An old nun, sagging under the weight of her "Blasphemy!" sign, was right in my face, telling me that I was headed to hell and would burn forever.
Some of the other people in line laughed at her. Others ignored her.
I told her that if she was so concerned about what we were watching at the movies, to go protest the Nightmare on Elm Street movie that was playing next door.
There were about a dozen or so of us waiting in line to see the movie, and at least 60 protesters surrounding us, shouting hateful words and basically condemning all of us to eternal damnation.
Judgment and Scorn.
The movie I was in line to see was The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese's award-winning film that came out in 1988 despite the indignation of the religious community.
Based on a novel published in 1961 which was banned by the Catholic Church, The Last Temptation of Christ was sort of a "what if" fictional account of Jesus, exploring the conflict between Jesus' "human" side and his "divine" side. It never purported to be based on the gospels. I thought it was a brilliant premise that made the Jesus story more personal and realistic. However, the Christian right depicted it as heresy and blasphemous.
Talk radio and the Christian community was buzzing with so much venom that before releasing the film, Universal Studios arranged a private advance screening for the indignant Christian groups, including the American Family Association and the Campus Crusade for Christ, so that they could actually see what it was they were protesting. These groups were furious. They were absolutely disgusted with a closing image where Christ is on the cross and is tempted by Satan with visions of a "normal" life with the Mary Magdalene, replete with sex, marriage, and children.
Remember, this was only an "image" that Satan had given Christ to consider. The film ended with the traditional Bible story of Jesus choosing the divine path and dying for everyone's sins.
It seems to me that this is the whole point of Christianity and religion in general: The constant battle we humans face over choosing the higher spiritual path over our base human instincts.
Apparently, far right groups such as the American Family Association don't even want you to think about things like that.
According to a studio briefing report, 90 percent of the protests came from people who complained before the film was ever aired. Yet, British theologian William Telford, in his Images of Christ in the Cinema, commented that it was "one of the finest, most religious and yet most controversial Christ films ever made … From a New Testament, or even from a theological point of view, there is nothing in The Last Temptation of Christ that justifies the depth of opposition that there has been to it."
I'm no theologian, but I have to agree with Telford. After being frisked in the lobby, having my purse taken away, and watching the film under the scrutiny of armed guards, I failed to see what the Christians were so angry about. I thought it should have been required viewing for Christians.
I think the Christian right tends to protest things without knowing what they're talking about. For instance, around Christmas time, they bitterly complain about the "war on Christmas" as an attack on Christianity. Yet, the briefest study on the roots of Christmas reveals that it is a pagan holiday and has nothing to do with Jesus. Even the Bible condemns the practice of cutting down and decorating trees in Jeremiah 10.
The televangelist Jim Bakker admitted in his 1996 book, I Was Wrong, that the first time he actually read the Bible all the way through was in prison. I suspect that this is true for many Christians. I have met very few "Jesus believers" who have actually read the Bible from beginning to end. I'd put it at about 1%. If they did, I can't help but wonder whether they would continue to embrace their religion.
The faithful blindly follow the advice given by their preachers, pastors and priests without doing any studying on their own. They believe that Christmas is in the Bible, believe that the U.S. government system is based on the Bible, and believe that the rapture is in the Bible. They are quick to condemn the Quran without reading it and comparing it to the Christian Bible, which is just as hateful in many passages. And just as inspirational in many other passages.
Here in the small, conservative town where I live, the local movie theaters would not show Bill Maher's Religulous. The only way to get the DVD is via the Internet.
Because I don't watch television, I first heard of the movie through a young gal whose church members had been talking about it. Although no one had seen it yet, she was indignant and furious, claiming that it was an atheist movie that made fun of God. She actually thought such films should be banned in the United States. I finally got to see Religulous and, while it did make some humorous jabs at religion and religious beliefs, Maher was basically advocating doubt — not necessarily atheism — and opining that unwavering religious belief that's not tempered with reason and logic contributes to war and destruction.
The New Atheists and What They Offer.
Christian mouthpieces are denouncing the "new atheists," who they deem a militant brand of people who are trying to remove the church from society. Here are a couple of one-sided clips:
My guess is that the regular people who are part of the "new atheists" movement have probably read the Bible more than the Christians and reached their own conclusions. I also think that many of the "new atheists" not only include those who reject the notion of a personal god, but also include agnostics, deists, free thinkers and others who reject the hypocrisy of organized religion but not necessarily the concept of a creator.
Like the message portrayed in The Last Temptation of Christ, the skeptics, the atheists and creative writers have something to teach us. Moving Biblical study and criticism from academia into the "real world" gives everyone with an open mind an opportunity to discover their own truth, not a shallow belief system that their preachers and parents have instilled in them.
This is a good thing.
After all, Jesus purportedly said that "The truth shall make you free" in John 8:32.
Freddy Krueger or Free Thinkers?
Polls reveal that people are no longer attending church. Church leaders are losing a huge opportunity by rejecting the free thinkers of our society.
Unlike their devoted followers, the skeptics read the Bible. They listen to preachers. They read "the other side." They study history.
This is a new bear that cannot be tamed with blind faith and platitudes.
This segment of society might make church interesting and relevant again. Progressive church leaders should embrace them and invite them into the fold. Spirituality is supposed to be about growth. The skeptics, the new atheists, and the free thinkers are seekers and people who are willing to grow.
I can't help but wonder whether the religious leaders prefer the faithful over the thinkers.
Although it was 20 years ago, I still vividly remember the protests surrounding The Last Temptation of Christ, and what it felt like to be judged by a frenzied group of religious zealots. The faithful were relentlessly heckling the spiritual seekers and giving Christianity a negative image because of their militant, uninformed views.
Meanwhile, Freddy Krueger was scaring people literally to death over on Elm Street. An "undead" serial killer sporting a clawed leather glove and a sadistic sense of humor visited the young in their nightmares, murdering them in painful and gruesome ways.
You'd think Freddy would be considered to be more evil than a questioning Jesus. There wasn't a single protest.