Thursday, 1 July 2010

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

I have been reading The good man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, a novel I earmarked after hearing Pullman and Rowan Williams disussing it on the radio over Easter.
In Pullman's allegorical re-working of the gospel, Mary gives birth to, not one, but two sons, the hearty good man, Jesus, and the stunted scoundrel, Christ.
Jesus and Christ quite clearly represent two different facets of Christianity. Jesus embodies that which Pullman finds appealing; he is charismatic, human centred and dismissive of the force of power, institution or reputation. Christ represents the Church, and indeed the Word, he is manipulative, has an eye to expediency and yet, and this I find most fascinating, is often troubled, secretive and emotionally needy.

Pullman also restructures the gospels to create challenge; miracles are shown to be ordinary events inspired by the ability of Jesus to appeal to human generosity or to inspire life changing confidence in others. Pullman also writes in a terse, pared down prose, not unlike the gospels themselves, interspersed with the occasional sentence infused with question and meaning.
It is Christ, the shadowy figure who lurks unnoticed behind his brother, who absorbs Pullman the most. It is Christ’s emotions and thoughts that are most fully explored. I think there are two possible interpretations of the uneven presentation of the two brothers. Firstly, Pullman undoubtedly sees Christ (the Church and the Word) as the more complex character, carrying all the weight of history and ideology to come, upon his puny shoulders, whereas Jesus is, at that point, simply occupying a moment in time and history. As just a good man, Jesus needs less analysis.

However, another reading did occur, and that is that the reader is meant to feel they do not know Jesus as completely by the end of the novel as a tribute from the novelist to his figure and teaching which defies categories and analysis. Pullman’s depiction of Jesus has little piety. Jesus is a source of compassion, but he is also rebellious, indifferent, stubborn, mulish, impulsive, joyful, an unheeding maverick, a rambunctious child. I liked that, I really did.


  1. I loved Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy. It was absolutely brilliant, though hobbled, finally, by the atrophy of the very portion of the imagination which apprehends meaning, and therefor leads on to faith. I have a strong feeling I would find his latest book a bit tiresome. As my daughter says, "Atheists are so annoying."

  2. You know, I thought I would find it annoying or dull and I found neither. The prose style is hard to adjust to, totally different from "his dark materials" and I wasn't sure, at first, that I liked the way it used gospel phrasing and terseness. But I was fascinated by what he was trying to say in his deviations and adaptations from the gospel, and in the bits he left largely unchanged. Sometimes he changes just one small detail - and you have to think about why and what that says.

    I could easily write a 3,000 word essay or longer on this book. Luckily for you, I confined myself to the comments in my post:)

  3. Hi Sue,
    i'm a bit embarrassed writing this, because i left a message here last week and you haven't got back to me, and i don't know if that's because you don't want to reply or because i didn't post the message propery. anyway, i'll try again, just in case. i've got a new book coming out and i wondered if i could send you a proof copy, as it's your area? the book is here:

    let me know if you'd like me to send it, please, and if you'd rather i didn't ask again just send a quick e mail saying no. thanks, toby.

  4. Hi Toby,
    The message can't have posted properly. I would never disregard a message from you. I'd love a copy of your book - I'll email you privately :)