Friday, February 21, 2014

25 years ago: Violent Islamic protests over The Satanic Verses contrast with peaceful Christian protests over The Last Temptation of Christ

On February 14, 1989, Iran's Supreme Ruler, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa--a legal judgment--encouraging Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie, author of the novel The Satanic Verses (1988), accused of being disrespectful to the prophet Muhammad. The fatwa came amidst violent protests against the novel in several Muslim countries. The day after the fatwa, one of the Ayatollah's aides offered $1 million for the death of Mr. Rushdie. On February 18, Mr. Rushdie issued a statement saying, "I profoundly regret the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam." The next day, the Ayatollah rejected the apology, and Mr. Rushdie was forced into hiding for the next 9 1/2 years, until a new Iranian President, Mohammed Khatami, publicly stated that Iran would not support the fatwa. Of course, just because the government of Iran may not officially support the fatwa doesn't mean that private individuals or organizations don't still support it, and there are still people who would be quite happy to kill Mr. Rushdie or reward anyone who does.

In Western nations, university campuses showed their support for freedom by holding marathon public readings of The Satanic Verses. As an aside, it was during such activity at the University of Alberta that I discovered a number of books by American novelist Thomas Dixon (1864-1946) on the shelves of Rutherford Library. I'd heard of Mr. Dixon years earlier, but had never read any of his books, and had never bothered looking for them. When I found his novels in the library early in 1989, the first one I read was his most notorious: The Clansman (1905), which inspired the famous film The Birth of a Nation (1915). I found the book to be racist and offensive by modern standards, but it's also entertaining and fascinating to read, and is one of my guilty pleasures. I couldn't help but think that if people at the university really believed in "freedom to read," they should hold public readings from The Clansman. The reader may go here for a free dowload of The Clansman and make up his own mind.

The protests by Muslims against The Satanic Verses occurred about six months after protests by Christians--mainly in the United States--against the motion picture The Last Temptation of Christ, which portrayed Jesus Christ in a manner that could charitably be described as blasphemous and defamatory. It's hard not to notice the difference between Islamic reaction against The Satanic Verses--a novel that hadn't yet been committed to screen--and Christian reaction against The Last Temptation of Christ. The movie was based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, originally published in Greek as O Teleutaios Peirasmos in 1953, and first published in English as The Last Temptation in 1960.

As to the movie and the controversy surrounding it, a typical establishment media view was expressed by critic David Ehrenstein in his notes accompanying the DVD of the movie. Mr. Ehrenstein is a typical liberal--accusing others of what he's guilty of himself. To paraphrase Mr. Ehrenstein, his account is a mixture of half-truths, outright lies, and anti-Christian slurs--with the addition of a large dose of Jewish paranoia. However, his description of the movie's content is very accurate:

The Last Temptation of Christ is, without question, one of the most serious, literate, complex, and deeply felt religious films ever made...this adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis' imaginative retelling of the life of Christ should surely be discussed...by theological scholars and thoughtful moviegoers for years to come. Unfortunately, such serious discussion has been blocked by a yowling mob of right-wing zealots who have stood in the way of all discussions of the work since it was first released in 1988...

...In 1983, Scorcese began preproduction on the film for Paramount Pictures...But weeks before the shooting was to begin the project was canceled--at least in part as a result of a letter-writing campaign engineered by right-wing Christian groups. They claimed that Last Temptation would portray Christ as a homosexual--though such a notion figured neither in the Kazantzakis novel nor in the film Scorsese planned. Unbowed, Scorsese persevered, eventually making Last Temptation for Universal (for an estimated $6 million to $8 million) four years later...

...But by that time, the hysterical fantasies of a select few had given way to the organized campaign of a larger and more sinister consortium. Fueled by half-truths, outright lies, and anti-Semitic slurs--the likes of which haven't been heard since the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg--this well-orchestrated campaign demanded nothing less than Last Temptation's total destruction. Spearheaded by Tim Penland of MasterMedia and Bill Bright of the Campus Crusade for Christ, an ad hoc committee of self-styled "fundamentalist leaders" declared that a film none of them had seen depicted " a mentally-deranged, lust-driven man who, in a dream sequence, comes down off the cross and has a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene." If Universal would not burn the negative, they offered to buy it to destroy it themselves.

