Context: Read this while we took the nephews and niece to an adventure farm in County Durham.
One of the most bizarre books I’ve read for a long time this one. Glad I read it though it wasn’t an easy read. Especially because of the hype that surrounded both the book and the release of the film, this is worth a read. You can’t very well criticise something as blasphemous if you haven’t read it yourself can you? So, I did.
Let’s start with what I liked about it. Kazantzakis has brought to life the humanity of Christ in a way that I found deeply moving and very helpful. The book starts with Jesus having what can only be described as something of a mental breakdown. This is precipitated by years of visions and dreams of him being more than human and these are driving him insane because, as far as he’s concerned, he’s just a normal guy. Through various experiences, he comes to realise that he is in fact the Messiah, but it’s no easy road.
Now, I had never before considered that Jesus would actually not know who he was in terms of his calling. But this actually makes a lot of sense to me and helps me relate to him much more because it would mean that he relates to me much more. The essence of the book in fact is the struggle between flesh and spirit, one I feel keenly day by day.
Jesus’ mother (Joseph has been struck by an angel and is a dribbling wreck) attempts to betroth him to a girl from Magdala but, on a trip there, Jesus sees Mary Magdalene and is penetrated to the heart. She too sees him as her lover. But the match is not to be and thus begins a life-long tension between them which ultimately becomes the final temptation that Jesus faces on the cross: to give his life to save humanity or to give his life to save Mary through having a normal life with her.
The book, for the most part, follows the Biblical narrative although there’s plenty of artistic license with reinterpretations of parables and miracles. Throughout though, he is excellent at creating the scene and setting the background to each event to give you more insight into what might actually have happened. For someone like me who has been reading the Biblical accounts for decades, this is nice and refreshing. But I don’t find it helpful that he adds and reshapes the Biblical narrative in places in order to promote his ideas of universalism (i.e. everyone will finally be saved).
The book ends with the crucifixion during which what can only be described as a long chapter of magic realism takes place. Jesus has a vision of what life would be like with Mary, marrying her and having children with her. The final end is his decision as to whether he gives into this temptation.
A very influential and important book. Not easy to read necessarily but certainly for anyone with an interest in Christ, worthwhile if only to answer the critics wisely.