The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis

In honor of Easter Sunday, I decided to reacquaint myself with The Last Temptation of Christ, a book that has a very soft spot in my heart. This is the book and movie for which I was kicked out of Catholic school back in 9th grade. I didn’t get kicked out because I was a troublemaker or kissing boys behind the school or anything sinful that would warrant getting the boot from good old St. Michael’s High School. I got kicked out for asking questions. Let me explain.

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The movie came out in the mid-1980s and caused a huge ruckus in the Catholic Church, the reason being is that the movie – and the book it was based on – showed a scene of Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalene. I will give you the context of that scene later in this blog, but oh the horror! My mom fell in with the ridiculous mob mentality of many parents back then and refused to allow my sister and I to see it. So of course, what does forbidding something from someone make them want to do? It makes them want to have it, of course.

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Anyway, I spent the weekend with my Dad during all this brouhaha, and we went to rent movies at Blockbuster one evening. I saw a copy of The Last Temptation of Christ – VHS old school, no less! – and asked if I could rent it. Being that he was a teacher, he was never big on restricting knowledge and so he said yes, I could rent it but I had to watch it with him and he’d answer any questions I might have. Oh goody goody gumdrops, was my reaction. So I watched it and was enthralled with the vision of the human Jesus that I had never previously experienced. (Also, how freakin’ cool is it that David Bowie played Pontius Pilate!!!!)

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I was raised Catholic, obviously, and the Jesus I learned about always knew he was the Son of God and what his ultimate fate would be, or at least, this was how it was presented to me. So to watch this movie, which showed Jesus as a man with doubts and fears and desires who was having visions of God and seeing and hearing things and thinking that he was going insane was a HUGE revelation to me. It’s hard to even put into words just how much of a revelation it was……literally life-changing because from that point on, my entire concept of Jesus and God and religion shifted and I wanted to know more.

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So Monday rolled around and I happily trotted back to St. Mike’s with the scales having fallen from my eyes, as it were, and ended my school day with religion class. I sat down in Brother Ben’s class, we did the lesson and I naively raised my hand to ask a question that had occurred to me after having watched the film. My dad, bless his movie censor heart, had fallen asleep during the film so I couldn’t ask him. Anyway, I can’t remember the exact question, but it infuriated Brother Ben, who was this large, red-faced, beefy Irishman of a priest and his face turned the color of a tomato when I asked my question. He said, “Why are you asking that kind of question?!” in a very peeved tone of voice. I responded “Well, I saw this movie this weekend and it made me start thinking about this so I wanted to ask you.” He responded quite angrily, “What movie did you see?” and dummy me, not seeing the warning signs at the time, said innocently, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Oh my Lord – pardon the pun – it was like throwing a match into a keg of gasoline. He exploded, shouting at me and questioning why my parents would allow me to watch such filth and that I had no business asking those kinds of questions, etc. etc. A few weeks later, at the end of the school year, my mom got a letter from the principal of St. Mike’s suggesting I would be happier in a “non-parochial environment.” I still laugh about it now.

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Anyway, the book tells the story of Jesus and his path to realizing he is the Son of God, his ministry, his temptations, and his crucifixion. But then from there, while he is slowly and agonizingly dying on the cross, it veers into a lengthy, intense vision of what his life would have been like if he had been different, lived as a a normal man. In this vision, he lives, marries the woman he loves Mary Magdalene (hence his vision of them making love and the furor that created in the Church because what a horrible thing for Jesus to imagine his destiny differently), has children and lives an otherwise unremarkable, normal, happy life. In  other words, the sex scene is all in his mind as part of his vision of giving up being the Son of God. If you were dying slowly and horrifically, wouldn’t you want to escape mentally and imagine you were somewhere else with someone you loved? I would, JC! You’re not alone!

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The son of Mary felt calmed. He sat down on the root of the ancient olive tree and began to eat. How tasty this bread was, how refreshing the water, how sweet the two olives which the old lady gave him to accompany his bread. They had slender pits and were as fat and fleshy as apples! He chewed tranquilly and ate, feeling that his body and soul had joined and become one now, that they were receiving the bread, olives and water with one mouth, rejoicing, the both of them, and being nourished.

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Isn’t that the most beautiful description of eating? I just love it. It inspired me to make olive bread, because bread is the most Biblical of foods and olives were common in Jesus’ time, and then of course, you have the whole Mount of Olives reference and so on. This is the method I used, based on a long-remembered recipe from a Mediterranean cookbook I used to have. Best part? No kneading involved.

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INGREDIENTS
2 cups lukewarm water
1 package (2 and 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
4 teaspoons sea salt
4 cups all purpose flour
1 cup mixed green and black olives, chopped
1 tablespoon garlic powder
Olive oil
1 teaspoon each of dried parsley, dried basil and dried thyme

METHOD
In a large mixing bowl, combine water and yeast.

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Add one cup of flour and the sea salt, and stir until well mixed.

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Add the sliced olives and the garlic powder. Mix again.

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One cup at a time, stir in the remaining flour. You’ll notice the mixture getting thicker and shaggier with each cupful. This is normal.

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Cover with plastic wrap and a tea towel and set somewhere warm to rise for an hour.

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Add a tablespoon of olive oil in an 8-inch cast iron skillet and coat the bottom and sides of the skillet, then transfer the now-risen and very sticky dough to the oiled skillet. You may need to shape it a bit to make it the round size you want.

