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Some Final Words on Critics of 'The Last Temptation of Christ'

October 13, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

Two months ago, I used this space to deplore the actions of pressure groups to keep a movie called "The Last Temptation of Christ" out of theaters in Orange County--and elsewhere. Shortly after that column was published, I left on a lengthy trip, an act of cowardice that can be excused because the trip had been planned long before the controversy over this film arose.

Predictably, I received a fair amount of mail about the column, most of it taking issue with my position. The letters--which remain unanswered because of my absence--were, for the most part, thoughtful, reasoned and moderate. At the risk of flogging a dead horse, I would like to quote from some of them today--and to stand back a step or two from the heat and look at this matter from a new perspective.

The movie, by now, has come, and in most areas, gone. It turned out to be considerably less than a box-office blockbuster and did, as I suggested, find its market. The film probably would have played in art houses without the hype that resulted from the controversy. The efforts to suppress it undoubtedly resulted in more people seeing it, but that titillation appeared to pass quickly, and the film reverted to the small audience that would have gone to see it anyway.

All across the United States, I found newspapers full of letters similar to those that awaited me on my return. The objections to the film--and the anger toward those who opposed the protests--seemed to break down into three basic arguments:

* The protesters weren't seeking censorship but simply wanted to register their outrage at the content of the film--which they have every right to do.

* The power of the movies to persuade--especially to persuade young people--is enormous and must be monitored and controlled lest it corrupt.

* This movie offends in a very personal sense by blackening with lies the character of the deity embraced by the protesters.

On the first point, Beverly Bush Smith of El Toro wrote: "Christians are not trying to foist their views onto everyone else, and they do not seek censorship. But in this land of free speech, we do have the right to protest the film. This protest is not just a matter of 'morality' but one of blasphemy of our Lord, the one we worship."

On the second point, Judy Winn of Costa Mesa wrote: "No matter how much we'd like to believe that our society consists of individuals possessing an ability to make their own judgments, there is no doubt of the persuasive influence that movies, books and articles have on the formation of people's opinions. And that persuasion is especially effective with our teen-agers and young adults. . . . I think America's founding fathers would be surprised to view now the sinister liberties that their countrymen have taken in stretching our human rights beyond their intended limits. And shame on you for pointing a finger at those who choose to exercise their right of protest."

And on the third point, Zona McKibben of Santa Ana writes: "Let's imagine I have a very dear family member whose character is known by me and by everyone else who has ever known him to be perfectly honest, pure, upright and moral. Let's imagine I hear that someone has written lies about him and makes his character to be weak and unbalanced and possibly immoral. Let's imagine, then, that someone else takes what was written and makes it into a movie with the hope of gaining a profit from the box office.

"Would it not be right for me to defend the character of this person who means the world to me? . . . I believe it is right and it is relevant. I also believe I ought to be able to boycott and urge others to boycott the film to keep publishers and studios from making profits on the defaming and twisting in a fictitious and poisonous way the character of this member of my family."

Lacking the space (and probably the stomach) to debate these points, a few comments must suffice. First, it was quite clearly the intent of some--not all--of those offended by this movie to prevent it from being shown; they said so, quite clearly. Second, freedom of speech implies a profound question: Which is the greater risk in a free society--controlled censorship or unfettered freedom of creative expression? Those who opt for censorship in any form or degree must recognize that their own views--which they tend to regard as sacrosanct--will be subject to the same precedent.

And, finally, those objecting to this film on the basis that in their view it grossly misrepresents the character and ministry of Jesus must recognize that not all Christians share these views. Fundamental religionists have preempted the title "Christian" to represent their interpretation of Jesus and God. A good many Christians--including this one--understand Jesus to be the son of God, as all of us are, and believe that his humanity has drawn us with him into the kingdom of God. The author of the book from which the film was made wrote in a foreword: "That part of Christ's nature which was profoundly human helps us to understand him and love him and to pursue his Passion as though it were our own."

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