Controversial works often lose their edge over time and become innocuous with distance. The same pieces that once caused so much rage slowly lose their sting, and we eventually find ourselves shaking our heads as we wonder what really was so offensive.
The Last Temptation of Christ is not one of those works. Nearly thirty years after its release, Martin Scorsese’s film retains its provocative power and presents a conundrum for many believers. It’s a movie that many fundamentalists still consider hands-off. But can there be something good—even sanctifying—about this and other dangerous films? What happens when discerning viewers look past the command, “Do not taste, Do not touch” (Colossians 2:21-23)—and the implicit “Do not watch”—in regard to troubling art and instead choose to engage even the most doctrinally flawed and “dangerous” works?
The controversy surrounding the movie’s 1988 release is legendary. Evangelical and Catholic groups organized boycotts outside cinemas. Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright reportedly offered to buy all copies of the negative from Universal so he could burn them. In Paris, a fundamentalist Christian group threw Molotov cocktails inside a theater showing the film, injuring thirteen.It would be ideal for this sanctifying art to come from inside the church. However, most “faith-based” entertainment—created for and by Christians—is not interested in transformation.
Many were protesting the film sight unseen; the reports about its content were enough to whip them into fervor. Jesus built crosses for the Romans. Judas was his best friend. Christ appeared to be insane. Perhaps most galling, the film contained a hallucination sequence in which Christ came down from the cross, married Mary Magdalene, and was shown engaged in sexual intercourse with her. Many decided they didn’t need to see the film to condemn it.
We were attending a strict Baptist church at the time of the film’s release, and my parents received a letter urging us to join the boycotts. My mother forbade me to see it, perhaps not realizing that a nine-year-old boy was more interested in Oliver & Company than a three-hour meditation on the duality of Christ. When I finally saw it twenty years later, I had to take a long walk afterward, unsure whether what I had just watched was a masterpiece or blasphemy.
A recent revisit confirmed that I’m still not sure. The film often strays too far from orthodoxy for comfort, and many of its images and ideas remain unsettling. Screenwriter Paul Schrader’s depiction of Jesus, drawn from Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel, is often contrary to 2,000 years of Christian teaching. The rage Jesus sometimes feels toward the Father—at one point, he says he wants God to hate him—clashes with my understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. And, while Scripture says we have a high priest who understands our sufferings (Hebrews 4:15), Last Temptation saddles Christ with feelings of shame, guilt, and fear that seem nothing like the confident, assured savior I find in Scripture.
Yet there are also moments that make this one of the most beautiful Christ stories put to film. Gone is the aloof Jesus of stuffy biblical epics. Willem Dafoe is electric, making Christ’s sermons feel of the moment, not simply dusted off after two millennia. This Jesus lights up when he delivers the Sermon on the Mount, playfully turns water into wine and dances at a wedding. When considering his crucifixion, he seems not just to be afraid of the suffering to come but to be mourning all he’ll leave behind. For better and for worse, Scorsese’s film presents a very human, sympathetic Christ.
I used to struggle with whether to admire or reject The Last Temptation of Christ. To praise it, I felt, would be to accept things that are misinterpreted at best, blasphemous at worst. Yet to discount it felt like I was throwing away the one depiction of a Jesus who was fully human: a three-dimensional person who laughed, cried, loved, and feared, a man who was full of the vivacity you’d expect from the creator of laughter, but who could also be recognized as a man of sorrows. Could I embrace a Jesus movie that got so much else wrong?
These days, I understand how silly that question is. Finite, imperfect beings who dare to depict the infinite, perfect God will always get something wrong. That’s a side effect of seeing through a glass darkly. Most films tend to err on the side of Christ’s deity and are so afraid of depicting him incorrectly that they make him cold and emotionless—flannelgraph as film. The Last Temptation goes the other direction, depicting a Jesus whose humanness might be too close for comfort.
