The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ
Blasphemy usually makes for powerful politics. Rarely does an anti-idea serve to fuel a powerful novel. And yet, as you read Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ, you realise that this slim book is not a countercultural display of fatwa-inviting heresy but a quiet, impassioned psychological novella. Based on the New Testament, Pullman’s story of the lives of two brothers has the austere beauty of Christian icons rather than the chutzpah of a Monty Python send-up.
“It’s a name and a title,” says Pullman from his London home. “Jesus and Christ (Greek for ‘saviour’). I was dramatising this difference and made two characters out of the one we know of." He admits it’s an indictment of “those who follow the externals of faith”.
Three or four years ago, he had the idea sloshing in his head of writing about the “transcribers” of the teachings of Jesus Christ, those who took a philosophy and turned it into an organisation.” I had the idea and let it mature in my head. Then in 2003, I was in conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury. He told me that he knew what I thought of religion from my earlier books (His Dark Materials trilogy), but he was curious about what I thought of Jesus. That got me going.”
The Good Man Jesus... shares the same structure as the gospels. Except, as the opening line says, “This is the story of Jesus and his brother Christ, of how they were born, of how they lived and how one of them died.” And then comes the single-whammy: “The death of the other is not part of the story.”
The story resembles a physics experiment where the ‘Christ story’ breaks out into another branch with smaller branches that serve as details. We learn that Mary and Joseph have twins and that Jesus shows ‘humanist’ qualities while Christ is the righteous ‘Sudama-type’’ good child. As the Gospel of Philip (Pullman) has it: “The little boy was so modest and thoughtful, not a bit like his brother. But the children of the town preferred Jesus.”
In a pivotal scene, we realise the trajectories taken by the twins. Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do people say I am?” They name various prophets while Peter says he’s the ‘Messiah’. “Is that what you think? ...Well, you’d better hold your tongue about it. I don’t want to hear that sort of talk, you understand?" (Aside: why can’t Rahul Gandhi upbraid cretinous Congressman like that?)
But it is his brother, Christ, who’s recording everything for a Greek stranger. You wonder initially whether this is Satan — but as you proceed you realise it’s the Church — who starts editing the part where Jesus praised Peter for “seeing something that only his Father in heaven could have revealed”. Christ trembles and wonders whether he’s being “presumptuous to make ;Jesus express the thoughts that he himself had put to his brother".
The subject of The Good Jesus... is this ‘presumption’ and the bowdlerisation of a humanist philosophy. Written in a startlingly spare style, Pullman points to Scottish folktales and ballads as a model. He’s clear about his atheism. “I hope my characters deal with a strong moral compass. But the physical, the natural has an incredible beauty. I don’t need religion; I find ‘it’ in the material world,” says the writer who grew up as a Christian but describes himself now as a “cultural Christian”.
Which doesn’t make him blind to the Bible’s aesthetic value. The King James 1616 Bible is the only great work of literature I can think of that came about from of a committee.” Pullman also understands the solace religion brings to believers. Is he expecting ‘the usual suspects’ to rail against ...The Scoundrel Christ? “It’ll happen. But liberal Christians, I hope, will be propelled to go back to the primary texts."
One realises after closing this slim book that Pullman has written a novella about organised lying and its power structure. Through two blokes.