Reception of Scorcese's film The Last Temptation of Christ and the State of the Living Myth Today

The Last Temptation of Christ, the controversial film of Martin Scorsese from 1988, with its peculiar mix of traditional and new elements, all given very realistically and in historical context, provoked a vehement reaction from conservative American Christians, who had tried to save the souls of their brothers and sisters waiting for hours in line for tickets; they tried not only verbal and physical persuasion, but also put bombs in theaters or made bomb threats.

The Last Temptation of Christ, the controversial film of Martin Scorsese from 1988, with its peculiar mix of traditional and new elements, all given very realistically and in historical context, provoked a vehement reaction from conservative American Christians, who had tried to save the souls of their brothers and sisters waiting for hours in line for tickets; they tried not only verbal and physical persuasion, but also put bombs in theaters or made bomb threats. There was even talk of Jewish conspiracy, and the distribution of the film came into question.

From the psychological aspect all this points to the constellation of the archetype causing the most ardent protesters, though didn't see the film, knew how it is blasphemous and dangerous. Their determination was also reinforced with the counsels of their shepherds, which, too, overpowered the temptation to see the film with so pernicious influence. The director Martin Scorsese, as if aware of the strong spontaneous identification of the Christ in the film with the Christ in Gospels, explained right in the beginning that,

This film is not based upon the Gospels but upon this fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict.

Yet this explanation apparently changed nothing, in a perfect conformity with Jung's statement that 'for the believing Christian, Christ is everything, but certainly not a symbol, which is an expression for something unknown or not yet knowable' (Jung 1952, para. 713). However, this is only half of the paradoxical truth, therefore he continues:

And yet he is a symbol by his very nature. Christ would never have made the impression he did on his followers if he had not expressed something that was alive and at work in their unconscious. Christianity itself would never have spread through the pagan world with such astonishing rapidity has had its ideas not found an analogous psychic readiness to receive them. (Ibid.)

Returning to the film, we can ask about the reason for this insistence on the dogmatically simplified and 'pure' picture of Christ, and especially against the questioning its contemporary meaning. Psychologically speaking, this solution corresponds with the repression of the shadow, exactly, its collective archetypal aspect. This is the way in which Christians have traditionally dealt with the shadow, and therefore this repression is, on the public collective level, legitimized with the tradition, which went even further if we remember the burning of the heretics at the stake.

But here we can also speak of the imitation of Christ, about which Edward Edinger says:

Regarding the imitation of Christ, the imitatio Christi, one should keep in mind there are two imitations of Christ: the traditional, conventional one and the psychological one. They are quite different....

The conventional imitation of Christ doctrine preaches separation from the shadow. It implores one to imitate Christ in saying 'get thee behind me, Satan,' in order to build up the Christian virtues....

The psychological imitation of Christ is quite different ...

The psychological imitatio is a doctrine of wholeness, rather than a doctrine of perfection.... It involves the enduring of opposites. It involves the assimilation of the shadow rather then separation from the shadow - radically different psychological operations. (Edinger 1996, p. 57f.)

So it is understandable that the peculiar mixture of the traditional and psychological imitatio present in Scorcese's film only increased the power of protests, also in conformity to our time with its changing archetypal background, which easily brings to the extremism as an overcompensation for the repressed uncertainty and doubt. And since is here, psychologically speaking, active the Self, the archetype symbolizing the deepest and central part of the psyche, characterized with the numinosity and overwhelming force, the tensions which fuel extremism are biggest. They correspond with the discrepancy between the changed dynamic in the collective unconscious and the traditional dogmatic picture which should express it. This is especially the case in Christianity, which is, in Jung's words, 'remarkable ... that in its system of dogma ... anticipates a metamorphosis in the divinity, a process of historic change on the "other side"' (Jung 1963, p. 359). Therefore is Christianity confronted with the great task to transform its dogmatic structure in accordance with the 'metamorphosis in the divinity,' where is particularly decisive the third stage of the myth, 'the self-realization of God in human form,' as the 'fulfillment of the Old Testament idea of the divine marriage and its consequences' (ibid., p. 360). Jung continues:

As early as the period of primitive Christianity, the idea of the incarnation had been refined to include the intuition of 'Christ within us.' Thus the unconscious wholeness penetrated into the psychic realm of inner experience, and man was made aware of all that entered into his true configuration. This was a decisive step, not only for man, but also for the Creator - Who, in the eyes of those who had been delivered from darkness, cast off His dark qualities and became the summum bonum. (Ibid.)

But paradoxically, it seems that the part of contemporary Christianity with its modern concretism, compared with its 'primitive stage,' made a step behind, and this despite the explicit counsel of Meister Eckhart, given before more then six centuries, not to have God outside, since with is comes dependence from the outside circumstances. Yet this outside form, when expressing God's dynamic, is like vessel which holds its polarities within itself and gives the meaning and fullness to the life which, because free from personal entanglement, can be lived without great tensions, with the religious part integrated into the society. But, as we said, this state has its shadow part, particularly in the time of changes as ours, and still more importantly, this holds the 'living myth' in a static state. Jung has written many times of this problem. One of his last diagnosis about the state of contemporary Christianity is given in his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections in the chapter 'Late Thoughts':

The Christian nations have come to a sorry pass; their Christianity slumbers and has neglected to develop its myth further in the course of the centuries. Those who gave expression to the dark stirrings of growth in mythic ideas were refused a hearing; Joachim of Flora, Meister Eckhart, Jacob Boehme, and many others have remained obscurantists for the majority. (Ibid., p. 363f.)

