The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
Philip Pullman (Canongate 2010)
I’m surprised to learn that the popular novelist Philip Pullman has retold the Gospels, because he is, quite publicly, a skeptic on religious matters, and a thoroughgoing materialist. (He started out as a schoolboy within the Anglican tradition, but turned away as a science-minded teenager.) But even if the Gospel is empty of religious truth for him, Pullman wants to wrestle with it; he’s a storyteller, so the Bible’s unresolved contradictions and paradoxes earn his interest and respect.
In The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Pullman sticks very close to the received story, mashing highlights of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John into the familiar tale of a charismatic and impatient Jesus. Pullman’s imaginative innovation is to posit a twin brother for Jesus, called Christ. Christ is the chronicler, witnessing and recording key events of Jesus’ life, either at first hand or by the report of a friendly apostle. In his chameleon anonymity, he also serves as his brother’s betrayer, and the stranger the friends recognize in the resurrection.
Christ is gifted, or perhaps cursed, with a long view of what Christianity will become; Jesus not only doesn’t share this vision, he spurns it. The temptation of Jesus in the desert, turned into a conversation between these two characters, acquires a new dramatic heft when told from the tempter’s point of view. His logic is, in fact, unassailable. The power of miraculous stories will indeed be one of the vehicles that carries the story from that day to this, so the resistance Jesus shows about being famous for his miracles is self-defeating.
As Pullman says in his afterword, the Christ character got away from him in the course of the writing, developing motives and feelings Pullman did not have in mind at the outset. Like anyone, Christ is not the villain of his own story, and he’s doing the best he can. His treatment of the words of Jesus is at least a credible way of describing what may have happened in the handing down of the stories. It’s also a way of dealing with the parts of the Jesus story that cannot, on their face, have had human witnesses. (I’ve always balked at those parts, too, which is a literalist error of some kind.)
If you think all this sounds terribly cheeky, it is, but it isn’t played for laughs, in the ‘Life of Brian’ vein. Pullman addresses one of Christianity’s central paradoxes, how the humility of Jesus stacks against the grandeur of the Church – can all that ritual, and material wealth, really have been what he had in mind? Do we know better than Jesus himself what his life was about? And what was the price of Christianity’s trade-off in the time of Constantine, from being an oppressed minority to taking the reins of power, and inevitably becoming the oppressor?
These are honest and genuinely provocative questions. I don’t think I’ll come out where Pullman comes out, but I’m grateful for the conversation.
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