Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Last Temptation of Christ

Sometimes reviews require disclaimers, due to existing prejudices regarding the subject matter. Reading is not an objective sport, as our own values and beliefs color what we encounter. And so, a disclaimer. Consider this my coming out of the closet moment. I do not believe that Jesus was the son of God. In fact, I don’t believe in a god at all. I am, in truth, an atheist, and have been more or less for the last 11 years. I bring this up only because Nikos Kazantzakis’s Last Temptation of Christ has a reputation as blasphemy, and I wanted to be up front about where I approached this book from. Someone with a certain rigid belief system would likely be challenged, and perhaps offended by this novel. So, be forewarned.

When we first meet Jesus, he’s making a cross. Mary, his mother (obviously) cannot really remember what happened when the thunderbolt hit her, which also paralyzed Joseph for life. And Jesus has been somewhat of the bane of her existence – always running off somewhere, and just generally being strange. She wanted him to have a nice life – a wife, children – but instead he makes crosses. While Joseph sits and drools in a corner. This is not really the Mary of the Pieta.

Jesus is tormented by God. He wants a normal life, too, but every time he is about to give in to something, is about to do what God doesn't want him to, he is grabbed - I think it is described like a bird of prey's talons - and suffers seizure like symptoms. He wants to marry Mary Magdalene, who was his childhood companion. But he cannot, and he is tormented by that too. Jesus makes crosses for the Romans hoping that God will give up and leave him alone.

Over time - after visits to John the Baptist and a stint in the desert - he comes to accept God's mission for him, though he is constantly in doubt as to what exactly that means. He is slowly joined by his disciples, who are quite a ragtag bunch; the only one who is any use to Jesus is Judas, who becomes his confidant. As Jesus realizes that the only way to fulfill this plan of God's is for him to die, he asks Judas to turn him in. He wants it over with.

In the end (well, not quite the end) Jesus finds himself on the cross. Yeah, I know - who would have expected that? (Just kidding, folks). And suddenly, someone- his "guardian angel" but we all know who it really is - comes to him and tells him to get down, that it was all a dream. He proved himself to God, and now he can go live the life he wanted all along. He takes Mary Magdalene as his wife, but then she dies and he goes to Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, and has many, many children and happy days.

But other people start to show up: first Simon of Cyrene, Paul (in a very, very bizarre scene), and finally the disciples. The disciples accuse him of being a traitor and a deserter, recalling to him that he truly must die on the cross...he chooses to do so over the life that he always longed for. Jesus, seeing now fully that this is so, returns to the cross and finally dies.

Ok- so I get why people would be upset over this, in the same way they were upset by The Da Vinci Code, though LToC is so much better written they really aren't comparable. Kazantzakis's Jesus is very, very human. He's weary of his duty, and genuinely freaked out by the miracles he is able to perform. Obviously Judas as the secondary hero, not betraying Jesus but following orders, ruffles feathers. And people always get their undies in a knot over the idea of Jesus being married and having children, dream sequence or not. I get it. Kazantzakis was excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church for the novel, and in the mid-1980s Marin Scorsese received death threats over the film...Roger Ebert describes having to go to a specific pay phone and call a specific number to get directions to Scorsese's hiding place to interview him about the film...where he is greated by a security guard. People were severely injured in France from molotov cocktails thrown into a theater showing the film. This part I don't understand...but I don't take any of my own beliefs so seriously that I can't be on the same planet with people who don't share them. I think that's really just silly.

But I didn't come at the novel from a position of faith. It really doesn't matter to me if Jesus loved or kissed or married or did whatever with Mary Magdalene, or the other Mary, or Martha for that matter. I've always been interested in unique retelling of familiar stories. And to be honest, I always wondered about the vilification of Judas, even when I did believe Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected to save humankind from our sins. So, that's what this was for me, no different than other reimagining of the tales we collectively have decided are myths, and therefore not to be taken seriously...though a lot of people once did take them seriously. And I must say, from that perspective, LToC made me think about certain elements of the story in a new light, and I found myself thinking, "I get this...I get this picture of Jesus" in ways I haven't gotten Jesus since I stopped suspending my disbelief 11 years ago.

One reviewer (a Catholic, I believe) said of the dim, "throw out the objectionable parts, and there’s virtually nothing left." That is his perspective. I didn't find anything objectionable...but that's mine. My grandma always says its good we don't all like the same things, but I'm sure she'd be highly offended by Last Temptation. All I can suggest dear reader, is for you to read it yourself. Because it's much more objectionable to be offended by something you haven't read than by something you have.


kinnareads said...

Last Temptation of Christ is one of my favorite books. I'm also not religious and I wonder if that helps in the appreciation of the book. But it is a very well-written book that I think most people should enjoy. I recommend The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by Jose Saramago. You, these deeply humanist portrayals of Jesus are also inherently sympathetic and touching. So sometimes I just don't see what the anti-hoopla is all about. But as I've said, I'm not relegious. Thanks for the review. And congrats on your amazing progress reading the Modern Library 100.

Kristin said...

I will look up the Saramago book...his Blindness has been on my radar lately...

And thanks for the congrats...it's taken me over six years to get where I am with the ML list.