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

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman made his name with the His Dark Materials series of kid lit. That series is, for me, among the best of the kid lit genre, if not the entirety of literature. He gets so much heart and so many ideas out of a really interesting idea. It did, however, inspire a lot of controversy among those in the religious community. In Pullman’s follow-up book he doesn’t shy away from that controversy. He full on embraces it.

TGMJatSC (which is a long title even when abbreviated!) is a retelling of the story of Jesus with a couple of twists thrown in, the most important of which is Jesus’ twin brother, Christ. Jesus follows his path as we know it and his brother follows him around to record his deeds. But he doesn’t just record the “history”, he records the “truth”. For example, the “feeding the multitude” story is really Jesus’ generosity and hospitality inspiring the rest of the crowd to share their food, thus multiplying the food in a figurative sense if not a miraculous one. It is only in the recording of this story by Christ that the miracle appears fully formed so that Jesus literally feeds thousands of people with only a few fish and loaves of bread.

The idea that Pullman is getting at throughout this book is that Jesus never wanted an entire religion and church to be built around him. During his forty days in the wilderness it’s not the Devil but Christ who comes and tempts him with the idea of fame and everlasting reverence. When Jesus rejects this Christ is approached by an “angel” – who is never identified but might be a certain fallen one – and is set the task of following Jesus around and recording not what happened but what should have happened. He’s making a story here and he is free to warp and exaggerate what Jesus does and say in order to later use him as the foundation of Christianity. This can be best seen in the Sermon on the Mount segment (and they really are segments. Pullman writes the book as if it were one of the books of the Bible and his short chapters with clipped writing do well to get the reader in the feel of those books.) where Jesus uses phrases like “yakkety yak” and “blah blah blah” with Christ resolving to edit them later to seem more Messiah-worthy.

This book is short (I read it in a couple of hours) and the ideas presented within are really interesting to consider. A religious person will get as much out of it as a non-religious person because the story of Christ writing “truth” instead of “history” can be expanded to the act of storytelling in general. Late last year and continuing into this one there has been a lot of talk about The Social Network, a film that has dubious ties to reality but tells a compelling story. Here Pullman argues that it’s not the thing that happened which matters but what it means and what we can learn from it. This book shows us what “actually happened” and our collective knowledge tells us the “truth” of the situation. As the great John Ford film says, “When fact becomes legend, print the legend.”

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