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Keeping the Faith?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Philip Pullman, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Canongate, $US24.00)

Oops, the prize-winning author of the celebrated and popular adolescent fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials has done it again. If the three volumes of His Dark Materials, with their Blakean, sympathy-for-the-devil perspective on creation and the fall (not to mention their depiction of God as a usurping authority gone senile and frail, not to mention the portrayal of organized religion as murderous, furtive zealotry), didn't piss off every Christian religious on the planet, then his latest offering, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ ought to take care of whoever is left.

Like with many books that offend, this one may come to offend by its title alone, thus doing the offended the service of not actually having to read, let alone formulate engaged objections to, let alone come to grips with and perhaps be changed by the offending item. It's easy to imagine the righteous in a tizzy over the book, and then, when asked if they'd read it, prissily turning up their noses while declaring that obviously they didn't read it, they wouldn't read it, they didn't need to read it -- Look at the title! Look at the author!

Well that may suit their purposes. But I did need to read it because, well, Look at the title! Look at the author! And I'm glad I did and suspect that most readers who have ever been both intrigued and honestly troubled by the figure of Jesus Christ, be they fans of Pullman or newcomers, will be glad they did as well. In fact, in part, I’m glad that I did in part because Pullman’s account is a good deal more complex than the title would suggest.

In September, 2009, Pullman announced on his website a book dealing with Jesus (where His Dark Materials had left him out of the picture) and exploring Pullman’s fascination with the two parts of Jesus’ name and the difference between them as well as issues of canon formation of how The Story of Jesus comes to win out. Pullman has made good on the promise, offering a compassionate, subtle, and engaging narrative exploration of, ultimately, human nature: its capacity for love and goodness, as well as for frailty and anger, its aspiration for permanence and transcendence and the cultural tensions these can give rise to between spontaneity and organization, history and truth. And it does all this by introducing, in the very first lines, the following conceit: “This is the story of Jesus and his brother Christ, of how they were born, of how they lived and of how one of them died. The death of the other is not part of the story."

In fact, apart from the outrageous invention of “his brother Christ,” and numerous consequences that flow from that invention, Pullman’s novel (?) follows the plot (?) of the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke fairly closely. So all the moments familiar to readers of those stories appear in Pullman’s book as well: Mary’s conception, the birth in the stable near Bethlehem, the visit of the three wise men, the wandering and trials in the desert, the short but popular career as an itinerant teacher, preacher, and healer, the triumphant return to Jerusalem, the agony in the garden of Gethsemani, and of course, the betrayal, trial, and crucifixion.

All these greatest hits from the gospels appear in Pullman’s novel, but somewhat unfaithfully rendered since, of course, Pullman has divided the protagonist of the gospel stories into two parts, twin brothers. Jesus is born first, strong and healthy, while second-born Christ is sickly and crying. As children, Jesus tends to get into trouble that Christ, seemingly miraculously, manages to get him out of. Jesus learns to be a carpenter like his father, Christ spends all his time at the synagogue studying. Christ is admired by the adults of Nazareth, but, Pullman tells us, needing say no more, “the children of the town preferred Jesus.” All of this is humorous enough but mostly innocuous and inconsequential.

Pullman begins to unveil the complexity and force of his invention when idle curiosity leads the unremarkable Jesus out to the Jordan River to see a wandering preacher, John, that people have been talking about. Christ tags along behind and watches from a distance. As John baptizes Jesus (who plainly refuses John’s entreaties that Jesus baptize him), Christ “saw a dove fly above them and settle in a tree. It might have been an omen. Christ wondered what it might mean, and imagined what a voice would say if it spoke from heaven and told him.”

Christ seems to be motivated by a concern that his brother’s passionate and impulsive goodness be preserved both from the manipulation of others and Jesus’ own lack of concern with prestige or legacy. But this motivation leads him to perform several unsavory roles in the events that follow. He plays the role of Satan tempting Jesus to perform miracles in the desert (just after the baptism) in a chapter that made me laugh and wince at what Pullman was getting himself into as his Jesus dismisses Christ with exactly the words that the Jesus, in the gospel of Matthew, uses to Satan. Jesus even throws a rock at Christ. At the other end of the story, Christ will be led to betray Jesus to the local authorities and then, after Jesus’s crucifixion, to exploit their physical resemblance pretending to be the resurrected Jesus in order to secure the final “miracle” that will guarantee that Jesus’ life and works will give rise to a new church. In between, urged on by a mysterious stranger, Christ will secretly shadow his brother, recording his words, chronicling his deeds, and providing imaginative embellishments that, Christ feels, will lend more lasting force to the story.

