[ by Charles Cameron — The Last Temptation of Christ troubles, an early warning re the upcoming Jesus of Nazareth movie — the blood libel and more ]
American and European Christians, too, can react violently to films they perceive as blasphemous, and this too we should remember as we weigh our own responses to the rioting in Cairo and elsewhere.
Martin Scorsese‘s Last Temptation of Christ gives us a sense of how modern American and European Christians can react to perceived blasphemy, while the forthcoming Paul Verhoeven movie of his own book Jesus of Nazareth will test the degree to which we’ve learned the lessons of a quarter century ago — and of this last week.
Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ: stirred strong feelings when it opened. I was in LA at the time, and was following the controversy fairly closely having attended an early screening, and having both literary and theological interests.
The short video clip below is a little choppy, it doesn’t make it particularly clear that the clips you see are from the film Martin Scorsese made of a novel — written by the Nobel laureate Nikos Kazantzakis — which makes no attempt nor pretense to be a historical or religiously orthodox portrayal of Christ. IMO, it is worth watching for the glimpse it gives of just how strong the undercurrents of emotion aroused by Scorsese’s film were at the time:
I’m bringing this subject up and attending to it in some detail because NBC World News mentioned Martin Scorsese’s movie on the 13th of this month, in an explanation as to Why films and cartoons of Muhammad spark violence, but without gwetting the picture quite right:
Director Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of a book by the same name showed Jesus struggling with lust, depression and doubt, and engaging in sex — in his imaginings — before snapping back to reality and dying on the cross. That movie was seen as blasphemy by some Christians, who — though not violent — were vocal enough to prevent the film from being shown in many parts of the United States.
There may have been no violence done to humans in the US — but there as certainly damage to property, and some vicious threats made, as The Encyclopedia of Religion and Film records:
At the Cineplex Odeon Showcase Theater in New York City, vandals slashed seats and spray-painted threats aimed at the chairman of MCA: “Lew Wasserman: If you release ‘The Last Temptation of Christ,’ we will wait years and decimate all Universal property. This message is for your insurance company.”
In parts of Europe, the violence was more intense:
Overseas, at the September 28 opening in Paris, demonstrators who had gathered for a prayer vigil threw tear gas canisters at the theater’s entrance. Catholic clergy led rock-throwing and fire-bombing assaults on theaters in many French municipalities. A thousand rioters in Athens trashed the Opera cinema, ripping apart the screen and destroying the projection equipment.
In Paris, specifically, the violence severely injured some human targets. From Wikipedia (with their footnotes removed — you can track the various quotes from the original page):
On October 22, 1988, a French Christian fundamentalist group launched Molotov cocktails inside the Parisian Saint Michel movie theater while it was showing the film. This attack injured thirteen people, four of whom were severely burned. The Saint Michel theater was heavily damaged, and reopened 3 years later after restoration. Following the attack, a representative of the film’s distributor, United International Pictures, said, “The opponents of the film have largely won. They have massacred the film’s success, and they have scared the public.” Jack Lang, France’s Minister of Culture, went to the St.-Michel theater after the fire, and said, “Freedom of speech is threatened, and we must not be intimidated by such acts.”
The Catholic response — from the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris among others — reproved both the blasphemy and the rioting:
The Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, said “One doesn’t have the right to shock the sensibilities of millions of people for whom Jesus is more important than their father or mother.” After the fire he condemned the attack, saying, “You don’t behave as Christians but as enemies of Christ. From the Christian point of view, one doesn’t defend Christ with arms. Christ himself forbade it.” The leader of Christian Solidarity, a Roman Catholic group that had promised to stop the film from being shown, said, “We will not hesitate to go to prison if it is necessary.”
There was apparently a connection with French far-right politics, too:
The attack was subsequently blamed on a Christian fundamentalist group linked to Bernard Antony, a representative of the far-right National Front to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, and the excommunicated followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Lefebvre had been excommunicated from the Catholic Church on July 2, 1988. Similar attacks against theatres included graffiti, setting off tear-gas canisters and stink bombs, and assaulting filmgoers.
There were legal proceedings following the Saint Michel incident, and it’s notable that Fr. Gérard Calvet OSB, founder and Prior of the Benedictine Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux, testified at the tribunal on behalf of the convicted youths, describing their motives if not their mode of expression as “noble”. Would that term be equally applicable to protesters of blasphemies against other faiths? We now live in a dense-packed world where such comparisons are easily made.
