Many of my Christian siblings are up in arms this week about The First Temptation of Christ, the satirical comedy on Netflix. I have seen the petition to have it removed, being circulated on social media. And I have seen many express their dissent by cancelling their accounts on the streaming platform.
Although I haven’t seen the film yet, it seems to be in the same spirit as Jesus Christ Superstar, Life of Brian, Dogma, and The Last Temptation of Christ.
It won’t be the first. What does this mean? It means that there is an entire cinematic tradition of films mocking Christ or Christianity or the church. The tradition doesn’t seem like it will be upended any time soon. Christians haven’t stopped going to church because of them. Christ hasn’t appeared to avenge himself or punish anyone. And filmmakers haven’t stopped making them. But every now and then, some of us are riled up and feel the need to attack those who make these films.
I don’t want these films to stop being made and screened. I want to allow them to exist and I won’t personally be boycotting them. My only reaction to this film, or any other, is that which I think is proportional to any work of art that I don’t enjoy or not; I just don’t watch it. And I allow it to live.
The film is free speech. One definition of freedom of speech is the “right to express opinions without government restraint.” In these precarious times, I would add to that that it is also the right to express opinions without the restraint of others, even if it offends many. We don’t think we’re doing this when we react so strongly to opinions like the film in question, but that is essentially what we’re doing. By withdrawing our economic support for Netflix and boycotting the film, we are saying to ourselves and others, this opinion is so dangerous to me that I want it to be silenced and put to death immediately. It cannot exist anymore. It should not exist. I have decided that this opinion should not exist. All of this is happening because some are offended by this film. Then, what will you do when the next film that mocks Christ, is released? Will you do the same again? You will restrain another opinion just because you are offended by it?
We seem to be prioritizing people being offended over opinions over art being voiced. The restraint by both government and society, whomever is holding economic or political power, is enough to make all ideas absolutely homogenous or totally forgettable. So, it’s better that we just let opinions exist. Why is it so scary to you that an opinion offends you? Let all opinions live and thrive, and then die when it’s their time to die. But we’re arresting the circle of life of opinions by killing it out with our outrage, our weapon of choice these days. You may then argue, well if I choose to boycott this film, it is also my freedom of speech. But it is surely not an opinion then. You are mobilizing your freedom of speech with action – in this case, outrage. You are not then expressing an opinion, you’re going into action. You are doing something, rather than just saying something. So, when you boycott this film, you are not expressing an opinion. You are just restraining another opinion.
The film is a work of art. The subject of the work of the art doesn’t invalidate that and I think it’s incredibly dangerous to dismiss art because it offends and mocks, even the most sacred to many people. If we stop to restrain all works of art because they offend you, then soon all art may end up looking the same.
So you may be thinking, well how about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed? I maintain the same line about those, too. Those cartoons are works of art. I didn’t think they were particularly interesting or novel, but they are works of art nonetheless. And they need to be protected. It is important that they are protected because I would want the same standard upheld for me as an artist.
I see myself as a full human being. I have consciousness and a mind. I have the ability to dream, imagine, day dream, and create. I believe that these faculties are part of me being human. As an Orthodox Christian, God has these in his image, I have received them from being in his likeness. He is the creator and I can be creative like him. I can create from what exists, He can create from void. Void here is absolute nothingness. The closest I can get to this is by writing because something I can’t access with my senses can be moulded into the words you’re seeing on the screen now. So, art seems to be in my very nature as a human being.
I can create, in the loose sense I have just described, whatever I want. It can be tempered by my beliefs or sensibilities or convictions. But should I remove all of them, I can just bring forth something. Whether it will be effective or not, convincing or not, powerful or not, loved or decried, it’s art. Art will challenge, will make you uncomfortable, will question, will distort maim or mock because the function of art is to see, to first see and then capture it with the medium of choice. Telling someone that what they see offends you is like saying to them your eyes don’t work. No, their eyes work just fine, just like yours. But they see what you don’t see.
Art should not be subject to your tastes. Art is not moral and should not be moral. The Chinese-Belgian philosopher Han Suyin says that moralists have no place in an art gallery. A few of us are morally outraged by this film and thus want it to be silenced. We seem to be content or indifferent about most other art, as long as it is inert or illustrative or simply aesthetically pleasing. Art can teach or illustrate or be pedagogical. But the art you will remember is the art that jarred you. For me, it’s Saturn Devouring His Son by Goya and Vampire by Munch. Art has to be free of sensibilities, morality, and good taste so that it can see. The minute it is hindered, it is no longer art and it is just a message. art can have a message, but it’s best when it’s just a captured feeling, a vision, a moment.
So, The First Temptation of Christ is just an opinion, a work of art, and a moment. The creators of the film have created some art that you don’t seem to like or agree with. As artists, they are free to create the art they want. If this moment injures Christ so much, then Christ isn’t the all-powerful son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity that I believe and hold he is. He is then a weak demigod who is perturbed by people. That doesn’t sound like him.
This then begs two questions. Firstly, what kind of Christ do you believe in? Is he a weak, neurotic demigod, requiring of us tireless and continual defense or else he will visit us with his wrath? Or, is he the Christ that bore our afflictions and suffered, from the day he took flesh? Christ is being tainted and affronted. But does he need our defense? Did he need it on earth? Does he need it now? The passion of christ on earth wasn’t just on the cross, it was from birth to death carrying all of our infirmities and withstanding all pain until the end. his suffering is over. he is not suffering now. His church is suffering and we are his body. You will argue that someone is attacking the head, so the body is hurting too. I could concede that, but does that mean that we become like the world and simply fight back with outrage? Is that the only response we have in us these days?
We’re people of the Scriptures. So, let’s look in scripture, in the crucifixion narrative. Christ was mocked. Did he retaliate?
I couldn’t find anything in the Acts of the Apostles, where the apostles retaliated with their money or outrage because Christ was mocked. There is this one verse though 17: 32, where some mocked the resurrection after Paul was preaching in Athens. What did Paul do?
He left. He didn’t engage. He moved on.
I challenge you. Find a verse in the entire scriptures where God says, “Defend me [when they insult or mock or make caricatures of me].”
In closing, I won’t be supporting the ban of the film because it is an opinion, a work of art, and Christ will remain Lord and Saviour, no matter how many films are made about him.