Vampire Jesus

It was a dark and stormy night. Well, so far that could describe most any night in April or May of this year. Anyway, I had just read about vampire-bots for the first time. Robots, like all machines, require a power source. Those I’ve witnessed up close require rechargeable battery-packs that are surprisingly heavy. I’d read that some robots were being designed to consume their own energy sources—mechanical and chemical eating, if you will. One dreamer figured that blood could work as a source of energy. A robot could be designed to take energy from blood, and thus arises the concept of the vampire-bot. I don’t think such an insidious machine was ever really built, but it is theoretically possible. It is also a reflection of a biblical idea—the life is in the blood. Ancient people tended to associate life with breathing. With no CPR, an unbreathing body was a dead body. Blood obviously played into the picture too, but precisely how was uncertain. Clearly a person or an animal couldn’t live without it. To say nothing of robots.

One of those dark and stormy nights I watched The Shadow of the Vampire. Surprisingly for a monster movie, Shadow had been nominated for two academy awards. Not really your standard horror flick, it is a movie about making a movie—specifically Murnau’s Nosferatu, the classic, silent vampire movie that really initiated the genre. The actor cast as Count Orlock, however, is really a vampire. The premise might sound chintzy, but the acting is very good with Willem Dafoe making a believable Max Schreck (vampirized). Stylistic rather than gory, the story plays out to the fore-ordained conclusion and the vampire disappears in the cold light of dawn.

When I was an impressionable child I was told what is likely an apocryphal story about Leonardo da Vinci. The story goes that the man who posed for Jesus in the Last Supper was also the model for Judas, after living a life of dissolution. Willem Dafoe, of course, famously played Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ. From Jesus to vampire. Both characters are bound by the element of blood. Christianity still celebrates the shedding of divine blood symbolically while the vampire takes blood (also symbolically). Although the vampire cannot endure the sight of the cross, the same man effectively played both sides of the mythic line, almost as if the apocryphal story came true. There are implications to consider here, and not all of them insinuate Hollywood. On these dark and stormy nights, we have something to ponder.

Latest Temptation

It would be a rare day indeed when I claimed to be the first to see, read, or watch something. Caught up between constant obligations (part-time jobs can be more demanding than their full-time facsimiles) I often find my mind awhirl for a semester at a time, only to discover that inter-term courses start just two or three days after the current term ends. If there’s a great movie out there that everyone’s commenting on, I am lucky to catch it before it leaves the theater. Sometimes I even miss the DVD version. So it was that yesterday I finally got around to watching The Last Temptation of Christ, the 1988 Martin Scorsese movie. This film came out right after I finished seminary, while I shared an apartment with a seminary friend who was an irrepressible movie buff. Together we missed it and, despite teaching in a seminary for a decade and a half, I still missed this one by twenty years and a few. At last I can feel caught up with the late eighties.

I’m not a big fan of Jesus movies. Movie makers shooting such films portray an eminently likeable guy getting beat up and tortured to death with such contempt that it is wrenching to watch. Yes, I know that’s how the story goes, but must we be brought into the Schadenfreude? As a life-long religionist raised in the Christian tradition, however, I feel a professional obligation to see popular portrayals of the foundation stories. The first one I recall viewing was Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 Jesus of Nazareth, a movie so reverently rendered that it is frequently cited as the best ever. The eponymous Jesus by Peter Sykes and John Krisch came out in 1979 and claims to be the most watched movie of the genre. I saw Jesus Christ Superstar in college, but even Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music couldn’t remove the depressing aspect. Then, of course, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in 2004. All of them have left me depressed. Perhaps that is their intended purpose.

The Last Temptation was laden with controversy in its day. I was anxious to see why (okay, so not terribly anxious, but I was curious). So yesterday I got to satisfy an ancient itch. Despite the caveat at the opening of the film, many critics jumped on the portrayal of an indecisive Jesus who has a rather chaste love scene with Mary Magdalene in a “last temptation” vision while on the cross as irreverent. Perhaps two decades and countless movies later this criticism has been calmed, but I found Last Temptation to be a typical Nikos Kazantzakis introspective, full of self-doubt and deluded penance. Kazantzakis’ work is a man’s struggle against his personal demons. Do dream sequences count as theological fodder? The movie suffers from pacing issues and at times contrived dialogue. The best scene is where Jesus meets and dresses down Paul only to have Paul declare himself the true bearer of the message. Even that is in the dream at the end.

In 2004 a Fundamentalist atmosphere pervaded Nashotah House. Newly appointed “theologians” on the faculty easily bought into Mel Gibson’s theatrically distorted view of their faith. By the end of that academic year it was clear that the evangelical leadership had decided on a new victim for the sake of facile Christianity, but that is a story that can wait another couple of decades before being told.