Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

January 10, 2011 Comments Off on Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

This is an Important Book. It retells the story of Jesus’ life in a way the dust jacket calls “fiercely subversive;” Philip Pullman’s note says, “The story I tell comes out of the tension within the dual nature of Jesus Christ, but what I do with it is my responsibility alone. Parts of it read like a novel, parts like a history, and parts like a fairy tale; I wanted it to be like that because it is, among other things, a story about how stories become stories.”

The whole book is strongly allegorical, and plays with contradictions and tensions. I need to read it several more times before I can comment on many of the allegories—the chapters are all very short, and it would work well to read one and then discuss it with people—but it was a very spiritual book. I’ve heard that Pullman is a confirmed and outspoken atheist, and what I’ve decided is that thoughtful atheists are more spiritual than religious people. To me, spirituality means hovering in one place in spite of currents drawing you towards opposite ends, much like Keats’ negative capability—spirituality means coming to terms with the fact that the centers of paradoxes and contradictions are holy. It’s like trying to stay in one place in a river with a firm current: always watching the shore, sometimes frustrated by how many wrong places there are and how difficult it is to stay exactly where you want to be. But as you drift past the right place, you catch glimpses of truth in the form of epiphanies. It really has nothing to do with God. And this book illustrates this wonderfully. My favorite part so far is that it presents the major dichotomy of life not as good vs. evil, but as lawful vs. chaotic, which is much more subtle and maybe more important. It also plays with idealistic vs. practical, bold vs. discreet, man vs. god, truth vs. history. Much of the story ends up being about faith failing, which is portrayed as the saddest thing.

The characters who could maybe be called “evil” are by turns right and wrong and in between, and each time the reader makes an unfavorable judgment about one of them, it turns out to be for a different reason: for being too calculating, too bull-headed, too naive, too cynical. It changes what you think about Satan in a very Miltonesque way.

The end of the book is still good and moving, but Pullman becomes less graceful and more trenchant as he begins to deal with what happened beyond Jesus’ life, especially as concerns corruption in the Church. It is perfectly understandable, although the first part was more fun to read. The style is very fable-like, and two things are great about it.

  • The story is told like an old favorite, like everyone already knows what is going on. At the beginning, we are told how John invented the rite of baptism. In a novel, the storyteller would have to explain this, pretending that it was totally new practice and that the reader had never heard of it. But because it’s just an old story, Pullman can write “he invented the rite of baptism.” Period. It’s a very spoken-out-loud style of writing.
  • The other thing is, you have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen in this story. From the first, Pullman undermines the story you think you know while telling it. It’s an amazing feat of writing, and it gives the story new weight. You don’t realize how blasé you are about this story until you find yourself in suspense about it. The story is at once utterly familiar and totally foreign.

In the same way that Jesus Christ Superstar tells the story exactly while adding believable details and personalities, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ makes a totally plausible case for how things actually happened that way, but were reported and remembered this way. It reminds us how many degrees of separation are involved between us and the actual, physical events. And, as one of the characters would ask, do the actual, physical events matter more than the universal truth they inspire and lead us to seek? It is indeed a story about how stories become stories, and the meditations on not only how but why and what’s good about it are striking and moving. Most of all, it gave me faith; in many ways it reminds you what is good about Christianity, and the fact that it presents these pros at the same time as it presents a bitter alternative to the romantic, mystical story of its founding is lovely and inspiring, and makes you think that maybe there’s something universal and wonderful about this crazy religion after all.

EXCERPT: from Jesus’ monologue in the garden at Gethsemane

‘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 sheds many thousands of seeds so that new trees can grow in its place. Does the tree say to the sparrow “Get out, you don’t belong here?” Does the tree say to the hungry man “This fruit is not for you?” Does the tree test the loyalty of the beasts before it allows them into the shade?

‘This is all I can do now, whisper into the silence. How much longer will I even feel like doing that? You’re not there. You’ve never heard me. […]

‘From time to time we’ll remember you, like a grandfather who was loved once, but who has died, and we’ll tell stories about you; and we’ll feed the lambs and reap the corn and press the wine, and sit under the tree in the cool of the evening, and welcome the stranger and look after the children, and nurse the sick and comfort the dying, and then lie down when our time comes, without a pang, without a fear, and go back to the earth.

‘And let the silence talk to itself…’

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