Text Publishing, RRP$39, Release date 3 May 2010
I love Philip Pullman. I love him like I’m a 12 year old girl and he’s a purple unicorn that’s just turned up on my doorstep and blown heart shaped bubbles in my face. That much, right? I mean everyone liked the His Dark Materials series (well, almost everyone) but I even like the Sally Lockhart Mysteries and sadly, not as many people like those.
I approached The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ with some amount of trepidation, however. This is a book that tells the Jesus story and my relationship with religion and religious stories is one that alternates between being fraught and of “meh”. Fortunately though, despite the provocative title, Pullman is not coming from a perspective of “Christians done us wrong”. This is the story of stories. The story of history and the nature of truth and the way those two ideas change depending on who is doing the telling.
In Pullman’s story there are two “Jesuses” (yes, I really, really want to write “Jesi”) – two brothers, Jesus and Christ. Jesus is the beloved brother, the “good man” who doesn’t think he is a Messiah but everyone else does, and Christ is the “scoundrel”, the favourite of Mary, who thinks of himself as a secret Messiah when no-one else does. Thus begins the story that continues along a familiar route with the occasional feeling of boxes being ticked off (Magdalene, tick. Loaves and fishes, tick.)
In some ways The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is very much like the Bible Jesus story – there are periods of blah interspersed with breakthrough moments that shine. Truly shine.
Pullman has done his most spectacular work with the chapter Jesus in the Garden at Gethsamane. This is the chapter that reminded me why I love Pullman so much. Jesus is attempting a dialogue with God but he gets a monologue instead. God is quiet. God is silent. God makes no move. And in the words you can hear Jesus’ heart breaking and his faith in a god dying slowly.
The psalm says “The fool has said in his heart, There is no God.” Well, I understand that fool. You treated him as you’re treating me, didn’t you? If that makes me a fool, I’m one with all the fools you made. I love that fool, even if you don’t. The poor sod whispered to you night after night, and heard nothing in response.
I suppose it will be passages such as this and Pullman’s treatment of the story of Jesus’ resurrection that will gain him the most “notoriety” amongst those who hold these things sacred and beyond change.
What I liked best here are the two ideas that I feel Pullman is exploring:
1. Character, and particularly characters in stories. In TGMJATSC Jesus is the man who talks to everyone but no-one seems to hear what he’s saying. His message becomes much bigger than his intention and you get the impression from the secondhand stories we’re hearing that he gets rather downright pissy about this. Jesus is telling a simple story about how people should live their lives. He is a man who knows he is not being heard by the people, and most of all he knows he is not being heard by his God.
Christ, on the other hand, is the man who talks to hardly anyone but one person, who he has convinced himself is an angel. And Christ thinks his words are much bigger than they really are, he thinks he’s telling the story to end all stories, the story of the coming of heaven on earth and the story to feed an entire church, and the story of his God.
2. Stories. How the story changes to fit the truth. How the truth gets changed to fit the story. How powerful stories are that millions of people are prepared to live their lives by them. How all of us are prepared to live our lives by stories. Aren’t we?
There is so much to admire and enjoy in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ but in the end I have to be honest and say I feel about it very much like I feel about the Bible Jesus story. I don’t really know. It feels cold and distant. It doesn’t induce in me any revelations, it doesn’t lead me to think differently, or be differently, or do differently. It’s interesting but it hasn’t changed my life.
But I know it has changed the lives of millions, and so, like Jesus, I can only think:
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?