Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ got some attention when a man heckled Pullman over the offensiveness of the book’s title and Pullman came back with a principled defense of freedom of speech and attack on the presumed freedom from offense, which is common in discussions concerning religious topics, though the reactions of some religious devotees are harsher than those of others.
Since I read and liked Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy when I was a bit younger, I thought I’d try this one out. It turned out to be a pleasant read, though it should be noted that it isn’t especially long. I was easily able to read the 219 pages of large typeface text in one night.
The book is of course written with some of the biases of the author, who is an atheist, and like His Dark Materials, it is peppered with criticisms of the Church and its philosophy. It should be read with at least a moderate understanding of the Gospel scripture, as the story is entirely based on the story told in the Gospels and there are multiple allusions to verses that aren’t often covered in the quick gloss of Jesus’ life that most Christian have heard. So, before you read the book, I will suggest having read the Gospels.
Pullman’s summary of intent is on the back cover of the book:
The story I tell comes out of the tension within the dual nature of Jesus Christ, but what I do with it is my responsibility alone. Parts of it read like a novel, parts like a history, and parts like a fair tale; I wanted it to be like that because it is, among other things, a story about how stories become stories.
—HEREIN LIE SPOILERS—
Pullman’s means of teasing out this “dual nature of Jesus Christ” is to separate him into twin brothers, conveniently named Jesus and Christ. In many ways, the story told in this book mirrors that of His Dark Materials in that while the story is obviously heretical, it still accepts certain religious premises that are not held by Pullman.
Most of the story is told from the perspective of Christ, who admires the actions of his brother from a distance and in the process plays the roles of Satan during Jesus’ stay in the wilderness, the faithful son in the parable of the prodigal son, Judas while in Jerusalem, finally doubling as his brother to convince the disciples of Jesus’ resurrection all cleverly fitting into the story of the Gospel.
As Pullman suggested in his summary of intent, the story centers around the writing of the gospel, which is Christ’s main role. He serves as the writer who is at times faithful to the proper version of events and sometimes decides to change the story to fit more with his personal views, which are in favor of the creation of a universal church to bring forth the Kingdom of God.
This activity is encouraged by a mysterious stranger who moves Christ from his original vision of a Church to bring forth the Kingdom of Heaven to. The stranger’s identity is never revealed, though Christ and different times speculates him to be a Jewish scholar, a Greek, an angel, and at one point the stranger denies being Satan, though a case could easily be made for that as well.
Jesus is strongly contrasted with his brother. He is more gregarious, less scholarly, and more strong-willed than his brother and he sees the Kingdom of God as being at hand rather than something to be brought into existence through human institutions like his brother. Pullman emphasizes Jesus’ Jewish identity both as he uses Gentiles as a foil for improper behavior in the Sermon on the Mount and through the story of the gentile woman who wanted her son to be healed in contrast to his brother’s desire of a universal faith.
In the end, despite the title, Jesus is not altogether sympathetic nor Christ altogether unsympathetic. Both are complex characters acting according to differing principles. Their actions are guided by their personalities and how they each see the world. While ultimately Christ causes the most harm, his approach has some merits, and Jesus’ has some flaws.
There was a part that I found grating when Pullman turned Jesus’ monologue to God in the Garden at Gethsemane into a meditation on Psalm 14:1 that explored doubt in God’s existence, his benevolence, and even culminated in a rejection of dualism. It was not so much that the doubt was out of character but that it was framed in the concerns of modern atheists, not those of a spiritual teacher losing his faith.
It was not the only time that anachronistic concerns crept into the story. Much of the book was directed in criticism of the Catholic Church, so there were even at times veiled references to the current abuse scandals wracking the Church. However, many of these critiques were made more subtly than in Jesus’ monologue at Gethsemane and fit well into the story.
Overall, I’d say that the story was an entertaining and thought provoking spin on the story of the Gospels. Ultimately, I’d say that this book has a bit of niche market. As it was written by an atheist as a critique of the Church and Christianity more broadly, atheists and non-Christians will probably find it the most ideologically comforting. However, it requires some knowledge of Christian mythology as well as an interest in some of the details of religious doctrine, so probably won’t interest those who haven’t had significant exposure to Christian teachings.