Tuesday, August 10, 2010

#32: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Philip Pullman's provocatively titled The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is but one member of a collection of books known as The Myths Series. According to the blurb at the back of the book, this compilation "brings together some of the world's finest writers, each of whom has retold a myth in a contemporary and memorable way." Pullman is the author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, which includes Northern Lights, also known as The Golden Compass or the atheist rebuttal to The Chronicles of Narnia. I'm not sure whether this qualifies him as a card-carrying member of the World's Finest Writers Club; but if The New York Times can laud John Grisham as "about as good a storyteller as we've got in the United States these days," I suppose it is only fair for Pullman to have his moment in the sun too.

Of course, he earns his adulation a bit differently than the author of legal thrillers. Where Grisham imbues his characters with deeply held notions, often religiously invoked, of justice and individual responsibility, Pullman veers instead towards iconoclasm, tolerating Jesus the human while lamenting the Christianity he spawned. If you're looking for groundbreaking material, you've come to the wrong place; this idea has been raised countless times before, not least of all in the thought-provoking (if a bit repetitive) biography Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road, by the estimable clergyman Paul-Gordon Chandler.

It is admittedly a bit rarer to find this emotional juxtaposition expressed in such unabashedly heretical terms. Jesus and Christ as twin brothers? In Pullman's deftly weaved universe, the former was a natural-born rebel from childhood, "getting into mischief, stealing fruit, shouting out rude names and running away, picking fights, throwing stones, daubing mud on house walls, [and] catching sparrows;" Christ, meanwhile, "clung to his mother's skirts and spent hours in reading and prayer."

As he approaches adulthood, Pullman's Jesus gradually takes the comforting form familiar to Sunday school conceptualizations. However, Christ, who -- at the urging of a mysterious Greek stranger -- takes on the thankless role of Jesus' stenographer, soon finds some aspects of Christ's teachings troubling and others pedestrian. To remedy the first ailment, Christ resorts to historical revisionism, heeding the Orwellian words of his Greek mentor: "History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history."

The second problem was a bit thornier. Recognizing the value of organization, Christ attempts to persuade his brother to embrace something resembling a formal movement. Jesus rebuffs him, however, preferring his spontaneous charisma to what he perceives as the stolidity of an intellectual bureaucracy. Fortuitously, the approval of Christ's enigmatic tutor allows for a bit of creative license. Thus, when Jesus scolds Peter for his belief in him as the Messiah, Christ writes instead that "Jesus had praised [Peter] for seeing something that only his Father in heaven could have revealed, and that he had gone on to make a pun on Peter's name, saying that he was the rock on which Jesus would build his church." (The Catholic Church should be duly horrified.)

As Christopher Hitchens notes in his review in The New York Times, Pullman is attempting to make explicit the divorce of Christianity from its roots. But the end result reads a bit like tracing the cause of a marital infidelity back to the couple's lack of a Foreman grill. Christ, at times, substitutes for the devil, a journalist, and, weirdly, Judas Iscariot; in none of these roles does he truly take on any symbolic meaning. Philip Pullman has found and refashioned his myth of choice, with the primary corollary of further clouding Christ's position within an already complex historical tradition.

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