Philip Pullman’s “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” is a slim, small little thing. It takes about half a day to finish reading the book; that’s how compact it is. Halfway through it, two things struck me. One, the gold print used for the cover page was coming off and making my book-holding palm look twinkly. Second, the good man Jesus was a bit annoying and it was easy to feel sympathetic towards the scoundrel Christ. By the end of the novella — because really, it’s too slim to be called a novel — I decided “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” is the best pat-on-the-back the tribe of novelists could ever get. For the idea of God to exist and persist, God needs a good writer.
The story of “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” is something that only Pullman would come up with in a Dan-Brown loving and increasingly conservative age, and thank god for it. It’s a retelling of the Gospels but with significant departures. For instance, Mary, being a sheltered innocent, is visited by one of the neighbourhood boys who says he’s an angel. So there goes the idea of Immaculate Conception. Poof! There was no star and the wise men didn’t come bearing gifts, as Pullman’s new novel tells it. As kids, Jesus is Joseph’s favourite while Christ is Momma Mary’s boy. Jesus screws up repeatedly and Christ, it seems, saves his brother’s rear end by enacting miracles. When Jesus returns from the wilderness and starts pulling in the crowds, a mysterious stranger comes to Christ and tells him to record everything that Jesus says. Christ does this faithfully but, on certain occasions, he tweaks things to make them sound more persuasive.
Despite all the snarling before the book’s release, people like the Archbishop of Canterbury have apparently loved “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ”. Obviously, they’ve voiced some reservations concerning Pullman’s view that the church would just be a nexus of personal ambition, greed and corruption, rather than a reflection of the heavenly Kingdom. But I can see quite clearly why a devout Christian would enjoy this book. Pullman’s Jesus believes in all the things one would expect of Jesus. His sermons are powerful and he is a believer. He’s fiery, unflinching and a wonderful combination of forthright and mysterious. The only time he comes close to heresy is in the garden and even there, Pullman gives him a monologue that wraps the reader around the fictional Jesus’s little finger. The elements that would be objectionable to the devout are the actions and motivations of the surrounding cast, particularly Christ, Caiaphas and the stranger.
Those who know The Bible as a text will enjoy “The Good Man Jesus…” much more because Pullman teases out possibilities from the four Gospels. He pulls them out of their religious stasis and turns them into a collection of real events that are recorded faithfully and unfaithfully. I’m not sure whether saying Jesus had a twin brother called Christ is blasphemous but the word is definitely applicable to Pullman saying Jesus died and did not rise. What Mary and the disciples saw was Christ, says Pullman. Christ, who was the one that got jipped at the Pool of Bethesda. Christ, who spent most of his life following Jesus and writing down the things he said and did.
“The Good Man Jesus…” is made up of many wonderful parts: Joseph’s curious nature, Jesus and Christ’s childhood, Jesus in the garden before he’s arrested. There are crushing critiques of the Church, Pullman’s favourite punching bag. God, as in the Dark Materials Trilogy, is a feeble, barely-there presence. In the garden, Jesus virtually questions whether there is a God at all because, for all the faithful who may follow him, Jesus feels forsaken by God. Jesus’s congregations have his miracles, recorded by Christ and reported by word of mouth, but God provides Jesus with no miracles to strengthen his convictions. And without miracles, there is little faith, even if your are Jesus. But my favourite part is the end, when Christ is unable to stop himself from thinking of all the little embellishments and plot twists that would make the story of Jesus a better tale. It’s a wonderful reminder of the quality that attracted people to Jesus’s sermons in the first place: his ability to tell a story in a way that made it interesting and accessible. Stories and their ability to connect, moralise and entertain have kept religions alive over centuries. As the stranger tells Christ, without the scrolls in which Christ has recorded truth (not history), there could be no Jesus. The real sacrilege in “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” is that Pullman asserts that it wasn’t Jesus and his sermons that created Christianity but rather a novelist by the name of Christ, who knew how to spin a yarn so that everyone would listen and remember.