Friday, June 7, 2013

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, by Philip Pullman

Although my willpower was adequate to postpone the delights of the second volume in the His Dark Materials trilogy, it could not stop me reaching for another Philip Pullman novel.

Over the last few years, I've re-read the four canonical gospels for the first time since my childhood, when I rebelled angrily against exclusionary teachings of the Roman Catholic catechism and the Church's insistence that I accept as historic fact supernatural details which are barely workable as metaphors.  A few years ago, a friend remarked how exquisite she found the Gospel of Matthew, and so I turned to it as a work of literature.  My friend was right -- the King James version is an especially beautiful book.  I was stunned by two things in particular:  the number of New Testament phrases that have become fixtures in our present-day English language, and how much I liked Jesus.

He preached tolerance for those of other faiths. He advocated poverty, humility and meekness. He condemned lust for power and control over others. He suggested that punishment for the wicked was a job for those who have no sins of their own on the books. He recommended praying privately, not making a public and ostentatious show of one's piety. He treated women with respect and compassion.

Time and time again, I read and admired Jesus' teachings and then wondered, so how did we get from this to  churches (of all Christian denominations) that proclaim who will and will not gain entry into heaven; that loudly, violently and even fatally condemn sinners; that are rolling in unimaginable (and untaxed) wealth... ?

And in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Philip Pullman concocts a fable that could well explain the discrepancies between the Christ and Christianity.  In his version, Mary gives birth (quite the normal way) to twins, whom she names Jesus and Christ.  As small children, Jesus is the more typical, always getting into scrapes, while Christ is the obedient, devout little tot.  As adults, however, it is Jesus who becomes the great prophet and teacher, attracting a huge following and ruffling the feathers of the Romans and Jews.

In his version of Luke 4:24, Pullman's Jesus has the nerve to suggest that simply bearing a certain title or belonging to a given group might not guarantee salvation. God's "chosen people"?  They are the good people, and they might not even be one of our clique.
When has a prophet ever been honoured in his home town? Consider this, if you think you deserve miracles because of who you are: when there was a famine in the land of Israel, and no rain fell for three years, whom did the prophet Elijah help, by God's command? An Israelite widow? No, a widow from Zarephath in Sidon. A foreigner. And again, were there lepers in the land of Israel in Elisha's time? There were many. And whom did he cure? Naaman the Syrian. You think being what you are is enough? You'd better start considering what you do.'
Meanwhile, Jesus' twin, Christ, begins following the crowd from place to place and writing down his brother's speeches just for posterity.  Soon a mysterious character approaches him and encourages him to continue in this effort and better yet, enhance the texts.  Miracles are, after all, great PR and so memorable!

