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a response to Last Temptation

by Lorna Derksen

THE INSCRIPTION ON Nikos Kazantzakis' tomb in Heraklion, Greece reads:

I hope for nothing.I fear nothing.I am free.

The same inscription could have been placed on Jesus' tomb had they buried him in Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ. Kazantzakis draws a compelling image of Jesus as a human who struggles to find his divine calling, and who in struggling finds the freedom to hope for nothing and fear nothing. This is an image of the Human One by which we cannot help but be inspired.

If you are accustomed to Jesus as he is portrayed in the Gospels, Kazantzakis' Jesus will be shocking. He is a troubled young man, attacked by pains that mimic bird's claws, nagged by his mother, and disappointed in his father. But most striking is how really unsure he is of his divine calling. In true human form, the main character's identity is so ambiguous in the first chapters of the novel that he is referred to only in generic terms such as the young man, the sleeper, or the youth. He speaks of "a way", but is unsure of what way this might be.

His struggle, and likewise ours, if self-awareness might allow us to admit, is constant. "I am wrestling," Jesus tells Judas. "With whom?" "I don't know…I'm wrestling." The temptations with which Jesus wrestles throughout his life are varied, but similar in their attempts to distract him from his calling. Unable to ignore God's digging claws, Jesus leaves home to hide from God in a desert monastery. On the way, the aroma of baking bread and the sight of harvest vegetables remind him of the comforts of a domestic life, a life which he often dreams of living with Mary Magdalene; he hurries with even more purpose to evade these temptations. Instead of a hiding place within the monastery, however, he finds a confessor to whom he is able to admit not only his carnal temptations but also his pity for the suffering of people.

In listening to the call of his heart, rather than the demons of his fears, Jesus begins to emerge from the shell of this young, previously generic man. His stirred heart overflows with love for the tortured souls he sees in those around him. Jesus' public ministry begins when he saves Magdalene from being stoned. His "clawing look" stirs inner reflection in her attackers, destroying their certainty that she is the only sinner among them.

"Every step in his life is a struggle to freedom, not freedom from sturggle, but freedom in struggle.From this point on, Jesus recognizes that God has conquered him. But it isn't an unambiguous conquest. Just as the lost young man of the earlier chapters is easy to identify with, so is this conquered, but unsure Jesus. A potential candidate for Toastmasters, he struggles to find the courage to speak in front of assembled groups. While Judas is convinced of the need for militancy, Jesus' guiding image changes from the heart, to the sword, to the cross. It is as if having said yes to the initial call, Jesus walks into a new land where the paths are no more clear, and fears no less alive. What has changed is that his intention is more directed.

This pattern continues throughout the novel. Jesus continues to move forward in faith in spite of his fears, even when he realizes that the cross rather than military victory is in the forecast. When his final and greatest temptation comes on the cross, we see not only how strong the pull to lead a 'normal' life has been for Jesus, but also how truly Jesus wants to serve God. Every step in his life is a struggle to freedom, not freedom from struggle, but freedom in struggle.

I enjoyed reading about this ambiguous youth as an option to the Jesus stories from the Gospels. More accustomed to a Jesus confident in his role as God's son, I found it cathartic to read about the indecision and avoidance of a young man to whom I could relate, first in his identity crisis and then in his struggle to be courageous in the presence of fear.

Although I don't feel God's clawing call to introduce a new paradigm to the world, I have been called to bring a new perspective to my world. As small as this task may seem, the temptation to slip on the tarnished glasses of cynicism and depression is great for me. Having recently drawn up a personal mission statement which sites "seeing with eyes of hope" as my main goal, I am daily aware of how short I fall. I am the generic one, struggling to choose the call to consciousness - refusing to resort to the temptation of the habitual.

Kazantzakis wanted to offer "a supreme model to the man who struggles; I wanted to show him that he must not fear pain, temptation or death - because all three can be conquered, all three have already been conquered." Almost as much as finding hope in Kazantzakis' Jesus, Kazantzakis himself inspires me. I see in both the determination to not give up, to believe in spite of fear, to struggle in spite of pain.

Kazantzakis never intended on writing a historical biography of Jesus. He wrote to describe the human struggle of existence and the hope which breaks through, as modeled by Christ. The greatest gift of Kazantzakis' Jesus is the model of a human being who, like us, struggles to follow the call of God, and who in the struggle finds freedom.

Kazantzakis, Nikos. The Last Temptation of Christ. London: Faber and Faber, 1988. 518 pages.


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