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A Very Thought Provoking Look at the Life of Jesus
on April 1, 2004
Some topics always provoke controversy even though they shouldn't. Religion and religious convictions are one. If one has faith, then that faith, by its very definition, should be able to withstand a work of fiction even though that work of fiction is very well written. Jose Saramago's THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS CHRIST has, I think, provoked much more controversy-and condemnation-than it ever should have. But the very fact that it has, I think, is testament to its greatness and its ability to provoke thought.
I think there is much to admire in this beautiful book...and it is quite beautiful. The prose is lyrical and poetic and, at times, magical and heartbreaking. People who say Saramago is "difficult reading" may just not like his style of writing. The only punctuation he uses are commas and periods and his sentences and paragraphs go on for pages and pages and pages. Saramago tells his stories in torrents of words...wonderful words...and if a reader lets himself get caught up in those words, they carry him along, effortlessly, through the book. Saramago is far too good a writer to be "difficult." He's so good-a definite master-that his writing appears to be effortless.
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS CHRIST tells the story of Christ from Christ's own point of view. This causes him to be supremely human, something that is missing from most other accounts of Christ's life. Jesus, in this book, is a fully realized human being, one who has desires and temptations, one who sometimes fails and one who, above all, questions his life and its meaning and even comes to doubt Judaism and its intense focus on sacrifice and suffering.
Saramago, himself, has said that he writes to understand and to question and so, it makes sense, at least to me, that he would question the institution of organized religion and the gospels in this book. I'm Catholic and the book only deepened my faith; I wasn't in the slightest bit offended by it. I do think, however, that some more fundamentalist Christians might be offended and perhaps they should simply skip this book and read something else, instead.
In THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS CHRIST, Saramago lavishes much empathy on Jesus as a fellow human being who is filled with doubts and suffering. The author's view of Jesus and his contemporaries is quite compassionate and almost tender. I don't know how people can object to Jesus' love for Mary Magdalene; Saramago portrays this love as very sincere and very deep. One can see that, above all, Saramago was trying to understand how Christ felt, not as God or as the son of God, but as a man, a man who lived as a human being and interacted with his fellow human beings.
Saramago is not, however, so generous and compassionate in his portrayal of God. Saramago's God is a vengeful one, one who causes the men He created to sin and then punishes that sin without mercy. In fact, in this book, Jesus doesn't choose to become a martyr and the salvation of all mankind; he is tricked into it by God, Himself. There are two lovely set pieces in which we can see just how much Saramago questions God's mercy: one in the desert and another that occurs years later in a boat surrounded by fog. In those set pieces, God goes to any length to trick Jesus into becoming a martyr so that He, God, can widen His realm and become, not only the God of the Jews, but the God of all mankind.
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS CHRIST is the most compassionate, human and profound look at the life of Jesus I have ever encountered, surpassing even Nikos Kazantzakis's THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. I found this book very human and very compassionate and both heartbreaking and healing as well.
I would definitely recommend THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS CHRIST to anyone who would not be offended by a look at Christ that questions, but not necessarily contradicts, that found in the gospels of the bible.