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Friday 9 April 2010

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

When I first heard of this book, the idea that came to mind was that this could be some sort of split-personality Jesus, a man torn two ways, maybe even a Jekel and Hyde, of whom we have until now only been told the good bits. I was wrong. I could not have been more wrong. This is a book with what for some will be a shocking conceit. It is that Mary gave birth, not just to Jesus, but to the twin boys, Jesus and Christ. Jesus is the Jesus that we know from the Gospels. Christ is a nickname, a tag for his brother who was forever in Jesus's face, thwarting him at every opportunity - or at the very least, representing a world view which is the very antithesis of everything that Jesus preaches.

And if you find the above scenario scandalous, there is more that might be found upsetting: the Annunciation by the Angel to Mary, telling her that she would conceive and bring forth the Saviour of mankind, was a seduction. Worse: in this version of the Gospel story, Jesus does actually die. The business of Him rising again was staged. It was His twin brother Christ who was pressed into service to play the part of the Risen Lord. So you might expect that the Anglican primate of all England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, would not think too highly of this book, on account of its theology. And you'd be correct. Reading between the lines, he doesn't think anything of its theology. It's theology stinks. Yet he commends the book for what its author, Philip Pullman, has achieved in the figure of Jesus. Dr Williams considers him a figure of great spiritual authority. He makes one other point, too, which I confess had escaped me, but is maybe very telling: that the figure of Christ is in fact the figure of Thomas the Doubter. This, as he points out, is never stated in the text, and yet it makes a lot of sense and things do seem to fall into place, emotionally at least - or did for me - once that connection is made.

But leaving that small issue aside, some support is needed, I think, for the contention that the book's Jesus is a figure of great spiritual authority. So back to one who should be able to recognise that attribute when he meets it, Dr Williams again. Among his reasons for so thinking is the account of Jesus's meeting in the synagogue with a man possessed by a devil. In the Gospel account Jesus orders the demon to be silent and come out of him. In the book Jesus addresses, not the demon, but the patient: You can be quiet now. He's gone away. Time to confess, I think: I have used Dr Williams as a witness on the book's behalf, and so he has been, but he is not an unbiased witness in that it was he who prompted Pullman to write it in the first place. Pullman had written about God, but not about Jesus. And Dr Williams asked him why not.

Having hit upon this conceit, that Mary gave birth, not to one child, but to twins, Pullman gives us a chalk and cheese pair. Jesus is the extrovert, always playing up and getting into mischief, Christ is the thinker, the introvert, who time and again gets Jesus out of the trouble he's in. Perhaps not the way round that you might have supposed, but it accords well with everyday experience.

You may know Pullman as the author of The Dark Materials and there is an echo of this in the book's Garden of Gethsemane. This is in large part a long soliloquy by Jesus and is quite unlike any other passage in the book. Jesus is out on his own, there is no answer from Heaven and He is expecting none. Nothing is to be found there. It is a shock that the book does nothing to soften. Jesus having accepted complete responsibility for man's sin and redemption is stuck with it. There is nowhere else to turn. He has Himself made it so.

To that extent the story reminds me very much of Albert Schweitzer's book on The Quest of The Historical Jesus. There are differences. Schweitzer believed, as Pullman seems to, that Jesus was not born The Son of God, not given a divine mandate from birth, but that the role was one he eventually and reluctantly came to accept for himself, the role, in fact, of the Jews' Saving Remnant. First the Jewish race was to achieve man's salvation by its exemplary life and worship, but it proved unworthy and the mantle fell to one tribe. That tribe, too, proved itself unworthy. In time the role fell to the thirteen - Jesus and his disciples. When they proved themselves equally unworthy Jesus took the whole responsibility upon His own shoulders. Schweitzer's book made a profound impression on me as a boy. One difference is that Schweitzer believed Jesus was trying to force God's hand. Pullman, who wears his learning lightly and tells a cracking good tale, seems to think that Jesus did what he did from a state of despair, his belief that God could do nothing.

But if that is the main thrust of the story - the Gospel story retold as it might have been written today - there is at least one other thread: it is a meditation on the nature of truth, myth, falsehood and story-telling. Furthermore it's a cracking good tale. There is a hurdle for some Christians to get over - fundamentalists need not try - but there is much to be gained in the attempt.

