Posts Tagged ‘the Christian Church’

Philip Pullman: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

June 7, 2021

     For some reason, despite being a great admirer of Philip Pullman, I’d deliberately avoided this novel when it was published; a chance encounter with a pristine copy in a secondhand bookshop was an impulse buy…

Mary has twins in this version of the story: Jesus and Christ, which did feel like a very clumsy device. Jesus is the human Jesus we would probably recognise, Christ a background figure who at times overlaps with the Tempter/Satan figure, and who is initially manipulated by a mysterious stranger – some kind of angel – who encourages Christ to see the future potential of Jesus’ story and message, if only it is recorded and used correctly… you can see pretty early on where Pullman is going with this, and it’s not very subtle at all. He’s doing what many have done over the ages, exploring the contrast between the original Jesus and what Christianity has become over the centuries, while recognising that unravelling the deliberate obfuscations of the past is pretty impossible. And, as an avowed materialist, Pullman is having none of the miracles nonsense.

It’s a roman à thèse, didactic, what have you. Christ starts out following the stranger’s instructions faithfully to record Jesus’ sayings and actions but soon realises that he can embellish for a more effective future purpose. And yet Pullman is a very skilled and experienced novelist, and his Christ character is not as baldly presented as this: he does have a character of his own, doubts and concerns about what he’s been drawn into, feelings and weaknesses that are gradually revealed. But in the end he does what is asked of him, and allows the obvious fraud of the resurrection to be perpetrated – you saw this coming a mile off, after all.

You can see why traditional Christians either avoided this novel like the plague, or attacked it roundly. So, what was Pullman trying to achieve? Obviously, to rattle his readers, to make them question what they may long have accepted as ‘the truth’. There is the idea that realpolitik ruins everything: for Pullman, it elides Christ and Judas at times, and he dares to offer a slightly sympathetic picture of Caiaphas, too. And there is the recently translated Gospel of Judas, which dared to suggest that Judas’ betrayal was a necessary part of the entire Christian redemption story, and therefore offered a judgement of Judas rather different from the traditional one: that Gospel died almost without a trace, too.

Pullman is clear that two millennia later we have no chance of separating truth from invention, and that too much is invested in the ‘accepted’ narrative. His Afterword is very interesting, perhaps the most interesting part, reflecting on his own journey and his motivations. His Jesus, in the novel, is abandoned or ignored by any existing God the Father figure. I think we have to go back to the end of His Dark Materials, to the idea that we must get on, by ourselves, and build the Republic of Heaven here on Earth, for ourselves, etsi Deus non daretur (as if there were no god) as it has been succinctly put.

An interesting read, and a challenging one if you are a traditional Christian. But then, your faith is strong enough to stand up to challenge.

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