Book review: “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” by Philip Pullman

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Book review: “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” by Philip Pullman

As a Christian, I’ve read a lot of stuff by other believers about the life of Jesus and its meaning.

In addition, I’ve always found it enjoyable and instructive to read what non-believers — or, at least, unofficial commentators — have to say.

Historians, as professionals without the overlay of theology, shed an interesting light on what is known and what can be guessed. But, even more insightful are novelists who bring a keen eye and ear to the job.

And many, great and not-so-great, have taken a shot at it, including Norman Mailer, Leo Tolstoy, Anne Rice, Reynolds Price, Jose Saramago, Jim Crace, Gore Vidal, Charles Dickens and Nikos Kazantzakis.

Now, here’s Philip Pullman with his 2010 book “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ,” part of the Canongate Myth Series.

In this series, well-known contemporary writers re-imagine and re-tell ancient narratives from cultures across the globe. For instance, in “The Penelopiad,” Margaret Atwood retells the Odyssey from the point of view of Penelope and of her 12 slave-servant girls whose fate — unmerited, Atwood argues — is slaughter by a vengeful Odysseus.

Twins

Pullman’s title alerts the reader to the tale he will weave. Jesus and Christ are twin brothers. Although Jesus is a strong and vibrant personality and Christ pretty much a weakling, they bear a strong resemblance to each other.

Pullman has described himself as an agnostic atheist, and that’s something that seems to dominate his book. He’s not so much envisioning human interactions as he is noodling a version of the gospel story that fits his take on the world.

Of course, any writer’s beliefs and perspective will have a deep impact on his or her story-telling, but, here, they’ve gotten out of hand. Rather than a lively tale, Pullman offers propaganda.

Jesus, a free spirit, embodies all the wisdom, compassion, honesty, love and courage that can be found in the gospels. Christ, a worry-wart, is risk-aversive. He wants a church, an organization, an institution.

“Logic-choppers”

Jesus rejects institutional religion, and, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he says to a silent God:

“I’m not one of these logic-choppers, these fastidious philosophers, with their scented Greek rubbish about a pure world of spiritual forms where everything is perfect, and which is the only place where the real truth is, unlike this filthy material world which is corrupt and gross and full of untruth and imperfection.”

No, Jesus says, he loves everything in the world — the real stuff, not the wispy ideas. Even the insects.

Instead of logic-chopping, religious faith stemming from his teaching, he says, should be anything but institutional.

“Lord, if I thought you were listening, I’d pray for this above all: that any church set up in your name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest. That it should wield no authority except that of love. That it should never cast anyone out. That it should own no property and make no laws. That it should not condemn, but only forgive. That it should be not like a palace with marble walls and polished floors, and guards standing at the door, but like a tree with its roots deep in the soil, that shelters every kind of bird and beast and gives blossom in the spring and shade in the hot sun and fruit in the season, and in time gives up its good sound wood for the carpenter; but that it sheds many thousands of seeds so that new trees can grow in its place.”

Beautiful image

That’s a beautiful image. And, truth be told, the Catholic Church, of which I am a member, would be a much better if it embodied a little more of that vision.

Yet, I also know that human beings are human beings. An anarchist can say we should live without any government. That’s a beautiful idea, but it won’t work. Pullman can have Jesus say that a church should have no power or laws or marble walls, but people don’t work that way.

Would you tell Rembrandt not to paint the Prodigal Son story? Is Notre Dame in Paris not a hymn to God?

Human beings want to express their beliefs in art. They also want to express their beliefs in ideas. The “logic-choppers” that Pullman’s Jesus bemoans are just doing what all of us do. We have ideas, and we try to refine them. We try to make them clearer.

Can’t separate

And, yes, human beings often end up expressing their beliefs — or, at least, fighting about their beliefs — in war.

That’s not right, but neither are many other things that people do. The problem is that, unlike Pullman’s conceit here, we can’t separate human beings into two people — one, a good man; the other, a scoundrel.

I found “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” interesting to read. But, for my money, a much more thoughtful and artful take on the gospel story is “The Last Temptation of Christ” by Kazantzakis.

It’s never going to be mistaken for propaganda.

Patrick T. Reardon
5.30.12

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