Book Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Canongate, 2010) is an odd book. How else could it be, when an atheist writer comes to grips with the founding myth of Christianity? Here is a short excerpt to give you some idea of its flavour. The idea for this project apparently came about as the result of a conversation with his good friend, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Philip Pullman tells the story in a deceptively simple way. As you can see from the excerpt, he doesn’t question the Divine antecedents of the whisperer at Mary’s window, merely recording that she lets him in, that “he had assumed the appearance of a young man,” and that “she conceived a child, just as the angel had foretold.” The book has a biblical sensibility, aided and abetted by the clear typography, simple declarative sentences, and short chapters with their titles in red.

That said, Pullman’s authorial voice cannot be silenced, and he often deconstructs the miracles with scientific explanations that tended to pull me out of the narrative.

At the core of the book is the duality of Christ the Spirit, and Jesus the Man. Pullman makes this distinction vivid by having Mary give birth to twin boys. Jesus comes out first, strong, healthy and passionate in his convictions, a whole man who lives in each moment and loves the world. Christ is born next, a sickly intellectual who adores and protects his brother, but always with an eye to social acceptability. It is Christ, not the Devil, who tempts Jesus in the wilderness after his baptism by John.

As Jesus begins to teach, Christ either follows him to write down what he says and does, or enlists one of the disciples to report back to him, all with the sense that it could be so much better communicated if it weren’t quite so literal.

Christ is tempted himself, by a man who can be read as either the Devil, or a Papal time traveler sent back to Palestine to ensure that the records are conducive to the foundation of a Christian church capable of spanning the millennia. This man, whose name we never learn, is concerned with truth as it intersects with history.  Christ’s mission is to record Jesus’ life so that it will live down the centuries:

That is exactly why you are the perfect chronicler of these events, my dear Christ, and why your name will shine in equal splendour with his. You know how to present a story so its true meaning shines out with brilliance and clarity. 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.

At first all Christ has to do is write and collate reports on his brother’s words and activities, handing them to the stranger when he makes an appearance. But there is worst to come. In Pullman’s story it is Christ, not Judas, who betrays Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. After all, how can he be remembered if he is not martyred? Christ almost rebels at this, but he goes through with it, even accepting payment because a beggar has stolen his purse and he must pay the bill at the inn. To be fair to Christ, he expects that Barabbas will be crucified in Jesus’ place, and is appalled at his brother’s death.

Jesus comes face to face with the unreality of his own beliefs at Gethsemane, the very beliefs that have sustained him throughout his teaching. In Pullman’s retelling there is simply no-one there, despite his prayers for a sign, any sign, to justify his faith. Jesus finally sees through the false dichotomy of body and spirit:

Body and spirit…is there a difference? Where does one end and the other begin? Aren’t they the same thing?

So Jesus goes to his death in silent bitterness. It’s left to Christ to appear on the third day to Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ body having already been stolen, claiming to be the resurrected Jesus. Christ fades out of history and later gets married.

The stranger returns with one last task. He must edit the writings about his brother’s life. Once again, Christ almost rebels, but the writer in him won’t permit this to happen:

There were a hundred details that could add verisimilitude. He knew, with a pang that blended guilt and pleasure, that he had already made some of them up.

This novel is as much about the temptations of story-telling as it is about the veracity of a religious myth. Pullman conflates story-telling and myth-making into one irresistible human activity. This is the most subversive aspect of the novel, undercutting truth with the desire to tell a story. We accept and even require it in a work of secular fiction, but Pullman applies the same impulse to perceived Truth.

No wonder some people were upset.

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