Predictably, those TV-savvy reverends Jerry Falwell and Donald Wildmon joined the chorus of disapproval, along with the three Pats--Robertson, Buchanan, and Boone. Though they hadn't seen the film, they were far from disinclined to discuss it. Likewise, director Franco Zeffirelli withdrew his Young Toscanini from the Venice Film Festival when he learned that Last Temptation--which he described sight-unseen as "truly horrible and completely deranged"--was invited there for a screening. In this he was little different from the Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Mahony, who, though he hadn't seen the film, deemed it "morally offensive."

Still, the archbishop made a point of distancing his critique from the protests of the Reverend H.L. Hymers, who staged a rally in front of the home of Lew Wasserman, then chairman of MCA, the parent company of Universal Pictures. Carrying placards proclaiming "Wasserman fans anti-Semitism," the minister and his flock proceeded to provide the fanning--chanting to all who'd hear that "Jewish money" was behind Last Temptation.

Had the Reverend Hymers been a bit more attentive to detail, he would have been aware that Nikos Kazantzakis was of the Greek Orthodox faith; that Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplay, was raised as a Calvinist; and that Martin Scorsese was a Roman Catholic. But then, Hymers hadn't seen the film either. And why should he, or any of Last Temptation's foes, want to confuse themselves with the facts?

Rather than a "blasphemous" attack on Christ's divinity, climaxing wit a salacious "sex scene," The Last Temptation of Christ is a stirring affirmation of faith both in ther person of Jesus and in his teachings. This affirmation is unorthodox only in that it requires a viewer to think about the meaning of the gospels for every one of the film's 163 minutes. And it is this process of thought that the film's attackers can't abide--particularly as such thought involves the paradox of Jesus' simultaneous divinity and humanity. And this is the crux of the matter. For The Last Temptation of Christ presents divinity not as a given, but rather as a process Christ explores through his humanity. Consequently, the film's message couldn't be simpler. By experiencing Jesus' divinity as a process, we come to learn how the divine might enter our own lives.

We first meet Jesus as a grown man--frail and terrified. Troubled by crippling headaches and mystical visions, he's well aware that he isn't like ordinary men but is uncertain about what the future holds in store for him. He sees himself as a sinner, for while he's resisted sin, he feels he's done so out of cowardice. He takes personal responsibility for the fact that Mary Magdalene has become a prostitute--blaming himself for not having married her and provided a normal life.

His friend Judas is convinced that Jesus' future is in politics--as the man who will lead the Jews in revolt against their Roman captors. But after meditating in the desert, Jesus comes to a different realization of his destiny. Slowly gathering about him the group of men and women who would become his disciples, he begins to preach.

"I'll just open my mouth and God will do the talking," he says at first. Later, as he gains conviction, he talks both of love and of "the sword." Finally, he comes to realize that his purpose on Earth is to be the "lamb of God," sacrificing himself on the cross. He urges Judas to betray him in order to accomplish this mission. And it is on the cross he faces his "last temptation."

Looking down, Jesus sees a beautiful little girl who claims to be an angel of the Lord. She tells him his sufferings are over and that he doesn't have to go through with the crucifixion. It is only a test--like God's telling Abraham to kill his son Isaac. Taking him to a verdant valley, the girl presents him to Mary Magdalene for marriage. Magdalene later dies, but Jesus continues living a quiet life with Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus--the man whom he raised from the dead. "There is only one woman in the world," the girl tells him. He fathers children and lives to a ripe old age. But on Jesus' deathbed an angry Judas confronts him. He tells him he's missed his calling by not being crucified. And he reveals that the angelic-looking girl is, in fact, the devil. Realizing the truth, Jesus recommits himself to God--and finds himself back on the cross. In truth, he's been there all along. The "last temptation" took place in a flash, between his questioning why God has "forsaken him" and his final declaration that "it is accomplished." It is in this final moment that Christ's divinity is fully revealed.

All of this, needless to say, means nothing to the film's enemies, who have used it as little more than a ploy to regain ground lost in the wake of the Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart money and sex scandals. And that's not to mention those other opportunists, who, in the wake of Last Temptation, have created a powerful reactionary political lobby within the Republican Party that calls itself "Christian" while harboring beliefs and attitudes that are more political than spiritual.

But that is another matter--and the possible subject of another movie. For the moment, it is enough to contemplate--in reasoned calm--the power and glory of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ.
David Ehrenstein, DVD, 2000, The Criterion Collection

Evidence to rebut Mr. Ehrenstein's contentions are taken mainly from Michael Medved's book Hollywood vs. America (1992), pp. 37-49, and John Ankerberg & John Weldon's out-of-print but very informative booklet The Facts on "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988). I saw the movie on DVD in 2013 (which explains why I'm able to quote Mr. Ehrenstein's notes), and I can confirm that everything in the movie cited by Messrs. Ankerberg & Weldon and others critical of the film is accurate.