The most I can ask of people telling spiritual stories is to treat the subject matter seriously. And not once during The Last Temptation of Christ does it seem like Scorsese and Schrader are flipping a middle finger at the Church. Both have their own conflicted faith histories—Scorsese grew up a devout Catholic, while Schrader’s parents were strict Calvinists—and you can feel them wrestling with the film’s concepts in every scene, trying to unpack just how Christ could be fully God and fully man.
The results are mixed. The film is one of Scorsese’s messier ones, and he and Schrader have dealt with similar themes much better in the past. It contains some of the director’s most surreal, beautiful imagery, such as a sequence in which Jesus literally offers his heart to his disciples. But they’re coupled with some of his most baffling aesthetic decisions, such as the disciples’ thick New York accents. But questions of quality aside, there’s always a sense that the filmmakers are trying to wrap their arms around the Gospel’s deepest themes, even as they realize they’ll never totally get there.
In grappling with the film’s strengths and weaknesses, I find myself returning to Scripture to examine its claims about Christ. I’ve sought out commentary from film reviewers and theologians. I’ve questioned who I think Christ is, what the Bible says about him, and what it meant for him to be fully human. When did he fully realize his role in God’s plan? Was he confused and afraid? If so, is that a sin or just part of being a man?
In the film, I see reminders of what the incarnation meant—that God can laugh, dance, cry, hunger, and get angry. In the aftermath of the controversial hallucination sequence, which showcases just what it meant for Christ to be tempted in every way, his triumphant cry of “It is accomplished” holds so much more power. I even find my understanding of who Christ is strengthened through a depiction of who he is not. This same film that I was told would destroy my faith has actually strengthened it.
That’s the power of dangerous art. If we engage it, chew on it, and wrestle with it, it can be transformative. It can lead to new insights, strengthen convictions, and offer a fresh point of view. The best art makes us better—the worst just leaves us the same.
It would be ideal for this sanctifying art to come from inside the church. However, most “faith-based” entertainment—created for and by Christians—is not interested in transformation. While some intend to use these works to evangelize (a concern for another day), the truth is that most purveyors of faith-based films, books, and music realize they’re preaching to the choir. From that point, their mission becomes twofold: never offend, and reinforce what the core audience already believes. These stories paint Christians as beleaguered minorities, atheists as slimy villains, and God as a cosmic vending machine. They’re cinematic “attaboys” that tell us we’re doing awesome and that we should never change. One day, they say, we’ll win and the others will either join us in victory or perish in flames.
But if we accept art as having a place in the church, then how do we reconcile films like God’s Not Dead with Ephesians 4’s description of the church as a place to develop spiritual maturity? This maturity doesn’t come through applause but through wrestling, testing, and questioning. Good, sanctifying art must exhort, rebuke, and provoke instead of placating and encouraging spiritual stasis. Rather than securing our immediate assent, it should compel us to pursue deeper discussion, more in-depth study, and prayerful contemplation. The art that most challenges us tends to come from outside the church, from storytellers and artists who often wrestle with faith and spirituality through a prism of doubt and questions. Their works often shake us and brings us face to face with uncomfortable content. And while we must be discerning, I’ve found that engaging this dangerous material has often been more fruitful than ignoring it.
In talking about the importance of deep doctrine in his book Future Grace, John Piper writes, “Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves; digging is hard, but you might find diamonds” (10). It’s the same with film, literature, and music. Most faith-based art only asks us to rake. It leaves us thinking our spirits are renewed when we’ve merely had our egos stroked. The majority of art that has enriched my soul has, instead, come from the works that initially trouble, confound, and frighten me. Albums like David Bazan’s Curse Your Branches or films like The Last Temptation of Christ require deep digging that ultimately results in spiritual maturity. They frustrate, move, anger, and confound me, finally bringing me to a place of greater understanding and spiritual peace. Sure, there are mounds of dirt to sort through and rocks to toss, but the labor’s not in vain. There are diamonds waiting to be unearthed.