Philip Pullman is as known for his excellent writing as much as for his raging against the Church and other religious organisations. His Dark Materials is essentially a story of a war between free thought and belief and corrupted doctrine. It is a particularly controversial topic for a Young Adult book, but superbly delivered and dressed up in fantastic characters. I was involved with a production of the stage play His Dark Materials by a youth theatre group in York a couple of years ago and heartily recommend it as a thought provoking entertaining read.
Given Pullmans record then, when you come across a book in the store titled ‘The Good man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ the tabloid sensationalist in me bounced excitedly that here must be a quite visceral assault on the Church and Christianity as a whole. My fiancee couldn’t believe their was a book with such a title, but there it was and on purchasing it in a store in Reading I immediately went into a field and read the entire book in a few hours.
The Good Man… is Pullmans reimagining of the story of Jesus – a man no sensible person denies actually existed as the historical record is quite strong on this – but introduces a twist right from the start; Jesus has a twin called ‘Christ’. At this point I have visions of the author in one of those Spanish Inquisition torture devices. However here is the second major surprise; this retelling of Jesus’ life is quite favourable. Except for a few occasions there are no cheap shots by Pullman, no denigrating of the image of Jesus and in fact I found the Jesus of this book a much more appealing and accessible person. You get a feeling that Pullman respects the man, respects the ideas he preaches, and the real axe grinder comes with the character of Christ who Archbishop Rowan Williams correctly identifies as filling the role of Judas who is missing from the narratives band of followers. Christ represents the perverted ‘truth’ that history and the Church has handed down.
Christ tries repeatedly to convince his brother Jesus of the need for a church to organise and create a representation of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Jesus doesn’t buy it though, and in fact consistently tries to limit his notoriety instructing people he performs miracles on not to tell anybody. Of course they go and tell everybody. Christ retreats into the role of an observer, encouraged by a mysterious stranger to record Jesus life not in how it happened but in the ‘eternal truth’ of his actions. Christ, longing for the same kind of appreciation as his brother, is told by the stranger that he has a role to play to secure the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The book for me was a fascinating discussion of interpretations of stories such as Mary’s visit by an ‘Angel’, a faked resurrection and a collapse in Jesus’ personal faith when praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Rowan Williams finds this passage as a weakness in the text, coming as it does apparently from nowhere, but for myself as someone who has suffered from anxiety and depression I see it as representing a clear breakdown. Jesus has achieved much, but in this story is himself a believer in millenarianism – that the end of days is imminent, and every day nothing happens weighs heavier on Jesus who begins to feel that he is misleading people into very dangerous actions in what was a violent society. It makes logical sense to me that Jesus the good man would have such a very human response to his disappointments, and Christ in his desire to make the truth of Jesus speak through time would naturally eradicate this or play it down in the recorded text. The fact that the passage exists in this book is a bit of an inconsistency since we are supposed to be reading the words Christ wrote from eye witness accounts and Jesus was alone during his prayer in Gethsemane. Pullman I guess had a point he wanted to make and made it, though i’m sure there could have been a better way of constructing that scene to make it fit with the overal text.
I view religion as being a forum for discussing the human condition. In that context, for both practicing Christians, people of other faiths and the secular I feel Philip Pullmans work is an excellent offering to the discussion. As a confirmed agnostic, I find the story told by Pullman inspiring and heart breaking. The good that man can do, and the evil it can do in the name of good deeds. On the back and inside of the book are printed the words ‘THIS IS A STORY’. It has a double meaning I think. On the one hand he’s reminding people that his is a work of fiction, but it may just also be a shot across the bows of the original text.
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is in the Kindle store and as such a sample is available to read for free before purchasing.