The First Temptation Of The Book Banners: Censorship

Sunday marks the beginning of Banned Books Week, an annual event sponsored by the American Library Association and other groups that support the freedom to read, explore ideas and learn.

Not everyone is for that. Religious Right groups often spearhead censorship efforts seeking to remove material they deem “offensive” from public schools, libraries or even privately owned bookstores. Some ideas, it seems, are too dangerous to explore.

I’ve recounted tales of religiously based censorship before, mostly focusing on novels. Sometimes, though, banning a book isn’t enough – the censors also go after film adaptations of books.

Such was the case with Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1955 novel The Last Temptation of Christ. The book, which explores the duality of a man who believes himself to be both human and god, has frequently landed on lists of banned books over the years.

This is ironic because, in a preface to the book, Kazantzakis made it clear that he meant no disrespect to Christianity or Jesus. He was merely fascinated by the idea that a being could claim divinity.

“The dual substance of Christ – the yearning, so human, so superhuman, of man to attain to God or, more exactly, to return to God, and identify himself with him – has always been a deep inscrutable mystery to me,” he wrote. This nostalgia for God, at once so mysterious and so real, has opened in me large wounds and also large flowing springs.”

In 1988, director Martin Scorsese released a film based on the book, and that’s where things got interesting. Like Kazantzakis, Scorsese portrayed a more human Christ, a figure nagged by doubt and subject to human foibles and temptations (even sexual ones).

Even before the film was released, some fundamentalist Christians were calling for it to be banned. Protestors turned out against it in some cities, and few communities passed symbolic resolutions attacking the film.

Both the book and the film versions of "The Last Temptation of Christ" have been subject to censorship campaigns.

In my 2014 book, Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You The Right To Tell Other People What To Do, I described what happened next. (To give credit where it’s due, I draw heavily on Thomas R. Lindlof’s 2008 book Hollywood under Siege for this account.)

In Escambia County, Fla., members of the county commission decided that simply condemning the movie wasn’t enough. Voting 4-1, they passed a hastily written ordinance banning the showing of the film. Any theater owner who showed it would have been fined $500 and sentenced to 60 days in jail.

County Attorney William Buztrey warned the commission that the ordinance was unconstitutional, but most members chose instead to listen to a local group called Citizens Against Pornography and banned the film.

Then came the cloak-and-dagger stuff: A sheriff’s deputy was sent to the one local theater that was planning to show the movie with orders to seize the print. Someone tipped off the owner of the theater. He handed the print to an associate and told him to flee to the next county. That man hunkered down with the film in a hotel overnight until the inevitable federal court ruling striking down the ordinance.

The film played in the theater, with about 50 people attending. Christianity managed to survive in Escambia County.

In other parts of the country, the controversy scared some theater owners away. Even in sophisticated Washington, D.C., only a few theaters dared to show “The Last Temptation of Christ.” I remember seeing it at a theater in downtown D.C. As I was standing in line to buy a ticket, a man driving by in a car yelled, “That movie stinks!” Otherwise, there were no incidents.

As the controversy over the book and film versions of The Last Temptation of Christ demonstrate, there are always people who believe they know better than you what things you should read or see. Often, they insist they have the right to make these decisions for you by virtue of their superior religious beliefs.

These folks are free to refuse to read any book or decline to see any movie – but they don’t get to make that decision for everyone else. You can remind them of that during Banned Books Week by reading a banned book. Here’s a handy list.

Many of these tomes have been filmed as well, so you have options.