Mr. Ehrenstein claims that serious discussion of the film has been blocked by a "yowling mob" of right-wing zealots who have stood in the way of all discussions of the work..." On the contrary, it was Christian leaders who wanted a serious discussion of the movie's content, and they were denied that privilege. Two weeks before the movie's release, John Ankerberg invited representatives of Universal Studios to appear on the John Ankerberg Television Show to discuss the movie with Campus Crusade for Christ president Bill Bright, American Family Association director Donald Wildmon, newspaper columnist Cal Thomas, and lawyer and Christian apologist John Warwick Montgomery. Universal Studios officially declined the opportunity (Ankerberg & Weldon, pp. 40-41). At the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Washington, D.C. in February 1988, representatives of Universal Studios promised to allow 10 Christian leaders to view the film two months before its release, and that they would be allowed to delete materials that they found offensive to their beliefs. A preview screening scheduled for June 1988, and a July 12 preview screening for evangelical leaders was also cancelled--although a screening was held that day for liberal clergy (Ankerberg & Weldon, p. 41).

Mr. Ehrenstein may be partially right when he says that early protest against the movie was based on a belief that Jesus Christ would be portrayed as a homosexual. There's a long-standing urban legend within evangelicalism that says that a movie portraying the sex life of Christ is in the works. This goes back at least as far as 1978; I remember seeing a half-hour television broadcast that summer on that subject, hosted by Pat Boone and sponsored by an organization called the Interfaith Committee Against Blasphemy, based in Glendale, California, if I remember correctly. A campaign urging that protest letters be sent to "Attorney General Scott" of Illinois (why, I don't know) was still going on 10 years later (when I received one such form letter with a space for my signature, to be sent to the aforementioned Mr. Scott). Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper discussed the myth in his book Hollywood Urban Legends (2001), pp. 113-118. I don't know if Christians in 1983 were assuming that The Last Temptation of Christ was the movie that they had been hearing about, or whether Mr. Ehrenstein is confused or misinformed about the early protests.

The "sinister consortium" that Mr. Ehrenstein mentions, whose protests culminated in a protest of 25,000 people outside the "Black Tower" housing the head offices of MCA/Universal in Universal City, California on August 11, 1988, included the National Council of Catholic Bishops; National Catholic Conference; Southern Baptist Convention; Eastern Orthodox Church of America; Archbishop of Canterbury; Archbishop of Paris; Christian Democratic Party of Italy (Italy's largest political party); 20 members of the United States House of Representatives; and Mother Teresa of Calcutta (Medved, pp. 37-39).

Mr. Ehrenstein makes much of Rev. R.L. Hymers' protests as if he was typical of those who were opposed to the movie, although Mr. Ehrenstein is generous enough to note that Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archbishop Roger Mahony distanced himself from Rev. Hymers. Mr. Medved points out that Rev. Hymers represented virtually no one other than himself and his 250-member Fundamentalist Baptist Tabernacle, but received a disproportionate amount of press coverage, while mainstream Protestant and Catholic protesters denounced Rev. Hymers. However, southern California pastors such as Jack Hayford and Lloyd Ogilvie, whose congregations were each at least 20 times as large as those of Rev. Hymers, were virtually ignored (Medved, pp. 43-44).

The overwhelming majority of the protesters focused their opposition where it rightly belonged--on the content of the movie itself. Mr. Ehrenstein is correct in pointing out that the creative talent behind the movie was Gentile, although novelist Nikos Kazantzakis was actually a pantheist in his beliefs (Ankerberg & Weldon, pp. 47-48). However, as boorish and distasteful as Rev. Hymers' protests were--I especially dislike the idea of protesting outside people's homes--I think it's legitimate to look at who was in charge of the studio that made and distributed The Last Temptation of Christ, especially since MCA/Universal went out of its way to be as offensive and insensitive toward Christians as possible. Tal Brooke, president of Spiritual Counterfeits Project, isn't shy in expressing his opinion:

You recall the timid protesters who dared name Lew Wasserman as the power behind the film on their posters. It was written up in the LA Times. Then Mel Brooks was quoted as becoming so enraged with these protesters as to threaten to do his own film spoofing Jesus Christ. The message: Christians had better shut up fast and learn who's running the show. Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell were nothing compared to what would come ahead.

