by Philip Pullman
272 pages, Cannongate US
Review by Bill Kirton
One of the things that always strikes me about Christian Fundamentalism is its lack of compassion. I’d have thought that only the most partial and selective interpretation of the teachings of Jesus could avoid making at least a sidelong acknowledgement that they’re about people rather than abstractions. And this version of the life of Jesus and his teachings seems to me much closer to the ‘truth’ of his words and intentions than any of the churches’ readings of the gospels. For all that the church (inevitably) condemned this book, to me it’s more holy than The Bible. It’s informed by a nostalgia for a type of religion which would be infinitely better than the ones we have.
According to Pullman, Jesus and Christ were twins. As they grew, Jesus was the one whose comments on the way people were and the way the church and state were run caused problems. He questioned things, showed people there were better ways to live, and he was obviously a charismatic leader whether he wanted to be or not. He was human, with a quick temper but also with an understanding of people and systems and that all-important compassion that got him so much attention.
Christ, on the other hand, while he loved, respected and admired his brother, was troubled by his actions and the potential dangers he was causing for himself. He followed him around, noted down the things he said and did and it was these notes which formed the basis of the Jesus myth. Not that it was Christ’s intention to create such a myth. No, that was thanks to the intervention of an angel.
But in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, angels aren’t the shining, ethereal creatures of poetry and the gospels; they’re clearly motivated by other things. The one who visits Mary, for example, whispers to her through her window, tells her how beautiful she is, praises her eyes, her lips, and asks her to let him in so that he can tell her a secret. She does so, finds that he’s taken the shape of a young man and that the secret is that she’ll conceive a child and – surprise, surprise – that’s exactly what happens that very night.
Equally, there’s a stranger who approaches Christ who, when he learns that Christ has been recording his brother’s doings, also reveals that he’s an angel and encourages Christ to continue recording the events but give them a spin to reveal the greater ‘truths’ underlying them. And all of this is told in a beautiful, transparent prose with the same gentle, persuasive rhythms of the King James Bible.
And yet, for all its familiarity, this version of the story is a thriller. Yes, it has all the landmark events, but it has a humanity, a cast of characters, and a way of conveying all the miracles and sermons that make it a much more likely and far more persuasive account of Jesus’ impact and the legacy he’d like to have left. Also, the way the angel/stranger convinces Christ that he has a role to play in the resurrection and the aftermath of the death of Jesus (and he does die) is in the best tradition of all the ‘what-happened-next’ stories. This is the New Testament as a page-turner.
Listen to Jesus in the garden at Gethsemane. It’s moving and brilliant. His relationship with God is fascinating (and very modern). He says “you’re not listening. I’ve been speaking to you all my life and all I’ve heard back is silence. Where are you? Are you out there among the stars? Is that it? Busy making another world, perhaps, because you’re sick of this one? You’ve gone away, haven’t you, you’ve abandoned us.” And of course he gets no reply.
He eulogises the world’s beauty and says the suggestion that it’s just an “imperfect copy of something much better in another world” is a slanderous insult to God.
At the same time, he speculates on the wonderful organisation, the ‘church’, which his brother Christ has told him about – the one represented by the stranger/angel with his own agenda, who’s persuading Christ to distort Jesus’ truths in its service. But Jesus isn’t fooled. He foresees how it’ll turn nations against one another and he predicts the freedom priests will have to indulge their “secret appetites, greed, lust, cruelty.” Pullman’s targets are clear when he makes Jesus speak of “what this holy man does in private; and his little victims will cry to heaven for pity, and their tears will wet his hands, and he’ll wipe them on his robe and press them together piously and cast his eyes upwards and the people will say what a fine thing it is to have such a holy man as priest, how well he takes care of the children …” It’s beautifully written, gently worded and yet the sharpest satire of what we now recognise as awful truths.
But this isn’t a bitter or negative story. As I said at the outset, it preaches a gospel which even unbelievers like myself can find attractive. This is Jesus’ notion of what a church should be: “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.”
This is an important book, a book impregnated throughout with humanity and truth. But it’s also an exciting, very readable book, with mystery, intelligence, a thrilling story and a prose style that’s a source of pleasure in itself. What a pity Philip Pullman didn’t write The Bible.