Happiness

Films that take you into the wilderness with Jesus

Deal W. Hudson

March 14, 2019

It’s hard to understand why any director making a film about Jesus would ignore the face-off with Lucifer. Cecil B DeMille has his mind elsewhere in his 1927 King of Kings. Himself succumbing to carnal temptation, DeMille opens his film with a barely clad Mary Magdalene, now a prostitute in love with Judas. In his Jesus of Nazareth (1997), Franco Zeffirelli, I’m guessing, could not conceive of a suitably Botticelli-like way of depicting the wilderness encounter within his five-and-a-half hour mini-series.

By far the worst wilderness scene is in the King of Kings (1961), directed by Nicholas Ray. Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter) climbs with bloody feet over rocky terrain when Miklós Rózsa’s powerful film score is interrupted by Lucifer’s arrival in the form of a plummy voice-over (Orson Wells). The subsequent dialogue is so clumsy, so literal, so cardboard stiff, I was reminded of teenage actors at my local Catholic school.

As he walks out of the wilderness, Jesus meets John the Baptist (Robert Ryan) sitting with John and Andrew. At the Baptist’s recommendation they stand up and start following Jesus like zombies, no questions asked.

In the much-admired 1964 film, The Gospel According to St Matthew, director Pier Paolo Pasolini is anti-Hollywood. Shooting in black-and-white, Pasolini uses non-actors in a 1st-century setting, using language from the Gospel account. There was no screenplay.

We meet a Jesus (pictured) who is ordinary, even frail; he lacks all charisma. As he prays on his knees in the wilderness, a dark figure approaches from a distance. Jesus stands to meet him, and Satan arrives dressed as a priest. Except for a 20-second trip to the top of the temple and back, there’s no drama in the three temptations; neither face changes expression. Satan walks away, but Pasolini’s panoramic shot of Jesus walking out of the desert is worthy of David Lean.

The best of the wilderness scenes are found in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) directed by George Stevens. The screenwriting and direction move in a surprising direction. Jesus (Max von Sydow) hears some laughter and a voice from a cave. It’s Satan (Donald Pleasance), whose voice is gentle and coaxing: “Long hard climb?”

Satan tempts Jesus with the voice of a friend trying to offer a favour. Their faces are barely seen against a night sky filled with a large, cratered moon. Satan explains: I can give you this and that, because “life should be easy”. Jesus struggles for a moment but pulls himself away from the edge of the cliff, and Satan goes back to eating his snack.

Satan, after all, should be depicted as having some touch of St Paul’s “angel of light”.

The Truth about Virtue and Happiness

Deal W. Hudson
October 7, 2010

During four years of college and seven of graduate school, most of it in philosophy and theology, I heard only one lecture on virtue – the virtue of art. Thus I consider it miraculous that the language of virtue has returned to public discourse. But the virtues don’t tell the whole story about human life. We need once again to begin talking about happiness.

Our ideas of happiness, implicit or explicit, inform our judgments about the virtues. How else is it possible for someone to admire the courage of adolescent rebellion against parental authority? Or how can someone see justice being served by giving mothers a “right” to kill their unborn children?

We must admit that the actual content of virtuous behavior is open to differing, even opposite, interpretations. This is where happiness comes in, or should, but happiness thus far has been ignored in this debate. My old book Happiness and the Limits of Satisfaction demonstrates that the idea of happiness needs to be seriously reexamined and that the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness has led us badly astray. Jefferson’s happiness was much closer to that of the ancient Greeks than our own.

First of all, Jefferson would reject the identification of happiness with “feeling good” and “self-satisfaction.” This unquestioned assumption is running amuck ruining lives and institutions. Secondly, we need to rediscover the moral meaning of happiness, precisely where Jefferson found it, deeply rooted in the traditions of classical and Christian ethics.

It will certainly come as a surprise to most, as it did to me, that there was a time when you could call no one happy who wasn’t also making a serious attempt to be morally good. To call someone happy, even oneself, implied a moral judgment and was not simply a statement about someone’s apparent feelings.

So to be happy, in this ancient and Christian sense, requires the virtues. But the virtues also require happiness – because a person’s awareness of the final end he seeks determines his understanding, and actual content, of the specific virtues. This is why the same act can appear virtuous to one person and objectionable to another. This is why the present discussions of virtue are only the first step.

No doubt the revival of interest in the virtues reminds us that lives are not governed at every turn by a mental checklist of rules and commandments. Human beings will inevitably follow their dispositions – habits of thought, action, and emotion. Better lives and better communities will result from focusing on these wellsprings of action, rather than on clamoring for adherence to abstractions. No one, for example, who is incapable of temperance is capable of obeying a commandment consistently.

If the importance of virtue can be restored, why not make the restoration complete by addressing the meaning of happiness? People are reluctant to tackle the question of happiness for at least two reasons. Obviously, the idea of happiness itself has been discredited, and those who talk about it can appear like another huckster on the self-help market. But more important, to ask about happiness is to ask about the purpose of human life. And about this people clearly differ, sometimes quite bitterly.

It is easier, frankly, to talk at a level where people of totally different purposes can use an identical moral vocabulary and avoid public disagreement. Discussions of happiness expose these differences. They force people to reveal their bottom line, what they live for, what they are willing to sacrifice and suffer for.

Happiness and suffering – these are words that are rarely seen together. To an age so preoccupied with maximizing satisfaction and delight they will seem not merely unrelated but diametrically opposed. The moral meaning of happiness will be recovered only when our vision of the happy life is widened to include suffering. By this, I mean the suffering we undergo for the good and for God, and also the unexpected suffering that visits us as limited and vulnerable creatures.

This is precisely why thinking about happiness points back to the necessity of virtue. The virtues are those dispositions – those habits of the heart – that keep us on track when the soul and body are shaken. Without the virtues we cannot pursue true happiness; without happiness, we cannot recognize true virtues.

Let’s start telling the whole story.

This column originally appeared in the January 1996 issue of Crisis Magazine.