The stranger (angel? devil?) is concerned that Jesus is likely to run into trouble with the authorities, and unless the chronicle is spiced up a bit, he'll be forgotten as soon as he's dead and buried.  (And wouldn't a resurrection be a nice touch?)
In helping me, you are helping to write that history. But there is more, and this is not for everyone to know: in writing about what has gone past, we help to shape what will come. There are dark days approaching, turbulent times; if the way to the Kingdom of God is to be opened, we who know must be prepared to make history the handmaid of posterity and not its governor. What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom than what was. I am sure you understand me.'
The Jewish priests, of course, find Jesus' teachings enormously disruptive.  First, they're shaking up the status quo, including their assumption that they are the chosen race and needn't fuss too much about entry to the Kingdom of God.  Second, Jesus and his hangers-on could be perceived as the beginning of a revolt against the Roman occupation, and that would likely result in a blood bath. With wonderful wit, Pullman reveals the historic realities of the period -- the priests knew that Jesus was a political liability, even as he preached obedience to a power higher than Rome.
'I don't understand what he wants. If we offered him a high position here, would he accept that and keep quiet?'
'He preaches the coming of the Kingdom of God. I don't think he could be bought off with a salary and a comfortable office.'
Meanwhile, the stranger continues to advise Christ as he records the speeches and events. A celestial editor, so to speak. He points out the need to be pragmatic. People are for the most part weak and stupid. It's best to give them sound-bites and rules, lots of rules.  A church will keep everything on the rails.
Perfection does not belong here; we can only have an image of perfection. Jesus, in his purity, is asking too much of people. We know they're not perfect, as he wishes them to be; we have to adjust ourselves to what they are. You see, the true Kingdom would blind human beings like the sun, but they need an image of it all the same. And that is what the church will be.
In his agony in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus imagines what this 'church' idea might come to and prays to God that if such a thing does come to pass, that it be an institution of compassion. For everyone who has ever raged against one Christian church or another, this passage reads like a bitter cup, indeed.
Was my brother right when he talked of this great organisation, this church of his that was going to serve as the vehicle for the Kingdom on earth? No, he was wrong, he was wrong. My whole heart and mind and body revolted against that. They still do. Because I can see just what would happen if that kind of thing came about. The devil would rub his hands with glee. As soon as men who believe they're doing God's will get hold of power, whether it's in a household or a village or in Jerusalem or in Rome itself, the devil enters into them. It isn't long before they start drawing up lists of punishments for all kinds of innocent activities, sentencing people to be flogged or stoned in the name of God for wearing this or eating that or believing the other. And the privileged ones will build great palaces and temples to strut around in, and levy taxes on the poor to pay for their luxuries; and they'll start keeping the very scriptures secret, saying there are some truths too holy to be revealed to the ordinary people, so that only the priests' interpretation will be allowed, and they'll torture and kill anyone who wants to make the word of God clear and plain to all; and with every day that passes they'll become more and more fearful, because the more power they have the less they'll trust anyone, so they'll have spies and betrayals and denunciations and secret tribunals, and put the poor harmless heretics they flush out to horrible public deaths, to terrify the rest into obedience. And from time to time, to distract the people from their miseries and fire them with anger against someone else, the governors of this church will declare that such-and-such a nation or such-and-such a people is evil and ought to be destroyed, and they'll gather great armies and set off to kill and burn and loot and rape and plunder, and they'll raise their standard over the smoking ruins of what was once a fair and prosperous land and declare that God's Kingdom is so much the larger and more magnificent as a result.

'Lord, if I thought you were listening, I'd pray for this above all: that any church set up in your name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest. That it should wield no authority except that of love. That it should never cast anyone out. That it should own no property and make no laws. That it should not condemn, but only forgive. That it should be not like a palace with marble walls and polished floors, and guards standing at the door, but like a tree with its roots deep in the soil, that shelters every kind of bird and beast and gives blossom in the spring and shade in the hot sun and fruit in the season, and in time gives up its good sound wood for the carpenter; but that sheds many thousands of seeds so that new trees can grow in its place. Does the tree say to the sparrow, "Get out, you don't belong here?" Does the tree say to the hungry man, "This fruit is not for you?" Does the tree test the loyalty of the beasts before it allows them into the shade?'
So, we wonder, were Christ and his advisor correct? If they had not jazzed up the gospels with miracles and established a church hierarchy to maintain them, would Jesus have been completely forgotten within a few years of his death, just another self-proclaimed prophet, come and gone?  The stranger, visiting the now elderly Christ (and helping himself very liberally to the bread and wine sitting on his table) suggests that their actions were justified. Before he vanishes, he asks one last chilling and provocative question.
But which is better,' said the stranger, breaking off some more bread, 'to aim for absolute purity and fail altogether, or to compromise and succeed a little?'


  1. What a clever allegory on Christ and Christianity! I would have expected something like this from Neil Gaiman, not Philip Pullman.

    1. A radical departure from Northern Lights, but very thought-provoking. I think it applies equally well to all religions which have strayed far from their original teachings. It's an excellent reminder, I think, for all those who would throw the religion out the door, to go back to the essentials, go back to the original texts. Go back to what inspired people so much at the start.


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