Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

7 comments

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman book cover
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010) is Philip Pullman’s creative reimagining of Jesus’s life. Drawing mainly on the gospels of Mark and Matthew, the novel weaves biblical stories with the author’s own fantasy and invention to make a statement about spirituality and organised religion. The most significant deviance from the original text is the suggestion that Mary, rather than mothering one child, in fact gave birth to twins: the lively and popular Jesus, and the weak but scholarly Christ. Under this premise, the novel goes on to describe well-known stories from the bible with small twists; Jesus playing the central role, and Christ chronicling his brother’s good work from a distance.

The Christ character is dogged throughout by visits from a mysterious stranger who encourages him to record Jesus’s life, but stresses that history should be shaped to convey an ideal truth rather than a literal one. Thus Christ’s record of his brother’s life slowly becomes distorted, a metaphor for organised religion’s massaging of truth and a literal example of Christian revisionism. Pullman keeps the brothers apart for much of the novel, never allowing their conflicting ideologies to collide, perhaps symbolic of the divide between spirituality and the church. Beyond this context, the novel is an exploration of how stories and myths are created, and how history is recorded. Interestingly, although Pullman downplays Jesus’s miracles, treating them as psychological or conjuring tricks, there is an acknowledgement of the supernatural throughout, a hint of something beyond this world. Although he denies Jesus his divinity it should be noted that Pullman’s anger is directed at the church, not Jesus, who he paints as an enigmatic humanist, averse to religious structure but still deeply spiritual.

The book is written in the style of the gospels, with very short chapters and a sparse narrative. Despite the evident logic, this quickly becomes irritating; while biblical tales are often read and examined in isolation, allowing for such a style, most will read The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ like any other novel, and thus the pedestrian prose creates an obstacle to one’s enjoyment of the book. Equally, the dialogue, written in modern colloquialisms, often grates and feels uncomfortable in the characters’ mouths. Some of the key passages too feel contrived; characters either taking on the author’s own voice, or making stunningly prophetic assertions about future uses of the biblical texts.

The vast majority of the text is faithful to the gospels; the pleasure is in the small, imagined nuances that cast the well-known stories in a different light. Certainly Pullman knows the source text well and, as many of the deviances are subtle, one really needs a basic knowledge of the gospels to fully enjoy The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Probably the two greatest and most significant passages retold are Jesus’s agonising in the Garden of Gethsemane and the Resurrection itself. These are perhaps the two key scenes in the book, but sadly they are clunky and predictable respectively. There is a sense that Pullman is enjoying an in-joke, that through the jumbled and, at times, incoherent work he is drawing parallels with the bible, and that criticism levelled at The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by outraged Christians is inadvertently a condemnation of their own beliefs. As a whole though, the book feels light-weight and neither adds to the debate, nor provides sufficient persuasion to ignite discussion.

As I read this I had the expectation that there would be a moment of profundity that expanded its relevance beyond the basic themes, but sadly that moment never came. The rewriting of Jesus’s agonising in the garden of Gethsemane was the closest thing to it, but that didn’t really work for me. I also found the writing too dry. Parts of the bible are profoundly beautiful, whether you believe in the message as a whole or not, but I felt that was completely lacking from Pullman’s rewriting.


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Reviews of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ on Amazon (UK)
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7 comments:

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

As a side issue, I’ve noticed lots of reviews and comments on this book suggesting that there is nothing inherently offensive about it and that Christians who are upset by it are ignorant or over-precious. Personally, I find opinions like that fatuous and oppressive. Everyone has the right to free speech, but equally everyone has the right to be offended. You might not agree with their point of view, but they are still entitled to it. In this particular case, I can see how someone who believes the bible to be 100% true could be upset by Pullman’s retelling. If you believe Jesus to be a historical figure, the son of God, and someone who died for you, I can see perfectly well that any denouncement of his divinity could be deeply hurtful. In our society of supposed free speech we still feel the need to protect the reputation of certain historical figures whose legacy is judged too important to besmirch, Martin Luther King being a prime example, and so it’s clear that protectionism runs beyond fundamentalist religion, whether you agree with it or not. My point is, simply, that we should respect each other and enjoy a lively debate based on relevant arguments, enjoy the joy of life in our own way and not impose our own beliefs on others.

Nymeth said...

I agree with your comments - it's certainly not useful to dismiss people who find the book upsetting and to try to silence conversations. Part of the interest of a book like this is exactly that it will inspire people to have discussions. I'm sorry to hear you didn't find the execution very good, but I still really enjoyed reading your thoughts :)

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks for your comment Nymeth. I think you're absolutely right, this sort of book should spark debate, and that should be one of its key attractions. I did feel a little let down by it, but I'm still a fan of Pullman and look forward to his future works.

Petra said...

"My point is, simply, that we should respect each other and enjoy a lively debate based on relevant arguments, enjoy the joy of life in our own way and not impose our own beliefs on others."
It would be amazing if everyone shared your opinion :)

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

It would be even more amazing if everyone put it in to practice :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for commenting on the style of the writer rather than the controversy created around the book.
Now I have a better idea of the actual book.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

No problem at all, I always try to avoid judging a book by the stance it takes on a certain subject - whether I agree with it or not.

Glad you enjoyed the review :)