The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman
I loved this book, but the title’s a bit problematic – was Jesus a ‘Good man?’ – and was Christ a ‘Scoundrel?’
I’m not sure – and perhaps that’s what Philip Pullman had in mind when he re-imagined the familiar story of the life of Jesus.
Here, Mary produces not one, but two, potential messiahs from her virginal womb, the first being Jesus (strong, tough and healthy) the other, Christ (wimpy, introspective and a real mummy’s boy).
But instead of playing out the familiar evil-twin trope, Pullman offers something far richer – and more complex.
The difference between the brothers is largely theological, although it also spills into the realm of personality.
Jesus is generally a doer, not a thinker. Armed with considerable charisma and a high-minded honesty, he preaches his familiar message, exhorting his followers to love the poor, the meek, the downtrodden, the prostitutes, the lepers and of course, the children.
He doesn’t hold with Churches and thinks people should take responsibility for their own salvation.
There’s something of the Reformation cleric in him, although of course we’re 1,500 years too early for Martin Luther.
Christ on the other hand, most definitely is a thinker and seems to foreshadow the origins of the Catholic Church – or in Pullman’s world, the Magisterium, the sinister guiding force which tells people what to think, what to feel – and most importantly, what to believe.
He tries to convince his brother of a need for a Church to guide the poor, foolish masses to the pearly gates – and gets angrily rejected for his troubles.
In a clever move, Pullman makes Christ his brother’s unwitting tempter in the desert in place of Satan, urging him first to feed the hungry masses with bread before asking their obedience, and so on.
Jesus gives him short shrift.
Having failed to join forces with his impetuous sibling, Christ instead teams up with a mysterious stranger, a nameless being described as ‘An angel’ and yet clearly far more sinister.
Playing on Christ’s insecurities and fears over Jesus’ future, he persuades him to spy on Jesus, writing down everything he says and handing over regular reports to whatever (presumably dubious) organisation he represents.
And of course the anxious Christ can’t help but edit Jesus’ words to make them read “Better.”
We’re told: “In writing like this he was letting truth from beyond time into history, and thus making history the handmaid of posterity and not its governor.”
Christ persuades himself that this bowdlerisation of his brother’s words is done in the best interests of posterity – after all, he’s got Jesus’ future reputation to think about.
Having already cast Christ as the tempter in the desert, Pullman now ups the ante by making him the Judas – betraying his brother at the behest of the stranger, planting the fateful kiss on his cheek which leads to trial, crucifixion and death – but not resurrection.
Instead, Christ himself is persuaded to greet the grieving disciples and impersonate his dead brother, taking care not to let them see him too closely.
He then retires, racked with guilt to live a quiet life elsewhere – but not before he is visited by the stranger a final time, urging him to revisit his doctored documents. The future looks bleak – and that’s the point.
The only problem with Pullman’s story is its title – which for all I know could simply reflect the failure of short, snappy headlines to do justice to complex, ethical concerns.
Whatever the media might believe, it’s hard to capture complex philosophical issues with a snappy little catchphrase.
The problem here is that Christ is no out-and-out villain and while it’s clear Pullman’s sympathies lie with the other brother, Jesus is no beautific embodiment of perfection.
Instead, he seems all-too human, a man whose bluff, unfailing honesty, kindness and generosity, coupled with a hatred of phonies, frauds and fallacies proves his undoing.
In the Garden of Gethsemene, Pullman even lets us see Jesus’ doubt – along with his vision of an officialdom-free future.
He says: 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.”
Wise, kind words – but of course, Jesus proves far too honest to ignore his own doubts – even as he prays, he seems to know there is no God listening, no God watching what he does.
His abandonment of the almighty is soon complete: “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.”
But Jesus’ apparent deconversion does not save him from his enemies or an ignominious death, where those eager to praise him one minute are denouncing him the next.
There is something of Dostoevsky’s Christ and the Inquisitor here, as the titular persecutor tells the Second Coming that the 17th Century peasants who welcomed his return yesterday will be the same heaping faggots at the base of his stake in the morning.
As for Christ, it’s easy to view him as a timorous wannabe who hides in his brother’s shadow, whose pusillanimous nature makes him an easy pawn in the battle between Jesus and his shadowy opponents.
But I suspect most of us will identify more with Christ than we would with Jesus, however more sympathetic he may be – and again, that could well be Pullman’s intent.
Most of us are not so high-minded to tell our fellow creatures to love our fellow-men unconditonally, no matter how repellent we may find them. Would we truly embrace the lepers as their running sores dribbled on to our hands?
In one poignant scene, Christ visits a whore riddled with cancer. He tries to heal her, as Jesus would and says her sins are forgiven. She remains cancer-ridden and he retreats in shame.
He’s a phoney and he knows it – but then, Jesus seems to know the same of his God.
And while Christ may be a misguided fink, Pullman is too honest a writer to ignore the obvious – that without his records, doctored though they are, Jesus’ name would have been buried in the sands of time with a wine-hoarding steward and a food-carrying crowd responsible for the transformation of water into wine and the feeding of the 5,000 respectively.
So what are we to get from all this? That a good man can be undone by weak-willed men, manipulated by cynical villains? That Jesus was just a man after all, like Elvis and John Lennon – and we should take pains to remind ourselves of the fact?
Well, yes – but there’s more.
Christ’s editorial endeavours and Jesus’ early death pave the way for the emergence of The Church and as Jesus knows, where the
Pullman clearly has affection for his Jesus character – a good-man who is perhaps too good for the savage world he inhabits.
But he also points the finger at the poisonous tree of religion which can spring from even the most seemingly-benevolent of roots.
Ironically, Jesus’ message is perfect for we atheists – there’s probably no God, so just do good and get on with your life, whatever doubts you may have.
In a world torn by intolerance and religious bigotry, it’s a message we all need to hear.