I’ve just finished reading Philip Pullman’s new book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. As Barry Taylor notes, it’s likely to ruffle a few feathers. But I hope any feathers are from good birds who have actually read it. Seriously – don’t judge this book without reading it.
The back of the book (UK edition at least) makes it clear: This is a story. In fact, it is a story about how stories are created – and comes as part of a series of books from Canongate engaging with the idea of myth. It will give nothing away to outline the plot: Mary gives birth to twins, one called Jesus, the other called Christ. Christ is rather sickly and observant. Jesus is a live wire, but undergoes a profound conversion and begins his ministry, which Christ then documents – under the rather dodgy guidance of ‘The Stranger.’
To make it clear from the start, Pullman does not believe that this is historically what happened. It is an imagination, a way of reflecting on the story of Jesus in a new way. As one would expect from Pullman, the writing is very good. Structurally, it will be very familiar to those who know the gospels, though there are some surprising and refreshing combinations of events that work really well.
The main thrust of it is to be highly commended too. In one of the central scenes, Christ is trying to persuade Jesus that the Kingdom would be a wonderful and powerful thing:
‘I can see the whole world united in this Kingdom of the faithful – think of that! Groups of families worshipping together with a priest in every village and town, an association of local groups under the direction and guidance of a wise elder in the region, the regional leaders all answering to the authority of one supreme director… I can see the majesty and splendour of the great temples, the courts, the palaces devoted to the glory of God…’
Jesus is unimpressed:
‘You phantom’, he said, ‘you shadow of a man. What you describe sounds like the work of Satan. Do you think your mighty organisation would even recognise the Kingdom if it arrived? Fool! The Kingdom of God would come into these magnificent courts and palaces like a poor traveller with dust on his feet. The guards would spot him at once, ask for his papers, beat him throw him out into the street. “Be on your way,” they’d say. “You have no business here.”‘
It’s this desire for the church to be poor, and his anger at the wealth and power of the (especially Catholic) church that fires Pullman. And I share that passion. It reminds me of a joke whereby Peter and John are walking in the Vatican, and Peter turns to John and says, ‘well, we can’t say “silver and gold have we none” anymore can we?!’ To which Peter replies, ‘and nor can we say “take up your mat and walk.”‘
Pullman’s good thus stands as a challenge to the church. A challenge to return to poverty of spirit, humility of thought and openness to truth. In an excellent interview on BBC 5 Live, (download it here [Phillip Pullman on Jesus] ) Pullman is very thoughtful in his approach, and not the idiotic atheist that Dawkins can be. He refuses to ‘slag off’ thoughtful faith and wants, he says, people simply to read the Bible better, though this is perhaps where his book falls down on occasion. One incident in particular: he has Jesus preaching at the synagogue, saying:
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour…
What Pullman leaves out is “today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” And in one sense, it leaves you with a nagging feeling that you can’t have it both ways. If you want to tell a story about how stories are manipulated, you need to make sure you don’t manipulate too much yourself. In general, Pullman gets it right, and it’s well worth reading.