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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Novel Theology by Darren J. N. Middleton (Mercer University Press) engages a conversation between literature and theology by using the narrative fiction of Kazantzakis and the process thought of Whitehead. Novel Theology reveals the common philosophy that shapes both Kazantzakis's and Whitehead's understanding of God. It acknowledges that the exercise of sustain­ing this conversation at times becomes demanding because literature and theology use dissimilar tex­tual modes and forms of discourse. Literature and theology constantly (de)construct each other. Suggesting that this (de)constructive assignment is one that cannot but be "in process itself," Middleton returns to it throughout his study.

Middleton brings theology and literature into con­versation by comparing specific themes in novels by Kazantzakis and in the works of particular Whiteheadian process theologians. Works explored include The Last Temptation of Christ, Christ in a Pluralistic Age; Saint Francis; Toward a Process Pneumatology; Zorba the Greek; and God and Religion in the Postmodern World: Essays in Postmodern Theology.

Novel Theology is indispensable reading for schol­ars of literature and theology, Kazantzakis, Whitehead, and process thought. It is important because it demonstrates how we may think theologically in a relational world. Drawing on the writings of John B. Cobb, Charles Hartshorne, and Alfred North Whitehead, Middleton not only shows the connection between Kazantzakis's The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises and contemporary attempts to reinterpret traditional teachings in the light of relativity and pluralism, but also applies this connection to the fictions themselves, emerging with important new inter­pretations.

I have worked with Kazantzakis for forty years. I find Middleton's involvement with this great author the most important new direction in Kazantzakis's studies in the last decade. But since Kazantzakis's general orientation is shared by other literary figures (for example, D. H. Lawrence), I expect Middleton's contribution will be expandable to all those writers who, like Kazantzakis, could not subscribe to orthodox religious doctrine but who nevertheless remained deeply religious. Their example, in turn, is of extreme impor­tance to each of us who struggle with religious doubt.


Educated under the French evolutionary thinker Henri Bergson (1859‑1941) at the turn of the twentieth century, the modern Cretan author Nikos Kazantzakis (1883‑1957) followed his teacher's lead in rejecting substantialist metaphysics for a philosophy of formation and growth. Later, in a 1927 lyrical essay, known now by the provocative title The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, Kazantzakis gave his own poetic embodiment to Bergson's belief that a "creative impulse" (élan vital) activates the mechanism of evolutionary change.' In other words, he married the concept of God to the idea of an unfolding, indeterminate world. Exploring this concept with the aid of tools provided by Bergson, he wrote poems and plays until 1941 when, in the autumn of his literary career, he continued his exploration in the narrative form of the novel. It is for this latter part of his writing career that he is best known.

While most critics of Kazantzakis's writings acknowledge and delineate his indebtedness to Bergson, few critics have moved beyond the customary reading of his work as a narrativization of evolutionary vitalism. The purpose of this present work is to advance this standard interpretation into an original direction by viewing a lyrical essay and three novels in light of, or in "conversation" with, the Whiteheadian school of process thought. In common with Kazantzakis, Alfred North Whitehead (1861‑1947) believed God is in the dynamic process of evolution and cannot be separated from it. And in common with both Kazantzakis and Whitehead, several North American process thinkers believe the divine is not unchanging and remote from the world, but active in the here and now. To the best of my knowledge, a book that facilitates Kazantzakis's "encounter" with Whiteheadian process theism has not been attempted before now.

I hope the present study will function, however modestly, on at least two levels. First, I hope Kazantzakis scholars will view it as an effective and stimulating way to open out Kazantzakis's work to wider signification. Second, I hope Whiteheadian thinkers will be intrigued by my suggestion that the comparison of Kazantzakis and a process theologian may result in a better knowledge of both the novelist and the theologian.

The book is arranged in logical order. In an effort to set the discussion of Kazantzakis and Whitehead in the framework of a process approach to God and the world, I initially outline the basic similarity between Bergson's thought and that of Kazantzakis. I show how both thinkers believe in a God who lures animate life to possible actualization of aesthetic worth. The notion that both Kazantzakis and Bergson may be labeled "process thinkers" receives some attention. However, this present study is not primarily a discussion of Bergson and Kazantzakis. Rather, it is an attempt to bring Kazantzakis into "conversation" with other process philosophers and theologians, namely, Whitehead and the different scholars who follow his lead. To this end, I couples Whitehead's Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology with Kazantzakis's The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises  in order to demonstrate how both writers believe that God is an integral part of the world's formation and novelty, actively engrossed in life and affected by events in it, sometimes to the point of needing our help to move forward in the evolutionary process.

