian screenwriter, once. He spoke at a seminar about how his screenplay for Braveheart was in large part a free reworking of tales from the Bible, and how his script for We Were Soldiers reworked facts for the benefit of fiction. I asked him how he would approach the task of writing about Jesus; if he would let piety rein in his fictive approach. His reply shook and reconfigured my whole approach to life.
"I think Piety is a bunch of crap," said Randall Wallace.