The Martin Scorsese film, The Last Temptation of Christ, came out in 1988. Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, the narrative took liberties with the Jesus story as told in the four Gospels. The crux of the story — no pun intended — is that God gives Jesus a choice as he hangs on the cross. He could be rescued from his fate, marry Mary Magdalene and live out a happy, unremarkable life among mortals, or he could accept his fate and die for the sins of mankind. In the end, of course, he accepts his agonizing death and all that it has come to represent.
The Christians went ballistic. There were weeks of protests and threats before the movie’s release, and days of demonstrations in front of theaters on the weekend of the release.
I was reporting for The State newspaper in Columbia at the time, and I had the assignment, on a slow Saturday, to go out to a couple of the local theaters where Last Temptation was opening and talk to some moviegoers and see what the aggrieved Christians were up to.
I was in front of the Jefferson Square Cinema on Main Street when a pickup truck pulled up across the street. A man and a woman exited and for the next several minutes wrestled a heavy lectern from the truck bed, set it on the sidewalk facing the theater, then hooked up a PA device. He was a portly young man, in a dark blazer, white shirt and tie. She wore a dark, shapeless shift.
When all was prepared, the young man stepped up to the lectern and began to rail against all who entered the theater. I do not remember what he said, except that he spoke in the name of the Almighty, who must have been really, really pissed off that day. There was much quoting of Scripture and referencing hell and damnation, as I recall. The woman looked away in boredom or embarrassment at this little tirade.
After less than five minutes, the young man had said his piece. He loaded the lectern and speaker back onto the truck and the couple drove away. The honor of Jesus had been redeemed.
I’ve had much opportunity to think about that long-ago assignment since the recent opening of The Da Vinci Code. Superficially, the two events have much in common: angry Christians railing against modernity and new interpretations of the Jesus story. And I am sure that the Christians who have been raising hell in recent weeks would see little difference between the two. But this you have to say for The Last Temptation of Christ: it was a serious adaptation of an important novel by a world-class writer.
The Da Vinci Code, by contrast, never pretended to be anything more than a formulaic murder mystery with a lot of Christian symbology and related mumbo jumbo thrown in to keep the reader guessing. The fact that so many Christians took it literally and much too seriously indicates that there are a lot of people out there who do not know what the word “novel” means. The fact that so many Christian leaders claimed that it was undermining the faith of their followers would suggest that Christian faith has grown pretty anemic in the 21st century. The Da Vinci Code is not very good. It is a movie with its gaze firmly set on the past and it makes no serious effort to understand that past.
There was another movie just released that did not get nearly as much attention, but may be remembered long after The Da Vinci Code is consigned to the museum of silly summer blockbusters.
An Inconvenient Truth has its gaze set on the future and the future is where we all are going to live. This is the film about Al Gore’s one-man campaign to warn the nation about global climate change and it promises to be one of the most important films of the year.
The movie is getting generally good reviews from both film critics and scientists. Of course, it has the right-wingers running scared and the “swift boat” attacks have already begun. At least two hacks have tried to compare Gore to the Nazis.
“You don’t go see Joseph Goebbels’s films to see the truth about Nazi Germany. You don’t want to go see Al Gore’s film to see the truth about global warming,” Sterling Burnett, senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, stated on Fox News. The NCPA gets much of its funding from the oil industry.
The arrival of An Inconvenient Truth is timely for South Carolina, as we debate whether we want to open our coastal waters to oil and gas exploration. America’s future — the future of our planet — lies in finding an alternative to fossil fuels.