Exit Music (For a Film): “The Last Temptation of Christ”

Written by Exit Music, Music

In 1998, Terrence McNally’s play “Corpus Christi” was first performed in New York City. It wasn’t hard to predict that portraying Jesus as a promiscuous homosexual living in Corpus Christi, Texas would inspire vehement condemnation from religious groups – and it most certainly did, as “Christians” spewed death threats against the members of the Manhattan Theater Group that first produced the play, and when the play opened in London in 1999 a British Muslim group issued a fatwa calling for the assassination of the playwright.

A few clues exist in the gospels that suggest Jesus’ sexual preferences might have made it a little easier to ignore the charms of the prostitutes he was willing to defend.  Mentions of the “disciple who Jesus loved,” and “the kiss of Judas” provide fodder for interpretation, but in a larger sense, I think Jesus’ sexuality is entirely irrelevant with regards to the core message of his teachings.  Whether Jesus had any sexual nature at all affects his legacy no more than Morrisey’s sexuality affects his lyrics or whether Kevin Spacey’s sexual preference influences the roles he inhabits.

The Film: The Last Temptation of Christ

The Song: “It Is Accomplished”

The Artist: Peter Gabriel

When Martin Scorsese produced The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), he faced similar (though less vitriolic) criticism for depicting sex as one of the tools the devil attempted to tempt Jesus with.  But sex is one of the most basic human drives, taking its place amongst oxygen, food, water, and sleep at the base of Maslow’s pyramid.  So if Jesus truly was the Son of Man, simultaneously both divine and human, unless the devil somehow managed to get Jesus hooked on China White, sex (in whatever form Jesus might have preferred) was probably one of Old Scratch’s most potent weapons.  The hierarchy of the Catholic Church certainly wasn’t immune to such temptations, and many Protestant branches have been wise enough to recognize the futility of denying oneself such an irrepressible need.

Even when I was in Catholic elementary school (Corpus Christi, in Wethersfield, CT) the Western conception of Jesus as a light-haired, light-skinned Caucasian struck me as ridiculous.  The British science fiction writer Parke Godwin included Jesus as a minor character in his clever novel Waiting for the Galactic Bus, a short, swarthy Jew who opined that “sometimes I wish I hadn’t bothered.”  Godwin also included St. Augustine of Hippo as a character, a narrow-viewed man who was never able to recognize Jesus because he expected the Messiah to be “beautiful as a child, beautiful on earth, beautiful in heaven.”

During the Presidential campaign of 2008, opponents used Barack Obama’s rhetorical abilities to demonize him, sarcastically referring to him as a “Messiah” and his supporters as blind adherents to his gospel of change.  But it seems indisputable that Jesus himself must have been a masterful orator, commanding the attention of immense crowds in a time before microphones or visual aids.  It seems certain that distractions were a bit less prevalent than they are in our time, but even so, maintaining the attention of a large crowd for hours at a time is a pretty tall order.

Was Jesus gay?  Was he straight?  Shrug.  I don’t care.  It’s not important.  What is important, and lends relevance to his message, is that he was human.  Films like The Last Temptation of Christ are important because they acknowledge that humans are sexual creatures – regardless of how exactly this sexuality happens to be expressed.

Although the bright colors used in the end credit sequence of Scorsese’s film are garish and jarring (and are actually the product of overexposed film), Peter Gabriel’s composition is appropriately triumphant for the penultimate moment in the movie (Jesus’ acceptance of his destiny and his sacrifice providing for the forgiveness of the sins of mankind).  The music from the film was released separately as a standalone album using the working title of the film, “Passion.”  It is arguably Peter Gabriel’s most abstract production and easily one of his finest, weaving a tapestry of Middle Eastern instruments along with Gabriel’s own voice and pet sounds.  The closing reprise “Bread and Wine” is one of the most touching melodies I know of, and the lilting tin whistle (blown by Richard Evans) makes my eyes misty every time I hear it.  I’ve become quite cynical about how Christianity has been perverted into a negative force influencing the world I live in, but works such as this serve as a pleasant reminder that Jesus Christ’s legacy left behind a great deal of beauty as well.