- Broken Hallelujah: Nikos Kazantzakis and Christian Theology
Unquestionably, Nikos Kazantzakis's work is the most complex and multi-layered verbal configuration produced in Greek during the last four centuries. It is precisely the very "dense structure" of this work that makes it so appealing and yet paradoxically so accessible to an international audience. Kazantzakis himself avoided the cult of the fragment that dominated the culture of high modernism prevailing in Greece during his lifetime. The so-called 1930s generation rejected Kazantzakis's work on "aesthetic grounds," a rejection which alienated him from the Greek literary establishment. [End Page 273]
Yet Kazantzakis belonged to a tradition of grand narratives, following Kostis Palamas's idea that the Greek language needed "grand synthetic poems." In his works, especially in his unduly rejected magnum opus, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, and his later novels, Kazantzakis "synthezised" traditions of writing or patterns of discourse that produce their multidimensional structure. Indeed, Kazantzakis as a writer worked on different levels—something that can be seen in the various ways his works have been and can be interpreted. Most of them can be read as literary, psychological, political, cultural, and religious documents interchangeably (the official historian of the 1930s generation, K. Th. Dimaras, rather dismissively thought of him as a "national pedagogue" and not as a writer).
Very few works in any language can accommodate so many discourses of reference without collapsing into encyclopaedic self-referentiality. Yet Kazantzakis's books always succeeded in fusing all such discourses together in a dense and somehow invisible manner which is not easily understood, especially by those who see his work (based on the movie Zorba the Greek) as the glorification of folkish pre-modern culture.
However, Kazantzakis's best books succeed in bringing together diverse and sometimes conflicting "cultural problematics" which can be discerned under the exciting and enthralling plots of his novels or of his great poem. One of these problematics is that of theological reflection, or theological revision, as it were, of Christian traditional discourse. Christian theology, the personality of Jesus, and Christian ethos have been some of the central concerns of his work, so much so that we could claim that Kazantzakis was one of the most important "Christian" writers of the last century in the sense that he took Christianity seriously and did not use it as decorative background for his own intellectual development.
Darren Middleton's book actually does exactly that; it elucidates how seriously Kazantzakis took Christianity, avoiding the aesthetisization of its central story. Indeed Middleton delves deeply into Kazantzakis's theological problematic and draws some exciting and fascinating parallels with other Christian thinkers and their theological traditions. This is extremely crucial because many scholars cannot see how important the specificity of the Christian experience was for Kazantzakis, and most of them tend to confuse Kazantzakis's critique of clergy and institutional religion with a presumed rejection of Christianity and, more specifically, of the Christian principles of transubstantiation and restoration—themes constantly elaborated by him in his plays, novels, and essays.
Middleton follows Kazantzakis's theological reflections from his early life, when he visited Mount Athos (Chapter One) and his encounter with the Eastern tradition of mystical apophatic theology (Chapter Two), all the way through his connections with analogous efforts by Albert Schweitzer (Chapter Three), and the movement of process theology (Chapter Five). Finally, he discusses extensively Kazantzakis's engagement with traditional Christianity while extending its scope towards new theological paradigms, like that of postmodern (a)theology.
Middleton points out many fascinating connections between Kazantzakis's work and that of great philosophers of the last century such as Alfred North Whitehead. This is extremely interesting since, even if direct connection cannot be confirmed, it shows the intensity of questioning and the complexity of [End Page 274] answers that we find in his work. Middleton also locates Kazantzakis within his own Greek Orthodox tradition, especially within the popular piety of Orthodox asceticism or the undercurrent tradition of the apophatic theology. He suggests that Kazantzakis was one of the first secular writers...