Let’s pause for a minute over the twinned remarks of the late (and widely respected) Cardinal Lustiger concerning Last Temptation —
Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, said “One doesn’t have the right to shock the sensibilities of millions of people for whom Jesus is more important than their father or mother.” After the fire he condemned the attack, saying, “You don’t behave as Christians but as enemies of Christ. From the Christian point of view, one doesn’t defend Christ with arms. Christ himself forbade it.”
and compare the remarks of a similarly authoritative religious figure in Libya to the Innocence of Muslims video:
Libya’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Sadeq Al-Ghariani, has issued a fatwa condemning Tuesday’s killing of US Ambassador Chris Stevens along with three other American diplomatic staff and a number of Libya security guards. He said those involved were criminals who were damned by their action.
He also condemned the production of any film, picture or article insulting the Prophet Mohammad or any of the prophets by “extreme fanatics” in the US or elsewhere. The Prophet Muhammad, Ghariani said, had specifically forbidden the killing of ambassadors and envoys.
Almost a quarter century has passed since Scorsese’s movie opened, but as I said above, we will soon have an opportunity to show what we have learned from those lamentable events in Paris and the more recent tragedies in Benghazi, Cairo and elsewhere.
Paul Verhoeven — the director of such blockbusters as RoboCop, the original Total Recall, and Basic Instinct — has raised the financing for his upcoming movie Jesus of Nazareth, based on his book of the same name, and scripted by Roger Avary, who shared an Oscar with Quentin Tarrentino for their Pulp Fiction screenplay.
Verhoeven, be it noted, is not only a writer and movie director, but also a member of the Jesus Seminar — a group of scholars which, as Wikipedia nicely puts it, “treats the canonical gospels as historical sources that represent Jesus’ actual words and deeds as well as elaborations of the early Christian community and of the gospel authors” and prepares color-coded editions of the gospels suggesting which sayings of Jesus should be considered original, and which are better understood as later additions.
Here, to give you an idea of what may be on the horizon, is an excerpt from a quick and informal take on the upcoming movie by an admirer of Verhoeven:
Deadline reports that the legendary Paul Verhoeven — a guy who, amazingly, only directed three movies in the past fifteen years — has received financing to adapt his own book, Jesus of Nazareth, which discounts every mythical story surrounding Christ and, instead, opts to present him as a simple human figure with a message powerful enough to radiate throughout time. Roger Avary (Tarantino‘s story partner on Pulp Fiction) will write the film, while Muse Productions are doing the proper backing.
Almost any work going against the long-held Biblical grain will get groups up in arms — no, I don’t even need to provide examples — but the claims of Nazareth are, even in this context, still mighty contentious. Most notable is the idea that Jesus is not the son of God, but was actually the product of Mary being raped by a Roman soldier; so, right off the bat, you’re discounting the entire foundation of his story.
I am pointing this out because right now would be a good time for the various churches to begin a general conversation about the film-maker’s right to hold an opinion, write a book and make a movie, the hurt that may be felt by believers, and the importance of responding without hatred or violence when offended.
In our concern with matters of Christian and Muslim issues, let us not lose sight of the fact that Jews too have movies made about them that may not only hurt feelings but also represent real threats against them, reminiscent of Nazi and earlier Russian antisemitic propaganda fabrications.
From the copious “blood libel” entry in Wikipedia:
In 2003 a private Syrian film company created a 29-part television series Ash-Shatat (“The Diaspora”). This series originally aired in Lebanon in late 2003 and was broadcast by Al-Manar, a satellite television network owned by Hezbollah. This TV series, based on the antisemitic forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, shows the Jewish people as engaging in a conspiracy to rule the world, and presents Jews as people who murder Christian children, drain their blood and use this blood to bake matzah.
MEMRI has a report with further details, and a MEMRI clip of the scene in which a Christian child is killed by Jews has been posted on YouTube, with the comment:
Al-Shatat: Jews Murder A Christian Child and Use His Blood for Passover Matzos. anti Semite Arab propaganda against Jews, Judaism and Israel.
The following is a scene from the Syrian-produced TV series Al-Shatat. Al-Shatat was first aired on Hizbullah’s Al-Manar TV during the month of Ramadan 2003, and then on two Iranian channels during Ramadan 2004. Al-Mamnou’ TV, a new Jordanian channel, is airing Al-Shatat during Ramadan 2005.
It is worth recalling, too, that Mel Gibson‘s film, The Passion of the Christ, was perceived by many Jews, Christians and others as anti-Semitic — and that nonetheless the Orthodox Jew and conservative movie critic Michael Medved wrote:
The possibility of anti-Jewish violence in response to the film has been irresponsibly emphasized and has become, self-fulfilling prophecy. In parts of Europe and the Islamic world, anti-Semitic vandalism and violence occur daily, and hardly need a film by a Hollywood superstar to encourage them. In this context, Jewish denunciations of the movie only increase the likelihood that those who hate us will seize on the movie as an excuse for more of hatred.
I trust it is not too late to wish our Jewish readers l’shana tova: may your apples be dipped in honey and all our days bathed in peace.