Christ may be motivated by concern for his brother and his brother’s mission, but the stranger introduces another reason that seems to gird Christ’s will when it wavers, as Pullman appropriately shows it doing so, before the more distasteful deeds the stranger calls upon him to perform. This higher calling, the stranger explains to Christ, is that he should be the word of God. “There are dark days approaching,” he warns, “if the way to the Kingdom of God is to be opened, we who know must be prepared to make history the handmaid of posterity and not its governor. What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom than what was.” He sums this up for Christ: “There is time, and there is what is beyond time. History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history. You are the word of God.”

I greatly enjoyed – laughing out loud and shaking my head at the prospect of the outrage they would cause -- the inventiveness of some of the encounters that Pullman’s novel imagines. I also find Pullman's critical genealogy of the church and scriptural canonization thoughtful and persuasive, if not unexpected. But I think what I liked best about the novel was the surprising complexity of the character of Christ. He may be a scoundrel in the title and a spoiled goody-two-shoes as a child, he may do things that the gospels attribute to Satan and to Judas, but he is also, ultimately, a very human being, confused in motivation, fearful, susceptible to a smooth-talker bearing reassurances and promises of long-lasting security, and weak-willed. In fact, I think it’s the latter qualities that lead to the former, more spectacular, qualities and it is the way that he combines these in a single character that makes Pullman’s novel more than just the snarky, smug attack on Christianity and organized religion that many will, unfortunately either assume it is or take it to be. We create and latch onto transcendent entities like gods and hierarchical, authoritarian institutions, he seems to say, because we are frightened, confused, and vulnerable (which is not to say that we must inevitably act out our fear, confusion and vulnerability in this way).

When Pullman says he is interested in the dual nature of Jesus Christ, readers might, like I did before I read the book, take him to be referring to the human and the divine. And that might well be what Pullman meant. But what he has actually laid out in his novel is something like the dual nature of human beings. On the one hand, “the good man Jesus”: healthy, strong, self-sufficient, simple, humble, passionate, short-sighted, compassionate, unselfish, and human. On the other hand, “the scoundrel Christ”: sickly, frightened, needy and therefore concerned with calculating means of survival, permanence, and transcendence, and human. And, bad as he is, I can’t help but identify with him and like him, even as I aspire to be more like Jesus.

In His Dark Materials, Pullman taught me to appreciate the devil and, in the process, to find the history embedded in the official Truth and, one step further, the truth in the stories that make up history. So I was prepared to have sympathy for everything that the official story casts as diabolical in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ and I was prepared to share in the scorn I presumed Pullman would heap on the vainglorious would-be divinity of Christ. The surprising and impressive thing is that Pullman turns out be more consistently Blakean (and Miltonian) in his diabolical sympathies, and Blakean (and Miltonian) in more interesting ways, than I had even thought to begin with. In other words, what I wasn’t prepared for, and what delighted me, was to be put in the position of sympathizing with the devil even when he is Christ, even when he is like me.


Primero Rivero May 13, 2010 at 1:04 PM  


Everyone who posts to your blog is erudite as hell, so I'm keeping it short so as not to embarrass myself. After reading this post, I want to go back and revisit Milton and also go learn something about Blake. Although I haven't read this book yet, its split between Jesus and Christ sounds like it also echoes the split between the historical man Jesus of Nazarene and the Christ figure(s) the narratives of the gospels depict. In short, there's the man, and then there's the stories about the man. Although, many will object to this book because they want to deny that that split exists, I oddly find a comfort and an enriched, more varied, kind of faith in the ambiguity that arises from that split. Well, there you have it.

I love you project. I just joined, so I hope to get to your earlier posts soon.


Yago Colás May 14, 2010 at 10:05 AM  

Thanks for reading, and for the comment, Alex. You certainly didn't embarrass yourself! I think you are right on regarding the split between the man and the stories about the man. On the back cover, Pullman is quoted as saying that it is also "a story about how stories become storires," or something like that. Have you read Pullman's earlier trilogy His Dark Materials? I think you'd like that a lot.

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