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Reviews

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Stephen Tomkins

Philip Pullman
Canongate, 245pp, ISBN 9781847678250

Pullman.jpgJesus, contemplating a preaching mission to proclaim the coming Kingdom of God goes into the desert for 40 days, and is tempted. Turn stones into bread to amaze the people. Convince them of your message by leaping off the temple into an angelic safety net. Bring about the Kingdom by being received as a godlike figure and establish a following that will last as an institution that will rule over kings.

The person talking to him is not Satan, but Christ.

It's a rather smart and striking idea. Since the 19th century, theologians have talked of the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, and Pullman rewrites the gospel story with them both as characters.

In the gospel according to Philip, the ex-virgin Mary has twin sons - the sickly, priggish, overindulged  Christ and the normal, naughty Jesus. Jesus is bowled over by John the Baptist and follows in his footsteps, preaching a message that you might find quite familiar.

Christ writes down his famous brother's sayings and doings, and is encouraged by a mysterious stranger to spin them for the good of the cause. But the cause is not Jesus's. Jesus does not want to rule but to teach. He does not want to bamboozle the masses with supposed miracles or to leave a powerful church, he just wants to get a hearing for what he has to say about the love of God and the way to live.

As Jesus becomes more popular,  the need and opportunity grow to make him more what he 'truly' is than he wants to be. Under the mysterious stranger's sinister guidance, Christ prepares the way for the greatest betrayal. Both of the brothers end up disillusioned with the paths they have taken, and the stage is set for the mysterious stranger to complete his evil machinations. Which I think it's safe say will involve some missionary journeys and letter writing.

I say 'mysterious stranger' as he remains conspicuously anonymous to the end, but frankly if he's a mystery to you after one page you will go down sadly in my estimation.
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It's certainly an original conceit, Jesus and his evil twin, but what Pullman does and says with it is familiar. It allows him to cut back the gospel story to the bits he can believe really happened, transferring the fanciful elaborations to Christ. Instead of miraculous healings we have stuff like: 'The man was so strengthened and inspired by the atmosphere Jesus had created, he found himself able to move'. And: 'Jesus took the chief steward aside… and soon afterwards the servants discovered more wine'. This reads as rather predictable, but worse, as dull and even implausible. Pullman is not stripping the gospel of myth but rewriting it with a liberal, humanist, naturalistic myth. And it's striking how cheap it then sounds. Pullman demonstrates that taking the impossibilities and offensiveness out of a story doesn't necessarily improve it. He is best known as an imaginative writer, but what he's offering us is a classic writing stripped of its imagination. Whether one believes in the gospel stories or not, at least they offer something worth believing in.  

The twin Messiahs idea also allows Pullman to divide the Gospel into the ­sheep and the goats. Jesus says the good things about God being our father, Christ makes him claim to be the Son of God. Jesus tells Peter off for calling him the Messiah, Christ makes him bless Peter for his insight and tell him he will build his church on him.

So, while the book is certainly anti-Christian, it is remarkably pro-Jesus. Readers unfamiliar with the original will hear a great deal of Jesus's message from the synoptic gospels, mediated only by Pullman's colloquialism, which often reads like the latest trendy youth translation. ('D'you want to know who they are? Here goes.' That's from the beatitudes.)

It is not even an anti-religious book. It hates the church, but offers us in Jesus and Christ two varieties of religion. The former is characterised by idealism, purity and fairness. It is ultimately mistaken, but its heart is better than its mind. The latter is characterised by manipulation, deceit and power, and is not so much mistaken as willfully wrong.

If the book is not as original or imaginative as I'd hoped there is enough here to challenge both defenders and attackers of the faith. Let Christians read Jesus's prayer in Gethsemane as a piercing lament for the chasm between him and his church: 
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'That any church set up in your name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest. That it should wield no authority but that of love. That it should never cast anyone out…' 

Steve Tomkins