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Religionists Should Resist Temptation to Push Views

July 28, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

Some years ago, Gerald Green wrote a book called "The Last Angry Man," about an elderly family doctor who was still capable of feeling outrage and said so, ardently, incisively and frequently. The title was instructive. He may well, indeed, have been the last angry American, who saw things in a large perspective, from a place of humanism, and allowed his anger to be expressed.

Today, we seem to be more concerned with public relations than the expression of forceful, individual opinions--even among the elderly who have very little to lose. As a result, zealots have moved into this vacuum--people with a single ax to grind and a total lack of any larger perspective, whose fulminations have a growing influence on what we see and read and how we live.

A current case in point is the group of fundamentalist religionists who have raised so much hell about an unreleased movie called "The Last Temptation of Christ" that there is a chance we may not get to see it in Orange County. Jim Edwards Jr., a spokesman for the largest theater chain in the county, was quoted in The Times recently as saying: "We've been getting a lot of calls. We haven't had an opportunity to see the film, and there has been no discussion about booking dates. But I can assure you we will not show a film that intentionally denigrates the image of Christ."

There are several unfortunate elements in this statement. First, it is implied that a booking decision will be heavily influenced by phone calls from the community. Phone calls come from true believers. Always. To make decisions that affect a broad section of the community on the basis of phone calls from a single dedicated, determined segment of that community is neither fair nor responsible.

But even more important is the statement that Edwards won't show a film that "intentionally denigrates the image of Christ." Who decides whether the film does that? Fundamentalist pastors, who represent their own theology and nothing else? The theater owner? Pressure groups who would project their own biases on the entire community? Who, indeed, can say whether the film "intentionally" denigrates Christ except the man who made it--and he has denied that vigorously.

In my view, all of this noise and agitation is irrelevant. At the age of 67, I think I'm quite capable of deciding for myself the merits of a creative work, and I would like to have that opportunity. The only thing I have in common with the clerics who want to keep this movie out of our theaters is that none of us has seen it. They apparently are basing their threats on old scripts that have long since been superseded. They have refused to see the film because they have already made up their minds that it is reprehensible, and they don't want to clutter their thinking with facts.

Meanwhile, the studio releasing the film, Universal, has set its own game in motion. Universal sponsored a screening for a selected group of liberal theologians who predictably found no reason not to release the film. Although my personal feelings are much closer to this group, I don't really much care what they think, either. I just, for God's sake--and I intend the double meaning, want to see the movie and judge for myself. I want to use whatever perceptions and intelligence God gave me to make my own decisions.

The laissez-faire business people who worship at the shrine of a free market suddenly suffer myopia when pressure groups begin to make threatening noises. If no one comes to see this film, it quite properly should be removed from the marketplace. Maybe it is a lousy movie. I don't know. But I don't want prior restraint exercised by people who not only have not seen the film but are forcing their own views down the throats of people who may or may not agree.

Those of us who have no need to force others to conform to our own views are the losers in such affairs as this. I have strong feelings, for example, about violence in films. I believe that a lot of the gratuitous violence now apearing on Orange County screens is obscene. But I don't try to force others to subscribe to my views by purging these films from the theaters. I just don't go.

Older people who have the perspective of many years of watching zealots in action should be out front to blunt their attacks. These true believers are telling us--and everyone else, as far as that goes--that they are protecting us from ourselves, that we don't have the good sense or resources to make our own judgments. Their counter argument, of course, is that maybe "we" do, but there are a lot of young and unsophisticated people out there who need to be protected. That is baloney, too. Children would have no interest in this film, and I suspect there is no group less sophisticated than those who want to impose their fears on all of us.

So bug off. Let this picture find its market. Go check out the Christian values in "Dirty Harry."

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