I picked this up for a couple of quid in a second-hand bookshop the other day. It caused quite a stir when it came out, but in case you missed it, the basic premise is that Jesus, a wise teacher, had a brother called Christ, the “spiritual” one, who followed his brother round twisting his teachings into the form we have them today. Supposedly Philip Pullman came up with the idea for the book after a conversation with his friend Rowan Williams, and it’s a fascinating and compelling read.
Much of the book is lifted wholly from the Bible, with some of Jesus’ words written out in slightly more contemporary form to make them more accessible. However, it’s written through the eyes of his brother Christ, and so there’s a few moments of savage comedy where Christ rewrites his brothers actions or words into a more appealing form. Some of these rewrites are old and well known, like the feeding of the 5000 being an instance of mass sharing, and some are less convincing – like people being healed by the warm atmosphere created by having Jesus around them.
It’s worth saying that the book is brilliantly written, which I can understand will offend a few people, especially due to its subject matter. As a Christian, I found that there were passages that were hard to stomach, but in spite of that, I had to marvel at Pullman’s skill as a storyteller. His Jesus, in particular, is an incredibly appealing figure, revolutionary and compassionate and human all at once, and in many ways a much more comprehensible figure than the Jesus of the gospels. I’d like to believe in Jesus as Pullman sees him, as he is a truly good man, but I do have big issues with his character (more on that later). That said, his speech in the garden of Gethsemane, in particular, is incredibly powerful – an amazing interpretation of what Jesus might have gone through in facing the silence of God, and a deep critique of the church.
The book is deeply opposed to the church, which is unsurprising for anyone who’s read Pullman’s other work. The church is attacked for its structures, for its inability to live out the revolutionary life that Jesus lived – it’s seen as fraudulent, a body of believers united together by a shared lie about a risen saviour and the myth of a holy spirit. Its existence is attributed to the untrustworthy Christ and the mysterious stranger (an image of Satan) who suggests the idea to him. If anything, it’s this that is most offensive about Pullman’s book, and also where it falls down.
Like I say, Pullman’s Jesus is incredibly appealing. He’s also a caricature – as you’d expect from somebody who’s made up of only the bits that you like about them. Pullman praises his revolutionary qualities, but strips away his divinity, ultimately stripping away his significance. To Pullman, Jesus is simply another teacher, which I know is his point, but by saying this he ultimately puts himself in an awkward position. The thing is, Jesus is surrounded by idiots. His followers are weak, cowardly, whipped up into a revolutionary frenzy by his actions but unable or unwilling to live like him. So after he dies, there’s no implication that anyone will live any differently – in fact, the book repeatedly states that his followers do nothing at all until Christ lies to them about the Holy Spirit and pretends to be his risen brother.
So what use it having a great man at the centre of your faith if your followers can’t or don’t follow him? That doesn’t make him great, that makes him meaningless.
Pullman is a brilliant commentator on the church, and he’s right that a lot of evil has been done in its name. He clearly admires Jesus, and he’s got a point that if the church wants to live like he did, it’s structured in the wrong way and its people have their priorities wrong. He’s also right that Jesus didn’t lay out any of the structures of how church was to be done, just told them to live like him. But the implication of Jesus’ ministry was always that people would live like he did, and the rest would come naturally out of that kind of life. Belief in Jesus means becoming part of a body of believes who are known by his name, and that’s inseparable from being a Christian. It can never just be an entirely individual thing. It feels like Pullman would rather the church fell apart, and maybe it would be more effective if it did, but all the same, Jesus called the church – for all of its flaws.
Much like A.C. Grayling’s recent (and unintentionally hilarious) recent attempt at a secular bible in the form of The Good Book, Philip Pullman has constructed an attempted rehabilitation of the Christian faith to make it the story of one good man, but it doesn’t quite work. As thought-provoking as it is, it doesn’t have the power to change lives. I read Mark’s gospel immediately afterwards, and maybe it’s the years of accumulated commentary blinding me, but the gospel has a power, an authority, that’s distinct and undeniable.
So for all of that, what The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ adds up to in the end is commentary. Good commentary, too, timely and worth reading by anyone who calls themselves a follower of Jesus and has a strong stomach, but nothing that’s going to change the world.
Oddly enough, though, Pullman seems to acknowledge this in a bleak and memorable ending that lingers long after the book is put down. But then again – who said he was trying to change the world anyway?