The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
So I read The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Phillip Pullman and, I dunno. It has the same energy as a newer author writing a short story about Heaven and Hell are run by angelic and demonic bureaucracies, respectively. The book more treats these religious ideas as puzzles pieces to swap around for the purpose of telling another story, rather than engaging with the ideas of Christianity itself.
The premise of the novel is simple; Jesus and Christ are twins born in Bethlehem; they are separate people. Before going on, there are unambiguously angels in this novel; we see them talk to Joseph, Mary’s parents, and so forth; a stranger talks to Christ throughout the novel and the stranger is clearly Lucifer, whom Christ mistakes as any other angel. What follows is a very abridged reimagining of the New Testament; Jesus represents the “Words in Red” part of the New Testament, preaching love your enemies, the golden rule, and so forth; Christ is a more pragmatic person, who wants to build a church, say things in ways an everyday person can apply them, is more accepting of sin. Jesus being the “Stuff Jesus actual said in the bible” and Christ representing organized religion. It’s very clear what Pullman thinks of these two things early on, when it is Christ that temps his brother Jesus after forty days in the desert, and is talking to who is clearly Satan throughout the novel. Christ works as a chronicler of what Jesus is doing, writing down what he is doing, embellishing, while making sure that Jesus doesn’t see him directly. In the Climax of the Book, it’s Christ who plays the role of Judas, betraying his brother. When it is time for Jesus’s resurrection, it is his twin brother who takes his place.
This ending is something that, I assume by design, can been seen coming a mile away. It’s something that’s just built into the structure of the novel.
And it’s fine. The book is fine. It’s a thought experiment to highlight the difference between what Jesus is saying and the hypocrisies of his Church, histrionically. The kind of stuff that got Martin Luther upset. The metaphor is clever, in a “What if Hell was Ran by your Company’s HR Department” kind of way. I’ll take a minute to point out that Phillip Pullman is famous for his Golden Compass Trilogy, which is something he conceived as an atheist response to CS Lewis’s Narnia, but there’s a kind of culmination of the novel in the chapter “Jesus in the Garden at Gethsemane,” where Jesus is whispering a prayer meant only for himself, where he admits he hasn’t heard the voice of God, and he is talking about God’s silence. He then goes on essentially a diatribe about why he is against a church, and Pullman gets to criticism modern churches and some historical sins of Christianity for a few pages. The Latter is tiresome, even though it was enviably coming; the former is… fine, again. I think if you want a book where a religious character meditates on God’s silence, Only Begotten Daughter does a much better job of this. Especially since Pullman doesn’t hint at this throughout the book, and instead brings up the “Jesus hasn’t heard the voice of God” at the last minute, it doesn’t really inform his character through the novel and doesn’t really get explored here, and one would think that this would be a more important revelation. The climax of the novel is, ironically, very preachy.
I think it’s really funny that this book was reviewed by Christopher Hitchens, who seems very insistent that this book is not allowed to have any fun at all; he calls Pullman out for not pushing back on the Jesus character more. This is an odd read for me, as Pullman has characters point out throughout the book how hard it would be to live up to all of Jesus’s teachings; it reads almost as a criticism of both Jesus and Christ/The Church in some places.
Something I’ve been thinking as I read this, throughout the say or so I spent with the book, was I don’t think Phillip Pullman was ever really religious, though he considers himself culturally Christian, or ever really believed deeply in the divine. Which is again, fine, but the central idea - the excesses of the Catholic Church versus the actual teaching sin the bible - well, and maybe this is coming from an American who grew up around people believing sincerely in American framing of Christianity - we’ve had Protestants. For a long time. This is a concept that the religion has struggled with for a long time, and a conversation that religious people have been having with themselves for a long time. And this book doesn’t seem to be a part of that longer conversation, it’s a perspective from an outsider, and I don’t think Pullman comes down and either side of his Jesus/Christ/Church dichotomy. And for the time the book takes to go over its ideas, it really doesn’t take the time to explore any of them in depth; what I’ve described here is most of what I got out of the themes of the novel. We see the point quickly, we see where it is going, the Christ as Judas twist we see coming from at least a hundreds pages before hand, the resurrection trick we see immediately. So with the shape of the novel determined, we know where this is going, so each of Jesus’s lessons feels more like a chore as we go on, because it’s always some biblical tale told in a secular way.
But still. As a story, it’s fine. But I think it’s funny that the main conflict of the book is that Christ wants to make Jesus out to be a symbol and Jesus wants to focus on his teachings, whereas the character’s are never really characterized enough for either of them to be anything but symbols.