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30 June 2010

Book Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

Pullman is an atheist. Let's just get that out of the way right up front. An atheist with a healthy disregard for the modern institution that is the church. 

Let's also get out of the way that the book is a part of The Myths Series, which also includesThe Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood's retelling of the Odyssey from Penelope's point of view. A bully pulpit, if the author chooses to use it that way. 

And that Pullman does is no surprise. Pullman's version of the Gospel stories is inevitably unchristian. 

What IS a surprise is that this book was written after the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, a Pullman admirer, asked Pullman during a public debate why having tackled God he had neglected to write about Jesus. This book seems to be Pullman's answer to that question. And while the book is, as mentioned above, unchristian, it is not in the least anti-Jesus. 

In the back cover blurb, Pullman writes of this book, "[it is] a story about how stories become stories." And in that, the story is fairly simple: Pullman takes the familiar canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and weaves a retelling; interestingly, this retelling also includes other less well-known Christian gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Protoevangelium of James, which Pullman uses almost verbatim (if such a word can be used in a case like this) at the beginning of the book. 

The gist of the story is this; Mary actually had twins; Jesus, a healthy infant and Christ, a sickly infant.  It is Christ who is found lying in the feeding trough by the shepherds and the wise men. 

The story continues with Christ, the weaker twin, studying holy texts and astounding the elders with his precocious rabbinical wisdom. Jesus learns carpentry from his father and is popular. I confess at many points early in the story, I had to glance back at the title again; yes, he DOES say that Christ is going to be the scoundrel. Ok, back to reading. In a twist that is the harbinger of Pullman's main crux, as the boys reach adulthood, their characters polarize: Christ becomes cautious and fanciful while Jesus is passionate and impulsive. And holy. 

It is Jesus who is baptised by John. It is Jesus who goes into the wilderness for forty days. But it is Christ who fulfills the Satan role in the wilderness, tempting Jesus with the idea of the future church. The back and forth between the two brothers in this chapter is no less than a brilliant abstract into the essence of Pullman's argument with modern Christianity, further abstracted in the selections of the discussion chosen below; 

Christ   Fine words convince the mind, but miracles speak directly to the heart and then to the soul. If a simple person sees stones changed into bread, or sees sick people healed, this makes an impression on him that could change his life. He'll believe every word you say from then on. He'll follow you to the ends of the earth. 

Jesus   You think the word of God can be conveyed by conjuring tricks? ... Is that all you've learned from the scriptures? To put on a sensational show for the credulous? You'd do better to forget about that and attend to the real meaning of things. Remember what the scripture says; "Do not put the Lord your God to the test."

Christ   What is the real meaning of things, then? 

Jesus   God loves us like a father, and his Kingdom is coming soon. 

Christ   But that's exactly what we can demonstrate with miracles. And the Kingdom is a test for us, I'm sure: we must help bring it about...I can see the whole world united in his Kingdom of the faithful ... an association of local groups under the direction and guidance of a wise-elder in the region, the regional leaders all answering to the authority of one supreme director, a kind of regent of God on earth! And there would be councils of learned men to discuss and agree on the details of ritual and worship, and even more importantly, to rule on the intricacies of faith, to declare what was to be believed and what was to be shunned...Isn't this a vision worth marveling at, Jesus? Isn't this something to work for with every drop of blood in our bodies? 

Jesus   You phantom. You shadow of a man...Do you think your mighty organisation would even recognise the Kingdom if it arrived? Fool! The Kingdom of God would come into these magnificent courts and palaces like a poor traveller with dust on his feet. The guards would spot him at once, ask for his papers, beat him, and throw him out into the street. 

So Jesus continues his journey as a holy man. And Christ, bidden by a mysterious stranger (who functions as the evil impetus behind the distortion of Jesus’s teachings into the founding of the modern Christian Church) follows him and records his words and actions. 

And at some point, Christ begins to edit, of which the stranger approves. 

Sometimes there is a danger that people might misinterpret the words of a popular speaker. The statements need to be edited, the meanings clarified, the complexities unravelled for the simple-of-understanding. In fact, I want you to continue. Keep a record of what your brother says, and I shall collect your reports from time to time so that we can begin the work of interpretation. 

And so the story continues, with some of the famous miracles explained (the loaves and fishes turns out to be just Jesus convincing the crowd to share with each other, no less of a miracle, in some ways, than producing food out of thin air) and some left to stand as simple inspiration and hope motivating the lame to walk and the body to heal. 

The stranger reappears periodically with little nuggets like "What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom that what was" and Christ continues to edit and fabricate the story. 

And when you come to assemble the history of what the world is living through now, you will add to the outward and visible events their inward and spiritual significance; so, for example, when you look down on the story as God looks down on time, you will be able to have Jesus foretell to his disciples, as it were in truth, the events to come of which, in history, he was unaware. 

And so Pullman weaves his tale of the good man Jesus, who never claimed to be anything but a prophet of how the world could be if we people were any damn good. And the scoundrel Christ fabricates the history to fit the vision of the future Church, the tangible symbol of a Kingdom of God that will never arrive on earth. 

As the story builds to the crucifixion, one waits for the scene in the garden at Gethsemane, where Jesus goes to pray. And, true to form, Pullman has Jesus decrying God's absence; he has been preaching and teaching and giving and, still, no word directly from God. As Jesus prays, he questions and he waits for some answer, some sign. He hears the sounds of life progressing, a dog barking, an owl hooting, an insect chirping, but, 

If I thought you were in those sounds I could love you with all my heart, even if those were the only sounds you made. But you're in the silence. You say nothing. God, is there any difference between saying that and saying you're not there at all? I can imagine some philosophical smartarse of a priest in years to come pulling the wool over his poor followers' eyes: "God's great absence is, of course, the very sign of his presence", or some such drivel. The people will hear his words, and think how clever he is to say such things, and they'll try to believe it; and they'll go home puzzled and hungry, because it makes no sense at all. That priest is worse than the fool in the psalm, who at least is an honest man. When the fool prays to you and gets no answer, he decides that God's great absence means he's not bloody well there. 

Jesus continues his one-sided conversation to sketch how he feels Christ's vision of the church would inevitably become an instrument of torture and control for greedy men and a sanctuary for secretly lustful men who would take advantage of the innocent. This is vintage Pullman; heavy handed and passionate. He hates the church. Of course he does. We knew that before we started this book. 

So one expects that the resurrection will be fabricated, with the twin, Christ, appearing to the followers of Jesus, to inspire them to greatness. Pullman has a little bit of nasty fun with that; the followers of Jesus ask Christ to prove he is Jesus and show them his wounds. He has no wounds but the followers so desperately want to believe that they explain this away. And later, as they are building early Christianity, the story changes again and morphs into the doubting Thomas riff, which means that they had to explain away the broken legs, which the Romans practiced in all crucifixions as a matter of protocol, because if Jesus returned with his wounds intact and his legs had been broken, he wouldn't have been able to walk. So they came up with piercing his side. 

And I wish Pullman hadn't done that. There's no reason to pick a fight like that when the larger lessons he has tried to teach were so well thought out. If Pullman's purpose in this book was to explain how the words of Jesus have evolved into an instrument of oppression, then this little turn was unnecessary. 

Of course, maybe that wasn't Pullman's purpose. Maybe I got out of the book only what I sought to get out of it, ignoring the other lessons I didn't understand or with which I didn't agree. 


And maybe that's the most important lesson of all.