Some San Fernando Valley churchgoers will be urged today to take a range of action against the film "The Last Temptation of Christ," from writing letters to boycotting the movie, local religious leaders say.
Of eight churches and synagogues contacted Friday, conservative evangelical congregations appeared to most strongly oppose the film, which was directed by Martin Scorsese and is set for release in September by Universal Studios. Officials from other faiths expressed a range of opinions, from opposition to the movie to acceptance of it as an expression of art.
View of Christ
The film, adapted from a 1955 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, has sparked a national controversy because it is said to portray Jesus as struggling with the desire for a secular life and with not wanting to die on the cross. One surreptitiously circulated version of the script, written by Paul Schrader, is said to contain a scene in which Jesus dreams he is making love to Mary Magdalene.
"It ought to be banned on the basis that it's slanderous," said the Rev. Richard Laue, pastor of the 1,200-member Calvary Bible Church in Burbank.
But other officials, including David Richardson, pastor of the United Methodist Church in Northridge, and Rabbi Bernard M. Cohen of the Reform Temple Solael in West Hills, regard the film as an artistic expression.
"There have always been different interpretations of Jesus' life," Richardson said. "Even in different parts of the Bible."
Laue said nowhere in the Bible is Jesus' character impugned the way it is in the movie. He said petitions urging Universal Studios not to release the film will be made available at his church for signing after services today.
Other evangelical church officials in the Valley stopped short of calling for a ban on the film. The issue nevertheless is of great concern to many Christians, said the Rev. James J. Harris, pastor of the Evangelical Free Church of the Canyons, whose weekly radio show tonight on the Christian FM station KKLA will feature a discussion of the film.
"I'd do anything peaceful I could to keep people from seeing this film, including personally participating in picket lines," Harris said.
Some evangelical leaders said they will urge their congregations in the following weeks to express their opposition by writing to the studio.
"We're not going to storm the gates of the movie theaters," said Stephen Hamilton, manager of communications for Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, which draws crowds of up to 10,000 for its Sunday services. "But if Universal Studios releases this film, we will choose not to do business with any other companies owned by MCA, even though we recognize they have a right to artistic expression."
Opinion among Catholic churches in the Valley was divided. Last week, Los Angeles Archbishop Roger H. Mahoney issued a statement saying the church will declare the film "morally offensive." The Catholic church classifies films with a rating system that includes categories ranging from "condemned" to "acceptable."
Father Joseph Gaffney, associate pastor of St. John Eudes in Chatsworth, which has 3,000 members, said he agrees with the archbishop and will tell parishioners today that he believes the film is "contrary to the Scriptures." He said he will urge his congregation to boycott the film.
But Father Raymond Faplis of St. Euphrasia Church in Granada Hills said he will not mention the issue to his 1,300 parishioners until he sees the film.
Another priest, Father John Wishard of St. Genevieve's in Panorama City, said he opposes a boycott of the film and thinks the issue has been blown out of proportion, although he said he believes the film probably merits a "morally offensive" rating.
"The irony is that all this attention is just going to enhance the box office receipts," he said.