Hoping to stop Universal Pictures from releasing a controversial Martin Scorsese film about Jesus, evangelical Christians on the holy warpath suggested Monday that the movie is so "blasphemous" that the Lord Himself may step into the battle.
The movie, "The Last Temptation of Christ," has been tentatively scheduled for release in a handful of theaters on Sept. 23.
It was condemned by the most widely heard Christian radio program and by an ad in the Hollywood Reporter trade paper signed by 61 Christian professionals in the film and TV industry. In his Monday broadcast on more than 1,200 radio stations, James Dobson, president of the Pomona-based "Focus on the Family" ministry, depicted the movie as the latest and worst sign of "disrespect" toward Christians.
"It would appear to be the most blasphemous evil attack on the church and the cause of Christ in the history of entertainment," said Dobson, a layman whose books are best-sellers in Christian bookstores.
Universal and Scorsese are not merely taking on evangelicals; they are taking on the "King of the universe," Dobson warned.
"God is not mocked," he said. "I don't know how long it will take Him to speak, but He will speak."
Both in the 1955 book of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis and in an early version of the movie script that was circulated without studio authorization among conservative Christians, Jesus makes love to Mary Magdalene and has children by sisters Mary and Martha during a dream sequence. Compared to the self-controlled figure of Jesus portrayed in the biblical Gospels, the Jesus in the novel and in this script is a troubled and vacillating character who eventually yet reluctantly accepts a messianic role and martyrdom.
Scorsese, through a Universal spokesman, said last month that the film differs in significant places from the script that evangelicals obtained. Universal Pictures said that Scorsese was still working on the movie and would not deliver it to the studios until the first week in August.
But two evangelicals involved in the entertainment industry told Dobson on his program that they think Universal already has a finished product.
Tim Penland, who resigned in June from his post as a liaison for Universal to the evangelical community, claimed that someone, whom he did not identify, saw the film and came away doubting that even "the most liberal Unitarian minister" could sit through the first 20 minutes. Penland said he resigned because he was duped by promises that the film would honor Christ and could be screened by evangelical leaders in June.
Larry Poland, whom Dobson indicated has a convert-seeking ministry to the entertainment industry, compared the evangelical campaign against the movie to a military "preemptive strike."
Poland contended that Universal is "counting on the controversy to swell the box office. So, it cannot be released. It must be caught before it's released."
Poland said he was not worried about "solid Christians . . . who know the truth," but about "millions of impressionistic people" who will get a lasting, distorted view of Jesus.
He urged that Christians boycott any product connected with Universal and the parent MCA Corp.
Poland's organization, Mastermedia, took the ad in Monday's Hollywood Reporter demanding that the film not be released. "Our Lord was crucified once on a cross. He doesn't deserve to be crucified a second time on celluloid," the ad said.
Penland, whose Burbank company hires out to promote "acceptable" secular movies in evangelical circles, was busy over the weekend setting up a news conference for today at which his pastor, the nationally known Rev. Jack Hayford of the Church on the Way, and other local evangelical ministers can protest the film. The news conference has been set for the Registry Hotel, ironically located in Universal City.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the religious protest will spread beyond conservative Protestants--that is, evangelicals whose numbers include fundamentalists and charismatics or Pentecostalists.
Universal has invited some religious leaders outside that camp to a screening today in New York at an undisclosed location. Universal said Scorsese, the director, agreed to show the unfinished film in order to satisfy evangelicals. However, many of latter have declined the invitation.
One such clergyman is a conservative United Methodist minister, the Rev. Donald Wildmon of Tupelo, Miss., head of the American Family Assn. Based on the script he obtained and distributed, Wildmon printed a sample petition in his July magazine for readers to present to their local theaters with signers threatening a boycott.
Scorsese, who once studied for the priesthood, called his picture "a deeply religious one" in an earlier statement. "Although Jesus is tempted by Satan, what the movie says, and what I believe, is that Jesus resisted temptation and was crucified--as told in the Bible," said Scorsese, who also directed "Taxi Driver" (1976) and "Raging Bull" (1979).
Filmed last year, "Last Temptation" stars Willem Dafoe as Jesus, Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene and Harvey Keitel in the role of Judas Iscariot.