The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ


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.


One response to “The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ”

  1. Karsten R

    Oh, it’s probably the same Pullman that smears at late fellow Oxford writing colleagues like Tolkien or Lewis, probably he can’t stand so different guys having written good, probably better stuff than he does?
    It’s probably also the same Pullman who thought it a good thing if polar bears kill many men and was also dreaming about rationing heating for people depending on the carbon footprint of their lifestyle, (in which case he would probably be freezing quite early)?

    And what is that thoughtful faith that he does not slag off?
    Religious faith should be thought of having it’s origin outside human conception, originating from a being behind the whole universe and just made known to those within the universe in some way (or it is really a delusion, a projection of human thought like Feuerbach declared) but if we take that first definition only if it’s really the one prescribed by the maker of the universe gives it value and relevance not if it’s thoughtful or not.

    Of course it needs as prerequisite that the being behind the universe chose to let certain things be known or revealed to us humans, but that’s just what religions claim, yet people can choose to hold that it’s true or false. But once again there’s no nothing implying that knowledge or delusion being “thoughtful”.

    Indeed even the Aztec religion and its convictions would be of immeasurable relevance if their gods were really real and behind all what happens in the universe.
    Even Christian religion would lose all relevance and meaning if the God it talks about is a mere projection of whatever certain humans have fancied…