And worst of all, Jung argues, this situation essentially contributed to the dangerous license of evil on individual and collective scale:

We stand perplexed and stupefied before the phenomenon of Nazism and Bolshevism because we know nothing about man, or at any rate have only lopsided and distorted picture of him. If we had self-knowledge, that would not be the case. We stand face to face with the terrible question of evil and do not even know what is before us, let alone what to pit against it. And even if we did know, we still could not understand 'how it could happen here.' With glorious naiveté a statesman comes out with the proud declaration that he has no 'imagination for evil.' Quite right: we have no imagination for evil, but evil has us in its grip. Some do not want to know this, and others are identified with evil. That is the psychological situation in the world to-day: some call themselves Christian and imagine that they can trample so-called evil underfoot by merely willing to; others have succumbed to it and no longer see the good. Evil to-day has become a visible Great Power. One half of humanity fattens and grows strong on a doctrine fabricated by human ratiocination; the other half sickens from the lack of a myth commensurate with the situation. (Ibid., p. 363)

Yet the situation seems to be more complex. Thus Jung himself speaks about the pyramidal structure of society with majority corresponding to its base 'having a psychology of the stone age,' in which case Christianity with its insistence and demands on conscious side would be a great and necessary step. Only the small minority on the top is confronted with the individuation process which includes the reformulation and development of the Christian myth. But since in our days the number of the population between these two extremes rapidly grows progressively extending the top of the pyramid, Jung's somber diagnosis only gains on actuality. This situation necessary relativizes the relationship toward God as well as generally toward religion, which can, for example, also be presented with two utterances of Jung. Repeating Nietzsche, he said that in every time would be people finding themselves in a genuine Christianity which fulfills itself in helping its neighbor, as well as in the social activity; that is, in a strictly extroverted way, since this activity left a person free from interior entanglement. If the contents of the collective unconscious in the believer are completely expressed in a symbolism of credo and rituals of his or her church, than he or she is not confronted with the problem of its integration, which is then even completely outside of his or her imagination. This is also true for the our time, when, as Jung said, the salt of Christianity became tasteless, and therefore must be thrown out and trampled under foot (cf. Matthew 5:13).

For the sake of completeness here must be added that, as it seems, Jesus himself supposed that the transformation of the Christian myth would not be achieved in the Church. He speaks of his coming as the thief in the night, he wonders when the Son of Man comes would he find the faith on the earth, and most drastically of all, he speaks of the abomination of desolation standing in the holy place as the sign of the end time (cf. Matthew 24:15, Mark 13:14).

But speaking about the transformation of God from the psychological aspect it is better to speak of the God-image, because this term represents the experiential aspect of God unknowable in itself, and which therefore psychologically corresponds to the archetype per se. In difference with it the God-image 'is a synonymous with a particular aspect of the Self - what would be called the collective Self' (Edinger 1996, p. xiv). In this developmental process of the God-image, the new experience and relationship toward God brought also the prophets from the Old Testament in a conflict with the institutionalized representatives of God, and with the collectivity too, which caused Jesus to say that they build the tombs of the prophets which their fathers murdered (Matthew 23:29-32). All this points that the further transformation of the Christian myth would appear outside the traditional religion, from which may be concluded that Church would be not be equal to, or even entrusted with this task, and therefore not to be blamed for this failure. Yet this is only one side of the paradoxical whole, which genuine polarity is already present in 7th century B.C. in Isaiah, where Yahweh even commissioned the prophet with it:

Go and tell this people:
'Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.'
Make the heart of this people callused;
make their ears dull and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.' (Isaiah 6:9-10 NIV)

This last part, still more mysterious, can be understood that the danger of the shallow artificiality is even worse than the dead orthodoxy, the fact also visible in our days. But the main problem in the times when comes to the activation of the deeper layers of the psyche, is their conscious transformation and integration. The beginning of this process is in Isaiah given from different aspects. Thus Yahweh says: 'I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster' (Isaiah 45:7 NIV). This process psychologically corresponds to the activation of deeper layers of the collective unconscious psyche causing the differentiation of opposites earlier united in a potential or inactivated unconscious state. This is like a new creation, which also brings a different scale for good and evil, therefore the old must be put away:

See, the former things have taken place,
and new things I declare;
before they spring into being
I announce them to you. (42:9)
Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the desert
and streams in the wasteland. (43:18-19)
From now on I will tell you of new things,
of hidden things unknown to you.
They are created now, and not long ago;
you have not heard of them before today. (48:6-7)