Then I develop a theme that  probes the general relationship between literature and theology by reflecting on their basic difference in textual modes. I point out that although literature and theology frequently have a similar agenda in that both regularly address issues of religious belief, their dissimilarity in literary forms often means that advocates in each discipline (de)construct the work of the other. As writing, literature agitates and frustrates the interiorizing, systematizing, and reference‑claiming tendencies of much systematic theology. At the same time, systematic theology, with its use of dense arguments that proceed step-by-step in an elaborate network of mutual implication, often reminds the creative writer of the need for conceptual coherence and critical plausibility in one's work. Rather than try to resolve the tension between literature and theology, I argue that such disciplinary hostility makes possible the exciting task of (de)construction, an exercise that cannot but be "in process" itself. Because this tension is never resolved and ever-present, I refer to and explore it throughout my study.

Two of the more important and provocative aspects of the task of (de)construction--the open-ended nature of language and the use of deliberately conflicting strategies of reading--receive special attention. More specifically, I articulate how these "postmodern" ideas inform my "bifocal" reading of Kazantzakis's novels. In my view, postmodernists help us to see that no one can or should make universal claims for reading. In addition, they help us to recognize and appreciate that no single hermeneutical strategy finally can or should be used when one analyzes fiction. And so, in the present study, I read three particular Kazantzakis novels, The Last Temptation of Christ; Saint Francis; and Zorba the Greek, on at least two basic levels. First, I read them as self-sustaining texts that invite us to suspend our disbelief and to navigate their fictional terrain, and, second, I read them as dramatic narratives capable of provoking process theological reflections.

Each of the following chapters focuses upon a specific theological theme, and these themes appear in the standard order and progression of Christian theological topics; first, God's relationship to a changing world; next, how Jesus of Nazareth becomes the Christ; then, the picture of the divine as an evolving Spirit; and finally, the value of human creativity to God. I initially explore each theme in a formal analysis of the chosen Kazantzakis novel, and then I consider it within a text(s) of a specific process thinker as I bring the two together in a sustained "conversation." The following paragraphs briefly delineate the contents of each chapter within this structure.

After analyzing God's general agency within an evolving world, and after suggesting that the comparison of literature and theology may result in an improved understanding of both the theologian and the novelist, I then narrow my field of inquiry in to a discussion of God's specific agency in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Now, Kazantzakis's most accessible account of Jesus can be`found in his novelistic re­creation of Jesus' life, The Last Temptation of Christ. As a philosopher rather than a theologian, Whitehead spoke only briefly about Jesus, his remarks being scattered and few. However, within the ranks of Whiteheadian process thinkers, John Cobb's Christ in a Pluralistic Age stands out as an instructive, full‑length account of the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth from the perspective of Whiteheadian process thought. I treat both Cobb and Kazantzakis and argue that Cobb's Whiteheadian Jesus resembles Kazantzakis's Bergsonian Jesus.

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I interpret Kazantzakis's ; Saint Francis as a process nature‑mystic. By this phrase I mean that as Francis Bemardone evolves from rich troubadour to the Poor Man of God, he gradually learns to treat the many inhabitants of the physical world as incognitos of an evolving God. Appearing to be both transcendent of and yet immanent within the world of nature, the God of Saint Francis furthermore commands Francis (as God commands Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ) to forfeit all material and bodily comforts in order to ascend a spiritual mountain starting from its base camp of "ordinariness" (marriage and parenthood) and progressing to reach its summit of "meaningfulness" (poverty, chastity, and obedience).

Throughout, Saint Francis, Kazantzakis's protagonist, becomes the Poverello because he struggles to convert all available matter into spirit, and because he obeys the commands of an evolving Spirit (the élan vital) who depends on creaturely assistance in order to advance (dematerialization). Only at the close of Francis's life, when his struggle to assist God is complete, does Kazantzakis's hero emerge as objectively immortal (as Whitehead would say) in the hearts and minds of others who remember and learn from his example. Against Peter A. Bien's belief that; Saint Francis is a "post-Christian" novel, I label it a post-dogmatic mythopoesis of process thought.

