Daily Archives: June 29, 2010

‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ by Philip Pullman

2010, 245p.

As a good Unitarian girl, I thought that I was going to enjoy this book.  After all, there’s lots to like about Jesus’ anti-materialist, subversive teachings: it’s all the St Paul baggage and the tottering pile of theology, misogyny and hypocrisy  piled onto Jesus’ words that repels me.  So the idea of separating out the “good” Jesus from the rest of it quite appeals to me.

But I was disappointed in this book.  It’s told in the simple, passionless, slightly patronizing tone of the Good News bible, divided up into short chapters with a heading.  It catches the biblical tone so well that when you’re reading Pulman’s version of a bible story you’ve heard many times, you find yourself having to think hard about whether the nuances he introduces change the meaning substantially or not.

As you probably know about this book, Jesus and Christ are twin brothers and, despite appearances to the contrary at the start of the book,  the rather namby-pamby Christ finds himself the onlooker as his more feisty brother Jesus gets all the attention.  Jesus’ activities attract a string of miracle-seekers,  the opprobrium of the  authorities and a rather curious Stranger.  We are led to suspect that this Stranger may (or perhaps not) be Satan as he co-opts Christ as an informant on Jesus’ activities  and encourages him to document Jesus’ sayings  so that they can be tweaked later on, once the church is up and running.  In this regard, the book is like a sober version of The Satanic Verses, with an earnest discussion that pops up in several chapters about the relationship between truth and history.

The polemic heart of the book lies in the long chapter about Jesus’ tussle in the garden of Gethsemane where he trots out the usual string of qualms about Christianity and the Church.  The book ends with a thoroughly unconvincing explanation of Christ’s participation in the creation and manipulation of the resurrection-that-never-happened, and the conflation over time of Jesus and Christ into one historical identity.

It was probably this narrative leap at the end of the book that lost me completely.  Until then I’d been lulled by the familiar tone, ho-hummed through the debating jousts, and nodded at the arguments about spin, creation and truthtelling.

Apparently this book was written as part of the Canongate Myth Series where authors commissioned to reimagine and rework ancient myths from varied cultures, and it certainly fits the bill in this regard.  The device of splitting Jesus in this way is an inspired one that reinforces Jesus’ humanity and radicalism.  The problem for me was the act of putting them back together again, and it was at this point that I felt as if I’d been conned.