But the protesters in Hollywood were right. Presiding over MCA Universal pictures when the film came out was Lew Wasserman, chairman and chief executive, and the undisputed ruler of MCA, Inc., the parent of Universal Studios. Beneath him were other collaborators: Sidney Sheinberg, MCA President; Gary Goldstein, heading National Promotion and Field Operations; and Simon Kornblitt, Vice President of Marketing.

The reality is that in film after film attacking the Christian Faith you have been looking at the credits and seeing prominently displayed the names of a trigger-sensitive minority who have helped produce and often directed the films. Ironically, they have been busy at work in the culture, introducing hate crime bills that would ban any critical speech against them, while they have been harping on their own persecution and building expensive museums around the world about their victimization and suffering. The double standard is outrageous, but no one dare protest above a whisper.

You wonder quietly to yourself whether you are really seeing a pattern here (just the fact that you are seeing the pattern may prove that you are just a bigot blinded by prejudice, as many would tell you). If you are the average Christian, this may take years for you to work through if you ever see it at all. Chances are it will be easier for you to look away.
Tal Brooke, Sanctioned Mockery: And the Rise of Attacks on Christians, SCP Journal, 30:4-31:1, 2007, p. 6

Jews have more than enough enemies that they don't deserve, and it doesn't help their cause to attack the faith of those who are virtually their only friends. While inflammatory actions and words such as those of Rev. R.L. Hymers don't encourage Jews to think well of Christians, it's also true that inflammatory behaviour such as that of MCA/Universal and inflammatory language such as that used by Mr. Ehrenstein don't do anything to encourage Christians to think well of Jews. Mr. Ehrenstein's whining about anti-Semitic slurs that "haven't been heard since the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg" is Jewish paranoia at its most absurd and hysterical (and it's probably not a good idea on his part to invoke the names of two traitors).

Mr. Ehrenstein mentions Bill Bright and Tim Penland in his critique, and cites them as examples of Christians who criticized the film without seeing it. As I stated earlier--and which Mr. Ehrenstein neglects to mention--one of the reasons that prominent Christian opponents of the film didn't see it is because Universal Pictures reneged on its promise to them of an advance screening. I didn't agree with Mr. Bright's idea of bribing the studio to destroy prints of the film; it would have been better if Universal had shown good taste and simply shelved the movie. As for Mr. Penland, Mr. Ehrenstein neglects to mention that he was Universal's agent who was dealing with Christian leaders, and he resigned in protest when the studio cancelled the June 1988 advance screening for Christian leaders (Ankerberg & Weldon, p. 41).

Mr. Ehrenstein, while harping on the film's opponents not having seen the movie, also fails to explain how, not having seen the film, their criticisms of the film's content were so accurate; all the things about the movie that they objected to were actually in the movie. The protesters' objections to The Last Temptation of Christ weren't based on nothing, but on a copy of the script that was leaked to Christian leaders in advance of the film's release (Ankerberg & Weldon, p. 41).

Mr. Ehrenstein's praise of the film's depiction of Jesus Christ indicates his total ignorance of the subject; I seriously doubt that he's read the New Testament. The Jesus of The Last Temptation of Christ is filled with doubt and fear, and is consumed with his own sin, which seems impossible for someone of "simultaneous divinity and humanity." He's not worth following, or crucifying. The movie is so far off the mark as far as historical accuracy is concerned that if the real names of the characters weren't used, I wouldn't know who they were. The most accurate part of the movie is the pre-title crawl quoting the novel:

"The dual substance of Christ--the yearning, so human, so superhuman, of man to attain God...has always been a deep inscrutable mystery to me. My principle anguish and source of all my joys and sorrows from my youth onward has been the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh...and my soul is the arena where these two armies have clashed and met."

Nikos Kazantzakis
From the book
"The Last Temptation of Christ"

This film is not based upon the Gospels but upon the fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict.


Blasphemy and historical innacuracy aside, The Last Temptation of Christ is a terrible movie. Mr. Medved says he knows of a number of critics who privately hated the movie, but publicly and hypocritically praised it because they didn't want to be seen as being in sympathy with Christian protesters. Mr. Medved was one of the few critics to publicly slam the film:

It is the height of irony that all this controversy should be generated by a film that turns out to be so breathtakingly bad, so unbearably boring. In my opinion, the controversy about this picture as a lot more interesting than the film itself. Michael Medved, Hollywood vs. America, 1992, p.47

In a 1991 interview on the Focus on the Family radio program, Mr. Medved accurately summed up the movie as 2 hours and 40 minutes of excruciating boredom punctuated with outbursts of pointless violence. As for protests after the release of the movie, the Saint Michel cinema in Paris was bombed shortly after the movie opened there in 1988; I'm not aware of any violent protests in North America. Fellow Christian cultural observer Chris Milner and I dropped by the Westmount Theatre complex in Edmonton on opening night to see if there was any protest taking place. The only protester was Bill Haines, who was handing out evangelistic tracts. He had quite a number left over, because we counted only seven people coming out of the theatre after the early evening screening. I don't think The Last Temptation of Christ lasted more than two weeks in Edmonton theatres, which was typical of its dismal performance at the box office. Estimates of the movie's losses range from $10-14 million (Medved, p. 43).