Now, when one begins to probe and explore the association of Kazantzakis with Whiteheadian forms of process theology, divergences regarding their understanding of God's dynamic agency inevitably appear. While Reynolds follows Whitehead in his model of the divine tender goading, Kazantzakis narrativizes God's more radical pushing. At first sight, this contrast appears as an impasse. However, while I am unable to resolve the tension, I believe this divergence may be a difference in emphasis. Although process thinkers do stress God's persuasive and tender providence, they also acknowledge that God's lure is frequently for the less than gentle since the struggle to instantiate aesthetic value often involves discord, intensity, and chaos. A sustained discussion of this tension, and how it leads into the strategic difference between theology and literature follows.

Final I conclude by addressing the theme of human creativity relative to both Kazantzakis's Zorba the Greek and David Ray Griffin's God and Religion in the Postmodern World: Essays in Postmodern Theology. I show how both thinkers uphold the universality of creativity; they believe that all living things, including God, embody energy. The divine is not the sole possessor of creativity; rather, they hold that our world has inherent powers of self‑creation. Thus, God is never the total or final cause of any event in the world. For Kazantzakis, as for Griffin, God is out in front of the temporal advance, the divine cry or lure for feeling, and God must engage the self-­creativity of others as God seeks expression and proliferation of value. Within this shared process perspective of God and the world, spiritual formation is neither impossible nor irrelevant.

Griffin argues that we become "spiritual" if and when we try to imitate God's perpetual desire for satisfying experience. Similarly, Kazantzakis believes we become "spiritual" if and when we copy the élan vital through acts of evolutionary striving. Interpreting Alexis Zorba's life in light of this shared view of process spirituality, I hold that Zorba contributes both to God (he frees the élan vital by mining lignite and women!) and to others (his life so affects the Boss that the Boss objectively immortalizes it in art). In my view, Zorba embodies process spirituality because he successfully copies the struggles of an adventurous God. In addition, the Boss's novel about Zorba seems to suggest that he, too, has struggled to imitate the creativity of the élan vital.

In the midst of demonstrating Griffin's and Kazantzakis's belief that process spirituality is both possible and relevant within our own changing world, I revisit and further examine some of the postmodern themes I discussed earlier. In particular, I note how Griffin's work moves Whiteheadian process thought into a radically new site by engaging those postmodernists, particularly Mark C. Taylor, who appear to call into question many of the convictions‑-a common rational discourse, universal ethical precepts, an ordered universe, and the difference between fact and interpretation‑that form the foundation of modernism. Using both Bergson and Whitehead against Taylor's own "deconstructive" or "eliminative postmodernism," Griffin accuses Taylor of promoting an anti-worldview that eradicates the possibility of belief in God. Griffin, instead, favors the radical amendment of key theological concepts from within modernity's worldview, a task he terms "constructive" or "revisionary postmodernism."

After discussing Taylor and Griffin on the subject of God, I show how their debate applies to Kazantzakis's narrative fiction. A source common to both Kazantzakis and postmodernism (by whatever name) is the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and although I make brief allusions to his work in earlier parts of the book, the chief reason I wait until the last chapter is because critics hold that Zorba the Greek, perhaps more than any other Kazantzakis novel, owes an important debt to Nietzsche, especially Nietzsche's two books, The Birth of Tragedy and Thus Spake Zarathustra. For instance, Zorba's character is based largely on Nietzsche's view of the Dionysian mode of life, and the Boss's character is based chiefly on the Apollonian form of existence.

In my analysis of character in Zorba the Greek, I argue that the tense but close alliance between the Dionysian and Apollonian traits of Zorba and the Boss evokes the relationship between literature and theology, and so I close my final chapter with a discussion of possible points of divergence and convergence between these two disciplines in light of insights from "deconstructive postmodernism." Basically, I hold that the dialogue I sustain between the two disciplines permits me to view Kazantzakis's narrative fiction as a mythopoesis of process thought. In a succinct conclusion, I consider the value of this interpretation to Whiteheadian process theologians and Kazantzakis scholars. I have included a glossary of specialist terms from theology and process thought.


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