Saturday 21 August 2010

Book Review: Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Philip Pullman states clearly that his latest book is not intended to be an accurate portrayal of historical events. The back cover of his novel proclaims "This is a STORY."

But it's a story that could, given the historical events on which it is based, be one account of the possible truth. It's the story of Jesus, and of Christ, and in Pullman's narrative these are two distinct people — twin brothers, in fact. Jesus is the preacher, Christ is his unacknowledged public relations man. It's told from the viewpoint of Christ, who is constantly in awe of his brother and his wise preacherly ways.

Only once, near the end of the book, do we get to hear the thoughts of Jesus himself, when he goes into the garden at Gethsemane to commune with his God. And we learn that the wise preacher has doubts — doubts so deep that he can be safely described as an atheist.

The character of Christ is by far the more interesting of the two. It is to Christ that the business of recording the historical events falls, and like any good PR man he knows that the facts will need to be spun. We see the process of myth-making, sometimes deliberate, sometimes fortuitous. It remains a mystery, however, who the stranger is who occasionally comes to instruct Christ in his endeavours. Christ never learns the stranger's name, and believes he is an angel, but the stranger could just as easily be Satan, or more prosaically, a subversive fixer from an organisation that sees the cult of Jesus as beneficial.

The book is written in a simplistic, almost childlike style. No echoes of the King James authorised version of the Bible penetrate the flat narrative. Because it's so transparent, the framing and blatant spin of the facts at hand are seen for what they are: we are left with a simple story retold many times, incorporating the necessary features for making the myth.

Philip Pullman
Pullman clearly demonstrates that The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is not holy writ. It is, as he says, a story. But it fits the known facts, and raises a question: if a story like this can be made up to fit the facts as we know them from history, how do we know that the other stories that fit the same facts aren't also made up? The answer is, we don't, and while that's an interesting literary question, it's not something on which the moral imperatives of a huge percentage of the world's population can be legitimately based.

[Pullman, P. (2010) The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Edinburgh: Canongate; ISBN 978 1 84767 825 6 hardcover £14.99]

Philip Pullman was a guest (by 'phone) on Premier Christian Radio's Unbelievable? programme in May. The mp3 audio is available for download here:
Streaming audio available here:{1439D3F4-FB20-4658-892E-3992F94C5FFD}