The good man Jesus
Phlip Pullman's controversial book reviewed
When I interviewed Philip Pullman, I found him genial, generous and engaging. He has a sharp mind, a clever wit, and he’s a brilliant writer. He has justifiably been acclaimed as one of Britain’s finest writers.
Some years back, The Independent declared that Pullman is ‘capable of lighting up the dullest day or greyest spirit with the incandescence of his imagination’. He’s also capable of making Christians incandescent with indignation. His strongly atheist comments have raised many people’s hackles.
Genial he may be, but Pullman likes being provocative. He certainly was fully aware that the title of his new book — The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ — would shock some. He wrote it in response to a comment by Rowan Williams that Pullman was surprisingly quiet about Jesus in His Dark Materials.
When Canongate invited Pullman to contribute to their Myths series, he re-read the Gospels (in three different versions), Acts and Paul’s letters. He was very struck by how often Paul refers to ‘Christ’ rather than to ‘Jesus’. ‘Christ is an addition; he comes later’, Pullman remarks. ‘Paul wasn’t interested in Jesus, he was interested in Christ — in the God part, not the man part. ... [Paul’s] view of this entity he called Jesus Christ, strongly skewed towards the Christ part, is what the church has been founded on ever since.’
Reworking the story
So he decided to rework the story of Jesus to focus on this perceived tension by making them separate characters. In his version, Mary gives birth to twins: Jesus and a much weaker boy, who becomes known as Christ.
Their lives remain intertwined, yet go on very different courses. Once again, it appears that Pullman is out to shock. Even the title seems calculated to inflame Christians, and it’s surely no accident that it was published in Easter week — though that was Canongate’s decision, not his.
This story is a strange thing, in some ways. To my mind, it’s far from Pullman at his best. Sometimes it is a respectful retelling of incidents from the Gospels and, since Pullman has written in a spare, biblical tone, it feels very much like reading a somewhat old-fashioned translation of the Bible, with some extra details. At other times, the stories are changed considerably, and at times are a complete distortion of what the original texts say.
It is clear that Pullman has done his homework. He cleverly fills in some of the background of the stories, explaining some of the details and suggesting motivations for why people acted in particular ways. It’s also clear that he’s also been reading at least some bits of the Old Testament.
From the outset, Pullman creates a great deal of ambiguity about the miraculous aspects of the story. Mary is visited by someone claiming to be an angel and told that she will conceive. Pullman never says so, but the implication is that Mary is gullible and has been tricked. Nevertheless, when she gives birth in a Bethlehem stable, shepherds come to see the long-awaited Messiah in response to seeing a glowing angel telling them of his birth. Pullman makes no attempt to explain this angel away. Nor does he offer any rationalisation for astrologers arriving from the east in search of one who has been born to be king of the Jews.
Pullman craftily sets up expectations about how Christ’s story is going to develop, which he then subverts. After his baptism, Jesus is inspired to focus his life on God as John had done. He goes into the wilderness to pray, where he is tempted, not by the devil, but by his brother. Christ wants Jesus to be a Messiah who builds a powerful church which could spread throughout the world as a force for good. Jesus flatly rejects Christ’s pragmatism; he is an idealist who preaches the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God. Christ is a more complex character. He loves his brother deeply, but is calculating and manipulative, staying in the background and finding ways to spin the story. He is approached by a mysterious stranger, the identity of whom we never discover. Christ concludes that the stranger is an angel, but Pullman never reveals his identity. The stranger encourages Christ to see the spiritual ‘truth’ beyond the sometimes inconvenient historical events.
Pullman’s point is that what we read in the Gospels is not what actually happened. The real historical Jesus has been smothered by inventions of the early church. This is a well-worn attack on the Gospels — the Jesus of history versus the Christ of faith — though Pullman gives it a provocative new coat of paint.
He says: ‘I think my version is much closer to what Jesus would have said. The version in the Gospels is so different from what he said usually’. It’s a great shame that he evidently has no idea of the very impressive evidence for the reliability of the Gospels.
When Jesus reaches Gethsemane, we witness him give up on his faith. He concludes that God is either absent or uninterested, since he never answers. He wonders whether Christ is right to dream of church structures, but he still hates the idea, perceiving that it will lead to abuse of power, cruelty and conquest. ‘The greatest excuse in the world is that “God told me to do it”‘, Pullman insisted in The Guardian. ‘Once you are appealing to an authority that can’t be checked, you are doing something dangerous.’
This is a familiar theme in Pullman’s work: there is no God; this world is all there is and it’s wonderful; organised religion is a terrible thing which leads inexorably to abuse of power. At least, in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ he is not as simplistic as he was in His Dark Materials, in that here he does acknowledge the good which the church has done, as well as pointing to its failures. Eventually, the stranger seduces Christ into betraying Jesus and, for the sake of the bigger story, into deceiving the disciples into thinking that Jesus has risen from the dead.
Once again, Pullman is suggesting that the miraculous is an invention, a deliberate deception foisted on suggestible believers, but not something that could possibly be true. Pullman comes to the Gospels already convinced that miracles cannot happen. However, it is curious that he seems unable to tell the story without bringing in mysterious goings-on, which do appear to be miraculous or angelic. He sometimes portrays the miracles as a matter of someone’s mental state, but sometimes it’s ambiguous, seemingly entertaining the possibility that something mysterious has taken place.
Pullman is clearly fascinated with Jesus. His Jesus is a great man, but nothing more, making no claims to divinity and not rising from death. Yet, in much of the book, he remains a profoundly compelling character. Charlotte Higgins’s response is the one we must encourage: on her Guardian blog she writes that the book has ‘sent me rushing back to the Gospels. I read Matthew over my lunchtime soup, ready to see with new eyes these fascinating and often startling documents’.
managing editor of Culturewatch (http://culturewatch.org)