Haiku #109

Sack him, he'll write books,
a lot of them - Gordon Brown.
(Promise? Or a threat?)


Carl said...

Well I am off to the bookstore asap. Thanks for the review.


@ctors Business said...

Seonded Carl, too will now hot tail it to the bookstore.

Unknown said...

Hi Dave,

I have never read any book of this sort and I marvel that you read Schweitzer's book "as a boy". I'm sure it would have gone over my head! Your account of Pullman's book, however, makes it sound far more accessible.

Jim Murdoch said...

I saw Pullman interviewed on The Book Show yesterday and I either missed the whole twin thing or it was never made clear. I think it’s a novel approach. I was reminded of Dennis Potter’s play Son of Man which – surprisingly – met with little controversy or resistance at the time (1969). There was far more furore of Monty Python's Life of Brian which I never understood. I don’t see too much fuss being made about this. Maybe in America's Bible Belt.

Eliyahu said...

Can you also read dollar signs jumping on the "historical Jzesus" bandwagon. The best read is documented history of the Torah observant Jew, Ribi Yehoshua ben Yoseph and how to be his follower. Ever read Oxford scholar James Parkes, "The Conflict of the Church and Synagogue?" Reveals the real history of the so-called church of the 1st century. www.netzarim.co.il

Kass said...

Gordon Brown Has Twin!
newspapers reveal today.
He will save England.

Linda Sue said...

Jesus, the foder
For literary cannons
to shoot sanity...dead.

Holy Blood Holy Grail comes to mind also. An iffy historical account of the political set up of this guy named jesus...BUT the authors actually challenge readers to check it out themselves, with maps and "evidence" scattered over Europe.Grains of salt- no body knows anything when it comes to this Jesus guy really, so conceits are up for grabs.

Ronda Laveen said...

Okay, you hooked me. Fish on.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

I think I'll look for this book.
I really enjoyed your last two haikus. In the last the name Gordon Brown could be also substituted with many others, one at a time of course.
And for me their writing books would be a threat.

In the one before the last, in my country I went to vote and I am one of many millions whose votes didn't count, or did they? In any case the feeling is by all means of NOT counting, exactly.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

I think I'll look for this book.
I really enjoyed your last two haikus. In the last the name Gordon Brown could be also substituted with many others, one at a time of course.
And for me their writing books would be a threat.

In the one before the last, in my country I went to vote and I am one of many millions whose votes didn't count, or did they? In any case the feeling is by all means of NOT counting, exactly.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful commentary, Dave. My idea is that the Rapture's already occurred, and we're what's left. If you take a cynical view on things as I do, it explains a lot.

Dave King said...


Enjoy also!

Ah, I read a lot of books in my youth that I didn't properly understand at the time!
And maybe I should have said youth, not boy. (We grew up more slowly in those days!) I guess I was halfway through Grammar School when I read it, and however short my understanding of it, I have never forgotten it. It's basic philosophy still haunts me - as does a great deal about Schweitzer, though I cannot claim to have read him since

I can see the echoes of Potter's Son of Man, an d I am with you on M onty Python's Life of B rian . I didn 't understand that either. I thought Pullman's Annunciation scene seduction and his explaining away of the Ressurection might cause a little consternation .

First of all, a very warm welcome to my blog and many thanks for your comments. I'm afraid I have n ev er read "The Conflict of the Church and Synagogue?", but I shall be goling to the link to have a look before very long. Thanks again .

Twin of Gordon Brown
deserts to Tory party
in return for tweets.

Linda Sue
Christ, a bov ver boy,
climbs on brother's band wagon,
praising B.N .P.

Not meant as an historical account. I should hav e made it clearer maybe - strictly a novel.

My best catch yet!

Thanks for that. The comments are much appreciated. En joy the book if you decide to go for it.

Philoctetes Digressius
Neat theory that. Deserves a bit of thought. I think I see an arguament for it.

Dianne said...

I think the clergy know more than they let on, about the man and the doubt.

have a great weekend,

Andy Sewina said...

Hi Dave, I enjoyed reading this review, thank you!