July 2010

Adrienne So


The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

“So you're saying that Jesus staged the whole Christianity thing,” my boyfriend said, as I attempted to summarize the point of the noted fantasy author's latest work, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

“No,” I said. “I'm saying Christ did.”

“Oh, OK,” he said, understandably confused. “I thought you used the other name, last time.”

It's as difficult to divine the meaning behind Pullman's short parable as it is to keep the names Jesus and Christ straight. Most of us who grew up in the church aren't used to separating the two names, any more than we'd separate the peanut butter from the jelly in a sandwich. But Pullman is used to taking the known world and turning it upside down. Here, he turns his prodigious talents to upending the origins of the Christian faith.

In Pullman's conception of things, Mary actually had twins on that fateful night in Bethlehem -- the stronger one named Jesus and a weaker one, her favorite, named Christ. Pullman follows the two as they grow into very different men. Jesus is strong, quiet and calm, devoted to doing good works. He goes around the countryside doing pretty much the exact same things that we Christians have read about for thousands of years, with a small difference: God never speaks to him.

Nor is anything that Jesus does strictly a miracle. For example, the fish and loaves parable: In the traditional rendering, Jesus multiplied five loaves and two fishes in order to feed a multitude. As Pullman conceives of it, Jesus actually turned to his disciples and asked all of them to turn out their pockets. In addition to the fish and loaves, another man had a pocket full of raisins; another, a few dates. In this manner, no one went hungry. Common sense, certainly. A miracle? Not really.

That we remember these stories as miracles is due to the work of Christ, who spends years following his brother and recording his deeds. A stranger -- we're never sure precisely who it is, although Christ believes he's an angel -- begins appearing to Christ, telling him that he, too, has a role as the voice of God. Slowly but surely, Christ begins to “improve upon” the stories of Jesus, putting together the scripture that we have today. And finally, the stranger and Christ engineer Jesus's eventual betrayal and crucifixion, for the sake of putting together the church we have today.  

The body is spirited away in the middle of the night, and Christ appears to Jesus's followers as Jesus resurrected. Together, the tale of this “miracle,” along with Christ's massaging of Jesus's deeds, combine to form the beginnings of Christianity.

A hefty working knowledge of the Bible is a useful thing to have when reading this book. Nearly every chapter is a re-imagining of an actual tale from scripture -- it just takes a little while to recognize it. This former Catholic schoolgirl was able to remember perhaps one out of three stories, but I totally missed the fact that Christ's questioning of Jesus in the desert was actually the three questions with which Satan tried to tempt Jesus: First, to turn stones into bread; second, to throw himself off the roof of the temple like a stunt-performing Criss Angel to be saved by angels; and third, to rule over all the kingdoms of the world. I couldn't help it. Those questions sounded so reasonable, coming from Christ's mouth, and it was really hard for me to remember that those questions were evil.

And although Pullman's sympathies lie clearly with the beleaguered Jesus, trying to maintain his faith in a world and a people that don't deserve it most of the time, Christ is a stand-in for the rest of us -- who, if we're honest with ourselves, lean way more towards the tempted, conflicted and guilty side of things than the pure and virtuous ones. It would've been hard to be Jesus's brother. Jesus was good, simple, charismatic and principled, and also a really, really hard person to get along with if you weren't a prostitute, tax collector or leper.

Most people would find it hard to swallow the line that God's love is for everyone, not just the people who try the hardest to behave themselves. Small-hearted, mean-spirited Christ listens to Jesus's parables about loving the prostitutes and the sinners and the prodigal sons, at the expense of the well-behaved, rich ones, and part of him dies a little. So many of Jesus's stories seem unfair and arbitrary and the part of us that's small-hearted and mean-spirited is more than a little resentful. Why is Jacob the favored son? Why does Abel get to be so lucky? Just smile and hug your brother and be happy for him, says Jesus, when most of us would just want to kick him.

By writing a story wherein Jesus is a man, not necessarily the Son of God, Pullman reminds us how hard it would've been to listen to him, and how cleverly evil disguises itself as good intentions. Much like the villains in Pullman's His Dark Materials, Christ finds himself the willing, if misguided, agent of men who want to kill his brother for their own purposes. Unlike charmed Jesus, Christ cries and is wracked by guilt; his purse is stolen by a homeless man that he tries to help, and sleeps with a sick prostitute whom he can't heal. He fancies himself tortured by these petty indignities, and it never occurs to him that Jesus would've given all his money to the homeless man before he could even ask.

Unfortunately, there are no armored polar bears or intrepid daughters to intervene and set things right for Jesus. We all know the ending. Jesus dies, and his story is hijacked and massaged by Christ in order to create an institution in Jesus's name that Jesus himself predicted -- rightly -- would be all too prone to abusing its power. The horrible, horrible irony of it all.

And the further irony that, as Christ himself says, without the people who manipulated and murdered him, the story of Jesus would've been entirely forgotten. For all his flaws, and all his sins, Christ believes that the church can be a tool for good, as well as the weapon of zealots -- it just takes a little lying and murder to get there. And that's where the primary confusion about The Good Man Jesus comes in. Do we need the church, or not? Did Christ betray Jesus for worthy reasons, or not?

In the end, The Good Man Jesus may be less about Christianity than about how truth becomes stories and stories eventually become gospel. In our age of Internet information overload, we are perhaps more aware than other generations of how the truth changes in between its occurrence and our recording of it. This is a more fun question to think about than the question of whether the church is worth it or not, since any resolution on that issue is unlikely. Once again, Pullman leaves his readers with plenty of food for thought.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman
ISBN: 080212996X
256 Pages