"The Last Temptation of Christ"

Article by

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

For the last six years I have written “Advent Poems” which take a biblical character and imaginatively recreate details of their lives on which the Bible is silent. I have created situations and conversations and emotions which very likely did not happen in history.

My favorite is The Innkeeper. Just before his death, Jesus returns to visit the man who gave Mary and Joseph a place to sleep in his barn. Jesus learns that, for this kindness, Herod’s soldiers had killed the innkeeper’s two sons and his wife as she tried to protect them.

Now Martin Scorsese has done the same thing in his film, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Or has he? I haven’t seen the film. I don’t recommend that you see it. My reason is that the images of Jesus that it would leave in your mind—especially the sexual ones—would be destructive to the truth and beauty of what our mental images of Christ should be. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

In view of the Advent Poems, my personal question about film is this: How do you appraise the imaginative reconstruction of a person’s life in those details where history is silent? I don’t have in mind here technical artistic skills (acting, photography, screenplay, scope, etc.). I mean, How do you appraise the truthfulness and integrity of the imaginative reconstruction?

“Truthful fiction” is not a contradiction in terms. Neither is “imagination with integrity.” But what makes the imaginative reconstruction of history’s gaps true or false? My answer would be this: historical imagination is truthful if it honors the trajectory set by the facts of history.

If you study the weight and speed and fuel supply and gravitational pull of a launching rocket you can have a good idea where it is going to be in the remaining time of its flight. Its future flight can be calculated by the trajectory we have seen.

What we have in the New Testament is not the whole life of Christ, nor every thought and emotion that he had. Instead, what we have is a very full description of the trajectory of his mind and heart. When it comes to imaginative reconstruction of what the New Testament does not say, the question of integrity and truthfulness is the question of whether the reconstruction honors the trajectory set by what we know from the New Testament.

If that question could be the focus of your discussion with people about this film, it could prove very fruitful. My effort to describe the trajectory of Jesus’ life and character is found on pages 240-246 in Desiring God. And my conclusion from what I have read of Scorsese’s film is that his imaginative Jesus swerves outside the trajectory of history and therefore is untruthful and dishonoring to the Jesus who really was—and is! Just as much as if someone’s imagination showed Mother Teresa in the unknown corners of her life picking the pockets of the dying poor.

In devotion to the living Christ,

Pastor John