Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Putting words in Jesus’s mouth

One of the last films I saw at the 27th Seattle International Film Festival was an intriguing little flick called Second Coming. I have no idea if or when it will be released or what the reaction will be to it if and when that happens.

The film relates what happens in the year 2001 when Jesus, as promised 20 centuries before, makes an appearance. Personally, for a long time I’ve had my own ideas how it might go upon Jesus’s return. I was interested to see that this film’s ideas were not completely different from my own. The key thing—surprise, surprise—is that many of the people who spend the most time invoking Jesus’s name, do not recognize Him when He actually arrives in the flesh or they cannot reconcile themselves to the fact that He does not endorse their own particular interpretation of what He taught.

Where the film surpasses me is in its outright negativity over the way it shows the leadership of a certain large church reacting. I don’t know if this is intended as a barb specifically to Catholicism or if Catholicism is just standing in for all organized religion. In any event, the nefarious events depicted in Vatican City neatly mirror the original Christ story in that it is again Rome washing its hands of Christ’s blood. But here the “Romans” are not simply doing the dirty work of the locals but are cynically preserving their own earthly power. This time around, it is not a case of “they know not what they do.”

Since this film was low-budget and has no big-name Hollywood talent associated with it, it will probably not attract much attention and hence there will probably be little public outrage expressed by religious leaders. But if I were a spokesperson for a church, I would certainly want to defend myself against its bitter accusations. It will be interesting to see if any do. In the meantime, it puts me in mind of another film that did attract a lot of protest for its treatment of Jesus as a character.

In 1988 a Martin Scorsese film was released and Christians howled. There were protests and boycotts and a whole lot of fuss because The Last Temptation of Christ, adapted from a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, portrayed Jesus (played by Willem Dafoe) marrying and having a family. The outrage stemmed from the fact that no such events were reported in the Bible and it was therefore sacrilegious to dramatize them. Like most such protests, it simply had the effect of spurring people like me to go see the movie when I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. I was surprised at how impressed I was by the film. As the Bible does relate, Jesus went into the desert where He was tempted by Satan. We don’t know all the ways that He was tempted, but Last Temptation imagines how the last and most powerful of these temptations might have been.

The movie doesn’t literally suggest that Jesus got married and had kids. It just suggests that Satan might have caused Jesus to hallucinate or perhaps (in Star Trek parlance) to live an alternate time line in order to experience what it would be like to have His own family so that it would be more difficult for Him to make his ultimate sacrifice. Seeing in such down-to-earth terms exactly what Jesus actually gave up in order to die on the cross brings home the message of Christianity in clarity you rarely get from church sermons. This film was a wonderful educational tool for understanding what Christianity is all about, and yet many people ironically condemned it in the name of Christianity on a technicality. In fact, it wasn’t even a technicality since the condemnation was based on a false impression—that the film was literally depicting Jesus getting married when that wasn’t the case. But then it was an easy mistake since most of the people doing the condemning had apparently not bothered to actually see the film.

So, I would like to make one small request of anyone out there who might be planning to condemn and protest Second Coming. If you want to mount a protest or a boycott of the movie, it is within your right to do so and indeed you should do so if your conscience requires it. All I would ask before you do that, however, is that you at least go see the movie.

-S.L., 21 June 2001

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