Thursday, May 28, 2015

Jesus and the Vision Quest

I teach an upper division undergraduate course on “Jesus in Film and History.” The class compares scholarly reconstructions of Jesus with cinematic representations of Jesus. One of the highlights is exploring Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ. Willem Dafoe plays an angst-ridden Jesus - a man who wavers in his faith, tempted by inner voices. Here Jesus' eventual triumph over his human nature symbolizes his role as savior. 

One of the most striking scenes in the film is Jesus' "temptations" in the desert. In the Gospels, the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness and he fasts for 40 days. The Devil tempts (or "tests") Jesus with worldly power ("all the kingdoms of the world") but Jesus defies the Devil and even cites biblical passages from the book of Deuteronomy in his defense. In The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus faces new temptations, the most infamous being the temptation to be a normal human being and embrace a worldly life of sexuality, family, marriage, and children. Here "Jesus" draws a circle in the sand and declares that he will not move until God comes to him. It is a resolute act of will not like the vow the Buddha made under the Bodhi Tree - not to leave until he achieved enlightenment.

This temptation scene has always struck me as a kind of "vision quest" - a Native American rite of passage like the traditional Lakota Sioux hanblecheya (literally "crying for a dream") - a four-day ordeal in a sacred circle without food or water praying for a "vision" or an encounter with the divine. Here Jesus "returns" to his people as a holy man bearing spiritual gifts, healing powers, and the divine mission that will "save" them.