‘And this is the final thing I’ll say to you: do to others as you hope they would do to you.The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, the latest addition to the fabulous Canongate Myth Series, is a retelling of the life of Jesus Christ according to the New Testament. In Pullman’s version, Jesus and Christ are two different people: they are twin brothers born to Mary. One goes out to become the revolutionary speaker the Bible tells us about, while the other thinks of himself as a historian: he records what his brother says and what he sees him do, sometimes “letting truth from beyond time into history”. The obvious implication is that the stories we know today are a direct result of his editorial decisions.
‘This is the law and the prophets, this is everything you need to know.’
There isn’t much more I need to tell you about the plot, as mostly everyone, even those who like me are only passingly familiar with the New Testament, will recognise the main events presented here. Believe it or not, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is not actually inflammatory in tone. However, it does remove the divine from the equation by giving concrete explanations to all the passages where the intervention of God is clear in the original narrative. And this will likely upset some people—but more on that at the end.
I’m no expert in theology, but this struck me as a book written with respect for Scripture. It’s a story in which religion and theology are taken seriously – not necessarily for themselves, but because they have mattered and continue to matter to people, and because they have real consequences in real human lives. Also, the concept behind the book, of presenting Jesus Christ not as a single person but as twins, is not nearly as simple as it may seem at first glance. Pullman doesn’t present a good twin and a bad twin, a perfect Jesus and a wicked Christ who distorts his message, though initially it may appear that this will be the case. I was pleasantly surprised to realise that what we have here is far more complicated than that. Both are portrayed very humanly, and much more sympathetically than you might imagine.
I also don’t think that The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is merely a fable about the dangers of the power that has been wielded by organised religion. That’s certainly an obvious element of the story, and I thought it was very interesting that the temptation in the wilderness focused exactly on the power of the church as an institution—this unchecked power being the very thing Jesus rejects. But what Pullman does here goes beyond just that. This is a book that questions the role of the church, but not one that demonises it. Rather, it recognises its historical rights and wrongs, as well as the role of religion as a motivator for both positive and negative deeds.
Most of all, this is a story about why we need stories, a point made clear in the line, Christ knew as he wrote it down that, for all its unfairness, people would remember that story much longer than they’d remember a legal definition. The appeal of stories is of course that they’re both memorable and open to interpretation, and this allows them to illustrate more complex realities than simple definitions ever could. But this also means that absolute truths cannot really be built upon them. What this book is trying to do is not offer an alternative absolute truth, but trying to invite us to consider the danger of dogmas, of absolute power, of intolerance, and of inflexible ideas. Also, the way the story analyses the transition from reality to history to myth quite reminded me of Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur, which, as you might recall, I absolutely loved.
The chapter titled “Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane” was my favourite, and absolutely made the book for me. This is a chapter in which Jesus is showed confronting his god’s silence and experiencing doubts. The doubts humanised his faith for me, and I don’t see what follows as a rejection of faith necessarily, but as a deep examination of it. But mostly I loved the chapter for the deep love for the world it expresses. I found this passage in particular very moving:
‘And slander’s what it is; you made this world, and it’s lovely, every inch if it. When I think of these things I’ve loved I find myself choking with happiness, or maybe sorrow, I don’t know; and every one of them has been something in this world that you made. If anyone can smell frying fish on an evening by the lake, or feel a cool breeze on a hot day, or see a little animal trying to run around and tumbling over and getting up again, or kiss a pair of soft and willing lips, if anyone can feel those things and still maintain they’re nothing but crude imperfect copies of something much better in another world, they are slandering you, Lord, as surely as words mean anything at all.’In the story, this is presented as a religious feeling; as a deep love that is the very basis of one man’s faith, and which at the same time causes him to question that faith. And yet it’s something that I, a non-believer, find very easy to relate to and sympathise with. It’s a feeling I see emerging again and again in religious works (in Gerald Manley Hopkins’ poetry, in Thoreau, or in Sufjan Stevens’s music, just to give you a few examples), and which makes me understand faith better than anything else. Religion is often portrayed as a rejection of this world in favour of another, and while that may sometimes be true, it doesn’t seem to cover the entire range of religious experiences. A faith based on this kind of love is one that I may not share, but can easily understand.
I think I'd have gotten more out of this book if I knew more about Christian theology – which isn’t to say that The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ is a theological debate packed as a story. It IS a story, as the back cover so boldly tells us, and a very human one at that: one about compassion, about love, about the meaning of betrayal, about storytelling, about history and myths, about why we remember what we remember, why we believe what we believe, and why we do what we do.
I’m not going to apologise for this book’s existence, nor for my having read and enjoyed it. But at the same time, there’s no point in denying that the fact that I’m an atheist and have no emotional attachment to the idea of Jesus Christ or to the church, any church, influenced my reaction to it. It’s not that I think it’s impossible to be a Christian and enjoy it (the Archbishop of Canterbury quite liked it overall), but it’s only natural that religious faith or its absence will play a role in how readers respond to it.
Most rejections of the book will probably come from a gut feeling that these are things that matter too much, that are too sacred, to be touched at all. I’m glad I live in a world in which this book can be written, read and discussed, but as long as nobody tries to prevent any of this from happening, I fully respect the validity of this kind of emotional reaction. It’s understandable and only too human that people will be uncomfortable seeing a figure they love scrutinised.
On the other hand, it occurred to me as I read it that we often don’t consider any of these things when we read works based on Hindu, Inuit, Native American, etc. mythologies. In those cases, we’re also touching things that are real and sacred and important to other people, but because for most of us those communities are not as visible, we’re more careless in our scrutiny of their beliefs, and well as in our use of the word “myth”. I acknowledge and respect every kind of emotional reaction to this book, and I personally believe in always trying to be careful when dealing with things that matter to other people. But at the same time, I am very glad a book such as this can exist.
Tales from the Reading Room
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