04 May 2010

Review: Philip Pullman: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

I had planned to post a review of "Should Christians Embrace Evolution?" by now (the answer, according to the authors of that piece, is a resounding "no", and I will have more to say about their arguments, and why I think Christians should embrace a lot more than evolution, later). However, when I ordered SCEE on Amazon, I also made an impulse buy of Philip Pullman's latest novel "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ", which has grabbed every moment that I had set aside as reading time, and more besides. Therefore, the review spot has been temporarily usurped, and I shall have to return to SCEE at a later point.

But not to worry - we do have bigger fish to fry, and the fish don't come much bigger than Pullman. He is already an author of serious distinction: The "His Dark Materials" trilogy being his best-known work. Although pitched primarily at children, they have a universal appeal, raising parallels with J.K. Rowling. However, while Rowling's art (arguably) lies in creating enthralling and captivating stories and scenarios, both familiar and alien, Pullman's genius lies in blurring the boundaries of fiction and reality, and dragging the reader into an alternate reality that may not be all that alternate after all.

And in "Scoundrel", he does not disappoint. This is easily the most intelligent, entertaining and thought-provoking novel I have read in the last five years. It re-tells the familiar story of Jesus Christ, but with the complication of splitting the "Jesus" and the "Christ" into two separate brothers, each with an agenda, and each with his own distinctive role in the drama that unfolds. In parts it is unsettlingly close to the gospels; many Christians will recognise the stories that they have known since Sunday School. Occasionally it is *too* close, almost justifying a literal acceptance of the gospel texts, where scholarship suggests that an embellishment is more likely. But Pullman is not doing this from ignorance or superficiality - it is part of the device.

As we follow the lives of Jesus and his brother Christ, we see that "truth irradiates history" - history does not always run as it should; the historical story is not always the bearer of timeless truth, so from time to time history needs a nudge in the right direction to make sure that the truth gets through. This is Christ's job in the book - to prevent the "facts" getting in the way of the "truth". But in reality, Christ is not a scoundrel as such, but then neither is Jesus purely a good man. The book's title is cunningly deceptive. Christ is doing what he thinks is right; Jesus is doing what he believes. In some ways, Christ is more analytical and thoughtful than Jesus - he has an eye to the consequences. Jesus is trusting, and has a clear notion of the "Kingdom of God", but despite his efforts, that Kingdom, and his God, appear very distant. Christ, under the control of a mysterious stranger with designs of his own, has to touch up the unfolding events to ensure that what becomes known of Jesus is on-message, even if actuality is otherwise.

Biblical literalists will have a fit with this book; they will dismiss it outright. Liberal Christians will smile and nod and be dismissive. Historians will recognise that Pullman is pushing the boat way out, and I'm sure the "Da Vinci Code" squad will set out to rebut its narrative. All of which completely miss the point. Pullman shows us how stories can form. Sometimes there is outside agency - the story *must* be told in a certain way. In other cases, stories simply emerge from a cultural milieu - certain narratives appeal to people at certain times. Memes can go viral. Do any stories relate "the truth" - is there even a truth to grasp? Those of us who care about history will argue that historical facts need to be true; if an event is claimed as historical, that means that it actually happened in a time and place. We would reject the post-modern inanity that reduces history merely to a cognitive device or pseudo-narrative. Sure, we may not *know* what happened in the past to a huge degree of precision, but *something* happened, and history (we like to think) represents our best guess as to that truth.

"Scoundrel" makes us think of these issues, as well as giving a fresh perspective on the Jesus myth that is familiar to all Christians. For the Christian Atheist (of whom there are many), it can feel like a justification of their position. God may not exist, but there is something more wonderful - the world itself. As part of that world, we adopt certain responsibilities and attitudes. Woven through the novel is a powerful indictment of organised religion - a theme that is actually visible in the gospels themselves (most notably in the sublime parable of The Good Samaritan).

I don't wish to spoil Pullman's re-telling. If you are a Christian, whether theist or atheist, you simply must read this book. If you are not a Christian, you too need to read this book, and use it to challenge your world-view, both of religion and of history.


  1. Shane,

    Your review makes it sound like a reading of our (all too familiar) understanding of 'spin' back into the past.

    Jesus the political revolutionary leader and Christ his press officer?


  2. Peter, funny enough you aren't far off, except that Jesus sort of stumbles into the political revolutionary business by default rather than design. It's good stuff, and remarkably close to the gospels actually. Pullman is aware throughout that he is writing fiction however.

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