THE highly controversial and much-publicized film ``The Last Temptation of Christ,'' which opens tonight in selected cinemas across the United States, raises questions that far transcend its artistic value. We haven't seen the film - but have read detailed reports of it. So we can't comment on its contribution to cinema. But we can discuss its contribution to a moral society in which the Judeo-Christian tradition is of central importance.
Not only is this movie in bad taste. It also depicts the very antithesis of what Jesus' life represented.
It distorts the vital mission of Christianity by projecting a depraved view of the man who so many view as the best, and most spiritual, individual ever to trod the globe.
Some might be tempted to say: It's only a movie. Movies, however, leave lasting impressions, particularly on the young.
The depicting of a vulnerable Jesus, beset by sensual thoughts and particularly entertaining base fantasies on the cross - his ultimate test - is far more than literary license or even art distorting life.
It is a direct affront to the Christly mission - and it may be an unwitting attempt to invalidate it.
Admittedly, moviegoers are forewarned about its content. The implication is that this is just one director's personal projection of one writer's interpretation of Jesus' temptations and ultimate victory over them.
In this case, such a disclaimer is not enough. One must question the objective of the makers and distributors of this film. Is it just to turn a profit? Artistic ethics alone would reject this purpose.
We don't believe in censorship. But we do believe in the good sense and moral judgment of the moviegoing public.
To put the issue in perspective, the Monitor today is printing a religious column, ``Christ Jesus - the Saviour,'' on Page 27.