- The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
- Canongate U.S., 256 pp.
The premise of Philip Pullman’s new book is brilliant. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ offers us a version of the gospel narratives in which not one, but two boys were born to Mary. Jesus grew up to be a millenarian preacher, who prophesied the coming of the Kingdom of God, whilst his brother Christ skulked around in the background, recording and (more often) distorting his brother’s words for posterity. At first, dividing the central figure of the gospels into two looks like an elegant metaphor for the problem which caused so much argument and schism during the religion’s history: how Jesus could be both man and God. Where various theologians have suggested two natures, two substances or two energies, fiction can present us with two characters, and take it from there. But Pullman’s book seems to have little interest in deploying its title characters in this way. Jesus and Christ look more like representatives of the two traditions which Diarmid MacCulloch has called the “twofold ancestry” of Christianity: the Jewish and the Greek. According to this reading, Christ is the system-maker, keen to abstract principles from Jesus’ awkwardly concrete life and words. But even this doesn’t map entirely comfortably across the story Pullman tells. Perhaps the value of his metaphor is in its refusal to be tied down to such a scheme – and the author might regard any attempt at trying with deep suspicion. The figures of Christ and Jesus seem to suggest at different points the Law and the Prophets; the Letter and the Spirit; spirituality and religion, without being identified with particular ideas throughout the story.
The idea of “story” is key to The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. The back of the book is emblazoned with the phrase “THIS IS A STORY”, and much of the narrative involves the writing down of stories about Jesus. Christ (assisted by a figure who may or may not be a devil) wrestles with the problems of how to find meaning in stories, and who puts it there. We can watch the “development” of various familiar Biblical stories: Christ watches Jesus’ baptism and is so struck that he fantasizes about a voice from heaven, and in subsequent retellings metaphor becomes factual record. Jesus shares out some loaves and fishes he has, and when the crowd all do the same, they discover there is enough to feed all five thousand of them. These could be fairly tedious “debunkings” in less sure hands, but for Pullman they focus attention on what we want from stories and why we tell them. Likewise, his inclusion of incidents from the apocryphal gospels, such as Christ giving life to clay sparrows, reminds the reader that the narratives in the modern Bible were chosen from a larger collection of stories about their central figure. The tone in which the narrative is told shifts frequently, so at one point the infant Christ is the “little fellow” of Victorian storybooks, and at another the tramps by the city gate are discussing whores. This mixed texture, like an overwritten parchment, suggests we are reading a compilation of different accounts, rather than a smooth single tale.
However, this palimpsest of tones provides real problems for the reader. The technique makes a valuable point, but rather at the expense of readability. Swathes of the book are told in a mock-simple style which is enjoyable and even witty to start with, but quickly becomes tiring. For example, this line occurs near the beginning:
“If you shed my blood, I shall be a martyr to the Lord”, said Zacharias, and that came true, because he was killed there and then.
It’s a decent punchline, but stories carried out in punchlines soon get tedious. The switches in tone are oddly off-putting, and mean that someone who really enjoys one stretch of the book might well be bored or irritated by other sections. This is surprising in a writer like Pullman, whose His Dark Materials trilogy has been praised for being enjoyable on several “levels.” Indeed, Pullman has prided himself on this quality, notably in a discussion with the philosopher Julian Baggini in which he described his hope that different readers can find value in his writing for different reasons. In The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ the “levels” seem to be slapped down next to each other, rather than overlapping. If you don’t like one tone, you have to lump it and march through it to get to the next one.
The question of tone is perhaps most problematic when it comes to the villains. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ definitely has villains, with plots and deceit and cruel intentions. Unfortunately, you can spot them a mile off because they speak in lazy high-concept dialogue, calling people “my dear” and asking “Can I offer you some refreshment?” as if gesturing towards the drinks cabinet in their underground lair. It’s difficult to take characters seriously who can utter sentences like “It would be unfortunate if people believed his teachings to include a call to political action” without blushing.
The controversy which has flared around Pullman’s book is most understandable during another troubling passage: several pages of rather unexpected ranting about the Church. Jesus prays to a God who never answers in the Garden of Gethsemane, and worries about the kind of world which would come about if Christ’s ideas for a “great organisation” were carried out. “Because I can see”, Christ declares, “just what would happen if that kind of thing came about,” before launching into a prophetic condemnation of the crimes of the Church. Heretic-hunting, crusading, levying taxes and child abuse are all laid out as the catastrophic result of Christ’s terrible idea of a religious organisation. The idea is hardly radical or indefensible, and several famous religious thinkers might have a lot of sympathy with it – Dietrich Bonhoeffer springs to mind, with his persistent notion of a “religionless Christianity.” But its effect on the book is disastrous. There are superb passages in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ about the doubt and fear the characters deal with: the most effective moments in the book are when Christ and Jesus both have their “dark night of the soul,” and Jesus’ unanswered prayer in Gethsemane is extremely clever. But Jesus’ agony of uncertainty is rather undermined by the extraordinary certainty of this passage, his startling ability to “see just what would happen.” He hardly needs his prayer answered if he can predict the next twenty centuries of history – and the carefully delineated problems Christ has with the contingency and uncertainty of “history” versus “truth” suddenly collapse. The intricacy and metaphor which characterise Pullman’s best work are drowned out, and the book is left much worse off.