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Cover with the tea towel and let it proof another half-hour, and heat the oven to 425F.

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Drizzle about a tablespoon of olive oil on top of the dough, sprinkle with the dried herbs and maybe a bit of sea salt.

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Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the top crust is nice and brown. Isn’t it beautiful? I was so proud!

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Remove from the oven and let cool a few minutes before removing the bread from the skillet. Let cool a bit more, and serve with either butter or very good extra-virgin olive oil and a glass of red wine. Because it’s Easter. You gotta have the bread and wine to be saved.

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The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita is a heavy and weirdly surreal read, but it’s far more lighthearted and satiristic than many other Russian novels of the similar period. Mikhail Bulgakov wrote this book as a sharp commentary and satire on the communistic and atheistic government of time, top-heavy with government bureaucrats and processes. This book was actually banned in the Soviet Union for many years, and with Bulgakov’s sharp eye for calling bullshit in his country and his scathing tongue when satirizing the government and religion, it’s no wonder the bureaucrats couldn’t handle it. Most people who abuse their power in government can’t handle being satirized and criticized. Sound familiar? 🙂

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Anyway, the story is told in three parts. The first section is where Professor Woland (the Devil in disguise, with apologies to Elvis Presley) appears in 1930s Moscow with his minions, including Behemoth the black cat who is my favorite animal character in any book. He’s a real smart-ass, wears a bow tie, totes a Kalashnikov and dude! Get this! The cat DRINKS VODKA! Professor Woland proceeds to turn the Russian government and wealthy society upon its head as he asks aggravating questions, pisses off the Establishment and makes a nuisance of himself pointing out the obvious nonsense going on in society and government.

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The second part of the book takes place in ancient Jerusalem and tells Pontius Pilate’s version of the story of Jesus Christ prior to the Crucifixion, which is not at all what one would expect, and although this was interesting, to me it was the weakest part of the book. I guess it’s because I know that story so well, but it’s interesting to see how tormented Pilate is over his part in Jesus’s crucifixion.

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The eponymous Master and his mistress Margarita appear about halfway into the book, and are the third part of the story. The Master, a tormented and failed writer during the 1930s, has written a book about Jesus and Pontius Pilate that has not sold. Margarita, madly in love with the Master, makes an odd agreement with Woland in which she acts as hostess for Satan’s midnight ball and and flies over Moscow naked on a broom. Yes, you read that correctly. She is able to torment the horrible publisher who rejected The Master’s book and made him so miserable. This is a woman unlike any other – she is brave, loyal, adoring, smart and unafraid to use the powers of Darkness to help the man she loves.

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I personally liked the irony of reading this book – which you could also call “Sympathy for the Devil” on Easter, but since it’s also April Fool’s Day, it seems rather appropriate. Woland is a rather sympathetic Devil, and actually quite a just one, as he rewards Margarita’s love and loyalty to her Master and punishes wrongdoings and injustices, particularly those perpetrated by the corrupt and evil Russian bureaucrats whose greed and selfishness condemn them. One such bureaucrat, Nikanor Ivanovich, who has a rare and expensive apartment in the heart of Moscow gained by greed and illicit actions, serves his Chairman a rather delicious sounding meal before he is later arrested and punished for his horrible deeds.

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“His wife brought pickled herring from the kitchen, neatly sliced and thickly sprinkled with green onion. Nikanor Ivanovich poured himself a dram of vodka, drank it, poured another, drank it, picked up three pieces of herring on his fork….and at that moment the doorbell rang. Pelageya Antonovna was just bringing in a steaming pot which, one could tell at once from a single glance, contained amidst a fiery borscht……..”

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A spicy, fiery borscht! Oh yeah! But I held off on the pickled herring. One has to have standards, you know.  🙂 My borscht was a take on Elise Bauer’s recipe at Simply Recipes, which is my go-to website for many dishes, with my own tweaks, as usual.

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INGREDIENTS
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
1 lb. cubed boneless beef chunks
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, finely minced
3 cups organic beef stock
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup red wine
3 large red beets
2 large potatoes
12-15 baby carrots
1 small head of red cabbage
5-6 bay leaves
2 tablespoons fresh dill
Sour cream for garnish

METHOD
Heat the olive oil a large cast-iron pot, and brown the beef chunks for about 5 minutes, turn them to brown on the other side, then add the onion and garlic, and cook those down for another 5 minutes.

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Pour in the beef stock, cover and cook for 45 minutes, until the meat is tender.

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While the meat is cooking, heat the oven to 375F. Slice the potatoes and beets into roughly similar slices, lay on a baking tray with the carrots, and pour over the olive oil. Roast them for about 30 minutes, then add to the beef and stock.

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Slice the red cabbage and add it to the pot, along with the fresh dill, the red wine vinegar, the red wine, and some salt and pepper. Taste for seasoning and add more salt or pepper as needed.

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Add the bay leaves, cover and simmer for another 30 minutes, until the cabbage is cooked through. The color of the beets will deepen with cooking and you’ll have this beautiful ruby-red potful of stew that begs to be eaten.

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Serve in bowls with a tablespoon of sour cream and a sprinkling of fresh dill, and optionally, an ice-cold sipping shot of Russian vodka, and pretend you’re soaring naked on a broomstick over Moscow………or not. Maybe just eat your borscht instead.

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