Nine years after The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese directed another movie--Kundun--about a religious leader, in this case the 14th Dalai Lama, leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Mr. Scorsese made Kundun in association with the Dalai Lama, which certainly was in marked contrast to his attitude toward Christians while making The Last Temptation of Christ. Universal Pictures, which had been so "courageous" in producing and distributing The Last Temptation of Christ, passed on Kundun for fear of offending the Chinese, who refuse to recognize the independence of Tibet or the leadership of the Dalai Lama. Kundun was instead released by Disney. In contrast to the hypocritical near-unanimity in praise for The Last Temptation of Christ, critical opinion on Kundun was more divided. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, who, along with his television colleague Gene Siskel had given an enthusiastic "thumbs up" to The Last Temptation of Christ, gave Kundun a less-glowing, but still positive review, while noticing the difference in Mr. Scorsese's depiction of the main character of each movie:

There is rarely the sense that a living, breathing and (dare I say?) fallible human inhabits the body of the Dalai Lama. Unlike Scorsese's portrait of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, this is not a man striving for perfection, but perfection in the shape of a man. ... Once we understand that "Kundun" will not be a drama involving a plausible human character, we are freed to see the film as it is: an act of devotion, an act even of spiritual desperation, flung into the eyes of 20th century materialism. The film's visuals and music are rich and inspiring, and like a mass by Bach or a Renaissance church painting, it exists as an aid to worship: It wants to enhance, not question.

Kundun managed to surpass The Last Temptation of Christ in one notable area: it was an even bigger box office flop.

It's worth noting that in contrast to the Islamic protests surrounding Mr. Rushdie's novel, the protests against The Last Temptation of Christ--with the exception of the theatre bombing in Paris--were peaceful (even those of Rev. R.L. Hymers). Martin Scorsese has continued to make movies, and no one associated with The Last Temptation of Christ has had to go into hiding for fear of his life. Lest anyone think I have a knee-jerk aversion to anyone associated with this awful movie, I've seen about 10 of Mr. Scorsese's movies, including some he made after The Last Temptation of Christ. I like some of his movies and dislike others. I rate The Aviator (2004) as the best of Mr. Scorsese's movies that I've seen. I haven't seen Kundun--but then, not many have. As for screenwriter Paul Schrader, I don't think he's ever been known to have written anything uplifting--Taxi Driver (1976) is an example of his work--and he's an example of the bitter fruit of Calvinism.

I have yet to hear of any "yowling mob" that's been preventing any serious discussion of The Last Temptation of Christ by, for example, threatening to bomb a film studies department that might want to screen the movie--but maybe Mr. Ehrenstein knows more than I do about that. On January 25, 2014, Wells Cathedral, which is affiliated with the increasingly buffoonish and pagan institution that still goes by the name of the Church of England, put on a screening of the movie, and the event included a live video address from Mr. Scorsese.

It's now been more than 25 years since The Satanic Verses was published. However, as Mr. Medved has pointed out, nobody in Hollywood--including Universal Pictures--has seen fit to make this novel into a movie (Medved, p. 40). Where's the "courage" that Hollywood people are always celebrating when they make movies that might be seen as "controversial?" Such cowardice is understandable, since non-Hollywood filmmakers who've dared to make movies critical of Islam have been the subject of protests similar to those that surrounded The Satanic Verses. One recalls Dutch director Theo van Gogh, who was murdered in Amsterdam on November 2, 2004, several months after the television broadcast of his 10-minute short film Submission (2004); or another Dutch director, Geert Wilders, whose short film Fitna (2008) earned him a fatwa from the terrorist organization al-Qaeda; or Innocence of Muslims (2012), a 14-minute trailer that appeared on YouTube and sparked violent protests in Muslim countries. This blogger awaits the same display of courage by Hollywood filmmakers regarding The Satanic Verses that they so boldly displayed when they inflicted The Last Temptation of Christ on an unreceptive public.

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