Therefore receiving God's gift (I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places (45:3)) is not without danger, since it has its dark side. This process, which Jung analyzed in Psychological Types, is also symbolized with Immanuel, which beside Messiah also represents the Self, the central part of the psyche, here in the unconscious state, which therefore must pass through the chaotic phase which consumes the old conscious world: 'He will eat curds and honey when he knows to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste' (7:13-14). As a rule this conscious development is confined on the individual level, while the collectivity sticks even more to the old worth, which in a meantime became evil. Therefore the next lines from Isaiah cannot be confined only to the conscious distortion:

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,
who put darkness for light and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
and clever in their own sight. (5:20-21)

If the new contents are not taken into account and integrated in time, they necessary lead into a disaster:

Because this people has rejected the gently flowing waters of Shiloah and rejoices over Rezin and the son of Remaliah, therefore the Lord is about to bring against them the mighty floodwaters of the River - the king of Assyria with all his pomp. It will overflow all its channels, run over all its banks and sweep on into Judah, swirling over it, passing through it and reaching up to the neck. Its outspread wings will cover the breath of your land, O Immanuel! (8:6-8)

In those times, like in ours, these mighty floodwaters are connected with the transformation of God-image, which developmental aspect is also present in the God's personal name Yahweh, in Revelation 1:8 explicitly given as the one 'who is and who was and who is to come,' which also can be compared to the God's evolution in three stages which Jung summarized in a letter to Pere Lachat:

1. The Father. The opposites are not yet differentiated; Satan is still numbered among the 'sons of God.' Christ is then only hinted at.

2. God is incarnated as the 'Son of Man.' Satan has fallen from heaven. He is the other 'son.' The opposites are differentiated.

3. The Holy Spirit is One, his prototype is Ruah Elohim, an emanation, an active principle, which proceeds (as quintessence) a Patre Filioque. (Jung 1984, p. 241)

In The New God-Image: A Study of Jung's Key Letters Concerning the Evolution of the Western God-Image Edinger gives short summary of this transformation:

In Jung's essay on The Psychological Approach to the Dogma of the Trinity, the psychological meaning of the three Trinitarian ages are described. The age of the Father corresponds to a state of original oneness before consciousness, before the God-image has undergone a state of reflection. The age of the Son corresponds to the great split ... in which the opposites come into view. The age of the Holy Spirit represents, psychologically, a restitution of the state of original oneness on a conscious level. (Edinger 1996, p. 59)

This third stage corresponds to the psychological imitatio Christi with the integration of the shadow in its archetypal part. But Jung's statement that 'the age of the Holy Spirit represents ... a restitution of the original oneness of the unconscious on the level of consciousness' is an ideal, which in reality can be achieved only to some degree.

In this context Scorcese's film The Last Temptation of Christ, as a peculiar mixture of historical and traditional facts with new elements, all taken very realistically, strongly provokes a questioning the state of the contemporary Christian myth and its future development. More than decades later, the provocation and even destruction of its traditional form seems to be still stronger. So the controversial exhibition of young British artists, which became a cultural event not only in London but also in New York, and which provoked the strong protests not only from conservative Roman Catholics but also from associations for animal's protection, presented Virgin Mary with elephant's excrement, strongly suggesting the contamination of the highest and purest regions of the unconscious with the shadowy parts, and posing its transformation as the most urgent task of the time. The picture of wife formed by the prints of child's hand, which murdered the child, presents contemporary state of the collective unconscious from still broader perspective. The urgency for the transformation of this unconscious state, in which is necessary a participation of the conscious part of the psyche, is here still higher. But unfortunately the collective state of this conscious part presented with the puppets of the castrated men does not promise too much hope.

This exhibition of the chaotic state in the collective unconscious - today unfortunately more and more mirrored also in the reality of the outside world, particularly in the big cities - seems to be too much for the mayor of New York City which intervened calling the exhibition 'seek' and threatening with the cancellation of 7 million dollars subvention to the museum. But, despite our sympathy for the mayor, the exhibition seems to be truthful in its presentation of a state of the contemporary 'living myth,' which also puts a pressing demands for the imitatio Christi, but this time with a gravity in the unconscious. This state seems to be literary presented on the photograph of the crucified young woman with the crown of thorns, the main exhibit of the exhibition opened before Easter in Viennese gallery which also provoked strong controversies.

Yet, not denying the genuineness of the contemporary art in its endeavor to open the eyes of those who still do not see the state of the reality today, together with the provocation and destruction of the old, it will be still better to pay attention on the process of the contemporary formation of the living myth. This would be especially wholesome when taking into account the quantity of art concentrated on a more secular elements as the urination and rapes on the stage, simulated or even real, nowadays also becoming the peaks of cultural events.

In that context, and also in comparison with Life of Brian and contemporary Dogma, Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ with its structured emotionality and precision, as well as with intrinsically present elements of the new myth, though strangely transformed and contaminated with the old, represents not only a masterpiece, but includes very moral approach, not so often found in the modern art nowadays.

© Ivan Dugic 2000


Edinger, E. F. (1996). The New God-image: A Study of Jung's Key Letters Concerning the Evolution of the Western God-Image. Wilmette: Chiron Publications.

Jung, C. G. (1952). Answer to Job. CW 11.

----------- (1963). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Glasgow: Fontana Press (1995).

----------- (1984). Psychology and Western Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press.