The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ: Philip Pullman
Philip Pullman has a reputation as one of the world’s most high profile atheists. As well as speaking out with the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens against organised religion, criticism of the church was a central theme of his blockbuster bestselling His Dark Materials trilogy - in which (spoiler alert!) God eventually dies.
What’s less well known is Pullman’s awesome grasp of the subject he criticises. His grandfather was a clergyman (and ‘a wonderful storyteller) and his upbringing was steeped in Christian stories and culture. This deep knowledge of Christian culture and abiding love of the stories at the heart of it are evident in the latest – and perhaps most controversial – instalment in Canongate’s brilliant Myths series.
In it, he both demystifies central elements of the Jesus story as told in the Bible (the virgin birth, the miracle of the loaves and the fishes) and adds his own layers of imagining.
Pullman tells his version of the story of Jesus, the historical figure, imagining him as having a twin brother, Christ. Jesus is the compassionate, often fiery, charismatic preacher who gathers a huge following for his teachings about how to live an honourable life – his interpretation of how God would surely want people to live. Christ – his mild, intellectual, introspective brother – is the wily politician who sees the potential in his brother’s huge following, and dreams up the idea of building an organised church – an earthly representative of the kingdom of heaven. After Jesus rejects his plans for him, Christ is enlisted by a mysterious stranger as his brother’s biographer – and encouraged to put a mystical spin on the events he witnesses. (A version of giving the people what they want.) “In writing about what has gone past, we help to shape what will come,” says the Stranger.
In a penultimate moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus confronts a crisis of faith, despairingly concluding that there likely is no God. He says, “Lord, if I thought you were listening, I’d pray for this above all: that any church in your name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest. That it should wield no authority except that of love.” Of course, the Stranger has other ideas, telling his easily persuaded disciple, Christ, that Jesus expects too much of people – and offering the ultimate politican’s justification: “which is better … to aim for absolute purity and fail altogether, or to compromise and succeed a little?”
This is an utterly compelling story that will appeal to both readers with an extensive knowledge of Christian culture and The Bible (who will gain extra layers of meaning from their reading of it) and those with a scantier acquaintance with the source material (like me), who will likely be inspired to look it up in order to compare and contrast it with Pullman’s reading. (This, he says, was his one aim for the book.) Yet, it also works on a straight storytelling level – as a wily and beautifully crafted fable about the power and influence of storytelling, and the dangers and attractions of politics.
This is a brilliant book, for readers of all levels and varieties of belief. The only passionate devotion absolutely required is to the love of story and storytelling.