by Philip Pullman
256 pages, Canongate
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
Those who have read Philip Pullman's “His Dark Materials” trilogy will be aware of the author's hatred of organised religion. A card-carrying member of the British Humanist Association, Pullman is outspoken in his criticism of Christianity and ranks alongside Richard Dawkins and Satan in the list of people least likely to be invited to tea with the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Unlike his popular fantasy works, Pullman's latest novel, the provocatively titled “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ”, is a far more direct attack on the foundations of Christian belief. Retelling the story of Jesus, Pullman splits the central character into two distinct people, Jesus and Christ. The twin brothers are conceived when the naïve Mary is tricked into intercourse with an angel who bears a striking resemblance to one of her neighbours. When the babies arrive, Jesus is strong and healthy whereas his brother is small and sickly. As the boys grow older, the differences in their personality become more apparent. Jesus is a popular lad, honest and forthright whereas Christ is quiet and withdrawn, prone to lurking in the background and watching his brother's deeds.
When Jesus begins to attract a following, Christ takes it upon himself (after some persuasion from a mysterious figure who could be either an angel or a demon) to become his brother's official biographer. Over the years, Christ records Jesus' actions and passes the scrolls onto the stranger for safe-keeping. Aware of the need to tell a convincing story, Christ manipulates history in order to more effectively convey the “truth” behind his brother's words. Predictably, it is not Judas but Christ who betrays Jesus and hands him over to the authorities.
Whilst undoubtedly provocative, Pullman's tale surprised me by how carefully the author treads. Though Pullman claims that it is not his intention to offend, one wonders why he would choose such a touchy subject on which to write. The author has apparently received death threats as a result of this book and whilst it has attracted a great deal of negative attention from fundamentalist Christians, it did not strike me as particularly incendiary. Pullman's desire to examine the foundations of Christianity and highlight how truth can so easily be distorted by fanatics is not an original concept. Let's remember that “Monty Python's Life of Brian” was released in 1979 – over thirty years before this novel - and still manages to be a far more effective satire of how religious fervour can spiral out of control. Pullman's novel features a chapter where Christ sleeps with a cancer-riddled prostitute and fails to heal her. This will probably get more than a few believers a bit hot under the collar but I've read far more blasphemous stuff. Take Michael Moorcock's 1969 novella “Behold the Man” where Mary is portrayed as a whore and her child is a profoundly retarded hunchback incapable of doing little more than repeat his own name whilst rocking back and forth in the corner. Now that's blasphemous!
We live in an age of excess. Offensiveness has become an art-form. I saw a movie recently called “The Human Centipede” - a truly gross film. The basic premise is that a mad scientist surgically joins three people mouth to anus. When they regain consciousness, they crawl around sobbing and pooping in one another's mouths. There's a lot of people out there who would be outraged at the very concept of a film with that plot being seen as a piece of entertainment. Conversely, there are people out there who actively want to be grossed out by schlock-horror such as that and will lap up every stomach-turning moment. One has to wonder who Pullman was aiming his novel at. If he didn't want to offend, then why choose such a sensitive topic? Those who don't want to be offended will be unlikely to read more than the title. Those who want a bit of juicy scandal will find themselves sorely disappointed by Pullman's rather timid take on the life of Jesus. Sadly, the most scandalous thing I found about this book was the cost - ￡10.99 is a steep price to pay for such a lightweight read, particularly one that promises so much and delivers so little.
Hereward L.M. Proops