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A Christmas Meditation on Kazantzakis' 'Greek Passion'
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2007-12-09 10:05:35
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Most people have heard of Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek and the controversial The Last Temptation of Christ made even more famous and controversial by Martin Scorsese’s film. But, to my mind, the greatest of Kazantzakis' works is The Greek Passion. As one reads it one gets a glimpse at the very soul of its author and his views on religion. The novel assumes epic proportions because in the final analysis it is concerned with the titanic struggle between good and evil.

Just like some of Dostoyevsky’s novels (The Idiot, for example), Kazantzakis has in this novel a Christ figure, Manolios, who replicates the life, passion and death of Jesus Christ all over again in a Greek village dominated by its Turkish overlords in the Middle Ages. Manolios is selected to play the Christ part in a Passion play which has also the other gospel characters: Peter, James, John, Mary Magdalene, Herod, Pilate and Judas.

However, the struggle of good and evil in the novel is not portrayed in the obvious story line of the Passion of Christ, but in the one between two Greek priests: Grigoris and Fotis. One is hypocritical and the other saintly. In the novel the Church is seen as corrupt to its core. This is exemplified especially in the treatment of Father Fotis by his bishop. Moreover, there are other implicit struggles: those of Greek against Turk, power and wealth in the hands of the few and the hopes and dreams envisioned by Leninist philosophy and the Russian Revolution.

Kazantzakis is deeply aware that socialism transcends even the Russian Revolution. It is a perennial aspiration of the human heart for justice. This is revealed not as an ideology but through the novel’s characters. For example, there is the scene of the saintly priest Fotis listening to Yannakos, the shepherd, who plays Peter in the Passion play, and then exclaiming: “Me, help you? But all the sages of the world ought to come here and stop and listen to you, so that they, poor things, might at last understand the words of Christ. You’re right Yannakos, the Gospel is not a thing you read with the brain; the poor brain doesn’t understand much; you read it with the heart. It understands everything.”

What is Kazantzakis telling us? Nothing short than his view of religion. Religion is show but the heart knows the truth and has reasons that reason knows not. Kazantzakis depicts his characters very transparently. There is no subtlety in what they really believe in their heart of hearts; his characters are deep or shallow, spiritual or vicious. They either inspire the reader by their goodness or enrage him by their wickedness. What is Kazantzakis’s story ultimately telling us? That all of us are both Fortis and Grigoris and it does us no good to our spiritual health to project our own Grigoris and his negative traits unto others. That way lies xenophobia and ideological fanaticism, the holier than thou attitude that presumes to judge and execute the “other.” It is healthier by far to acknowledge our shadows (our Fr. Grigoris) and do something about it.

The heart is everything for Kazantzakis. That is the message of Manolios, the Christ figure. He goes it alone, neither running with the crowd of the times, nor running to church. He finds solitude and learns meditation in the mountains. He is indeed an inspiration to the reader. But why does he go off to meditate? It is for the same reasons that St. Francis of Assisi and his contemporary Rumi went off to meditate, so that they could find themselves, and the God in themselves, and discover the truth about the problems that surrounded them. It is a journey inward which begins in fear and trepidation the way Dante begins his “in the middle of the journey of our lives…” to empty himself of his prejudices and selfishness so that he could live properly outwardly and at the end of the journey perceive fully “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

Unfortunately, for many of us holier-than-thou church-going Christians, even those of us who go to church just on Christmas and Easter, God is out there in deep space, to be contacted via internet, or via some kind of telepathic ritual so that He, like Santa Claus, can fulfill our whims. However, if nothing changes, outwardly or inwardly, then there is really no valid spiritual reason to take part in explicitly religious rituals simply for tradition’s sake or to feel more secure in a lonely crowd out shopping or baking cookies for Christmas. In that case Nietzsche’s madman has it on target: God is dead, and we might as well be a bit more honest about what we might be possibly be doing in church on Christmas.

Sure, we go to church because it is part of our tradition, and we bake Christmas cookies because it is part of our tradition, and we shoot fireworks on the fourth of July because it too is part of our tradition. And if we dare to think about we may even find some good reasons why we should celebrate the fourth of July with fireworks. Similarly, if we dare to think about it, we may find good reasons why we should go to church and celebrate on Christmas day and bake cakes and go shopping for gifts, but let us not be hypocrites and do so simply because it is “a tradition,” when in reality we have nothing to celebrate.

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Also read Ovi Magazine's "Nikos Kazantzakis: The truth of an alleged excommunication" by Anna Oistros (In Greek): http://ovimagazine.com/art/777

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Emanuel Paparella2007-12-04 16:34:21
Footnote: it is worth noting here that Kazantzakis was a nominee for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1956 but missed it by a hair. The recipient that year was Albert Camus.

Thanos2007-12-09 19:48:04
Nice article, Nikos Kazantzakis is by far my favorite author, I suppose been Greek and able to read the books in their original language helps a lot.
Kazatzakis despite all it happened with his excommunication (mainly had to do with priests and not the church) was a very devoted Christian and this is something you can see in all his books.

Emanuel Paparella2007-12-09 22:40:07
You are quite right Mr. Kalamidas, reading a great work in the original is a qualitatively different and in fact superior experience, for a language, as the literary theory of modern hermeneutics teaches us, is the very soul of a people. There are some who affirm that some of the German translations of Shakespeare are better than the original but I remain skeptical about that. A good translation remains faithful not necessarily to the letter but the spirit of the literary masterpiece and the spirit resides most authentically in the original language. In 20th century Italian literature the twin soul of Kazantzakis is Ignazio Silone of “Fontamara” and “Bread and Wine” fame. I have never encountered a translation of his novels that surpasses the original.

judy eichstedt2007-12-10 03:51:37
i have read this two times for i did not want to miss a single word of what you wrote. this is well worth reading. i stopped going to church many years ago yet believe in god. i hope to find god and the truth on my own. thanks for this article, its great.

Emanuel Paparella2007-12-10 23:13:12
I am glad you found the piece inspiring Ms. Eichstedt. As for myself, I still go to church but I do so not in order to find God there but so that I may hope to find Him when I come out. If nothing else the gospel (which as Fr. Fotis puts it is best understood with the heart)continues to be read there. Gospel, as you know, means "good news." The important thing is to concentrate on the message of good news and not the postman who delivers it and may be unworthy. The Church calls itself "The pilgrim Chruch" because it too is a provisional institution on a journey toward "the love that made the sun and the other stars" to say it with Dante.

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