Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ is Philip Pullman’s retelling of the story of the life of Jesus. He doesn’t actually change much in the story of Jesus’ life, but by the addition of a twin brother (Christ), from whose viewpoint his book is written, puts a different perspective on the story.

Jesus and Christ are very different from the moment of their birth. Jesus is outgoing and headstrong and often in trouble, whereas Christ is quiet and introverted and is often found getting the young Jesus out of trouble. Their differences run over into their theological beliefs and here they really are at odds. Christ believes in the ultimate power of an all encompassing church

“Groups of families worshipping together with a priest in every village and town, an association of local groups under the direction and guidance of a wise elder in the region, the regional elders all answering to the authority of one supreme director, a kind of regent of God on earth”

And Jesus’ reply to this is a pretty conclusive rebuke

“What you describe sounds like the work of Satan. God will bring about his kingdom in his own way, and when he chooses.”

Jesus’ life follows the path we all know so well from biblical stories, but with some clever twists on the miraculous events that define his life. The book is scattered with common stories from the bible, but their miraculous nature is called into question by Christ’s running commentary on these events. For Jesus’ life is chronicled by Christ, who after tempting him to turn stones to bread in the wilderness (sound familiar), observes Jesus’ preaching from a distance. Other familiar stories include the lame man who got up and walked, only to lie down again as soon as he realised he had lost his living, the steward persuaded to find the wine he had hidden at the wedding, and Jesus persuading the 5000 to share whatever food they had so everybody could eat, including his loaves and fishes!

Christ doesn’t write the events down exactly as they happen though. Jesus’ words are manipulated by Christ, and with the assistance of a mysterious stranger, whom Christ meets periodically to pass over is writings. Between them, these two concoct a plan to create the bigger truth from the actual history, with the ultimate aim of creating a church based around Jesus’ teachings, but bigger and better, representing the kingdom of god on earth.

“There is time, and there is what is beyond time. History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting the truth into history. You are the word of God”

This book is re-telling a story, and it’s emphasis is on stories, and on how the way stories can be used to change and even control the way people think. As well as the events in Jesus’ life, many of his parables are included and the style of this book is very like a parable. I love the way this book spends a lot of time re-telling Jesus’ parables to express what the author believes to be Jesus’ message, and is in itself a parable on how stories should be read simply as stories, with the meaning to be drawn out, not taken as gospel truth. (I just felt the need to use that phrase!)

It is an interesting take on the story, with Jesus being used to create the very church he had already stated he despised. His compassion for the poor, weak and abused is emphasised heavily in this book, and organised religion takes a fairly substantial battering here. Using the knowledge of the abuse of power that has been perpetrated by the Christian church throughout history, Pullman puts prophetic words into Jesus’ mouth in a couple of long monologues towards the end of the book. The point is simple enough, reduced to its most basic, it would be institutionalised religion is bad and equates to a few people with power having excessive control over the many. At no point is faith or belief called into question though. And somehow, the end managed to have a twist, difficult for a story we all know the ending to. It was a good story, with a lot of things to think about, and definitely a novel take on the well documented idea that biblical stories really are just that, stories.


anothercookiecrumbles said...

I really wanted to read this book when I first heard of it. I love Philip Pullman's Dark Materials, and just for that, i thought this is worth reading - still waiting for the paperback though.

I do agree - institutionalised religion is bad, and causes more problems than it supposedly fixes. Your thoughts on the book does make me want to read it a little bit more...

PS : apparently, there were loads of anti-Church references in the His Dark Materials trilogy. Have you read the trilogy? Did you notice any, because I can't say that I did...

Jessica said...

Im reading this next month after buying it when it first came out and then left it sitting on my shelf for quite a while.

I notice your also reading the White Tiger, I read this a couple of weeks ago so Ill be interested to see what you think.

Jo said...

Anothercookiecrumbles, I've heard that about His Dark Materials too. I haven't read them yet.I keep intending to. My son has to read the first one before the end of the summer though and realy doesn't want to, so I've said I'l read it with him.

Jessica, I hope you enjoy it when you do read it.
I finished The White Tiger and still trying to decide what I think. Not sure I iked it as much as I expeced to.

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