The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ had me re-reading the Bible
Philip Pullman’s new book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, is published on Wednesday by Canongate. There will doubtless be a little furore (Canongate enjoys the odd bout of fisticuffs), since the work posits Jesus having a dark and troubled (yet extremely human) twin brother, Christ. In his story, Jesus is a charismatic millennial teacher, convinced that God’s Kingdom will arrive in his lifetime. Christ, by contrast, is a calculating, complex, bookish manipulator who accepts that a church, a structure, and a bureaucracy are necessary in order to harness the tremendous power of Jesus’ teaching. Anyone who’s read the His Dark Materials books will know what Pullman thinks of the church – that despite all the good it has done, it is corrupt, corrupting and sometimes murderous. The Good Man Jesus is consistent with the point of view of those previous books (I even note the use of the word oblation at one point – you’ll remember the General Oblation Board, or the Gobblers, who come for Lyra in Northern Lights). There’s also a magnificent meditation on what I’d call Pullmanian cosmology, put into the mouth of Jesus, who says:
I’m part of the world, and I love every grain of sand and blade of grass and drop of blood in it. There might as well not be anything else, because these things are enough to gladden the heart and calm the spirit; and we know they delight the body. Body and spirit… is there a difference? Where does one end and the other begin? Aren’t they the same thing?
The Good Man Jesus is a fascinating story, told in the same kind of spare, lapidary prose as the Gospels themselves or a Grimm brothers fairytale. Pullman’s gift for storytelling is in evidence on every page. For what it’s worth, in case any Christians are out there pulsating with rage already, in the same way that His Dark Materials made me pick up Blake and Milton (two of his poetic sources), The Good Man Christ has sent me rushing back to the Gospels. I read Matthew over my lunchtime soup, ready to see with new eyes these fascinating and often startling documents.