Friday, March 18, 2016
The Temptation of Being Human
Over sixty years ago, Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis published the provocative novel, The Last Temptation of Christ. The Wikipedia summary says of it:
The central thesis of the book is that Jesus, while free from sin, was still subject to fear, doubt, depression, reluctance, and lust. Kazantzakis argues in the novel's preface that by facing and conquering all of man's weaknesses, Jesus struggled to do God's will without ever giving into the temptations of the flesh. The novel advances the argument that, had Jesus succumbed to any such temptation, especially the opportunity to save himself from the cross, his life would have held no more significance than that of any other philosopher.
I remember reading the book LONG before Martin Scorsese's (even more) controversial film of the same name came out in 1988. I was impressed by the prose, and moved by the premise. On the other hand, the film DID make many of the issues in the book more vivid -- and highlighted some significant themes that were often missed by critics (mostly who hadn't seen the movie, let alone read the book) who wanted to focus on the more salacious dramatizations.* One of the chief criticisms coming from the more conservative folks was that Jesus was depicted as TOO human -- as the Wikipedia comment says: he was "subject to fear, doubt, depression, reluctance, and lust". But those same critics rarely paid any notice to the end of the book -- that Jesus rose above those "human weaknesses." As was the case in the stories of Jesus' original temptations (recounted in Mark 1, Matthew 4 and Luke 4), Jesus, in Kazantzakis' story, withstood the temptations, including the LAST temptation. I have to wonder whether those critics, seeking to elevate Jesus above "mere humans", also serve to keep us "mere humans" away from any "rising above"? I have thought about this a lot during this political season when so many of the presidential candidates are playing to "human weaknesses" -- primarily "fear, doubt," and, yes, "lust". We hear precious little about rising above our self-centeredness. There are few resounding sound-bites, let alone sustained conversations, appealing to our better natures. We humans have been make "little less than the angels" according to the psalmist (8.5), but much of what we hear suggests that we've actually been made little better than dung-beetles.
While I've been referring here to a story primarily based on a Christian narrative, I suspect that few of our religious traditions would have us adopt such a bleak outlook. Most would invite us to rise above our "earthly" natures, our selfish concerns, to locate ourselves in a universal narrative that provides hope for all. I think Kazantzakis' novel goes beyond telling an alternate story about Jesus, but is a parable inviting us all to avoid succumbing to the temptation of being merely human.
* Don't get me started on the other problems I had with that film!