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Review: The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ

Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers, but it’s not really a book you expect to be surprised by. Saying Jesus dies at the end of it isn’t really a spoiler.

Every story has degrees of facts in it, however much for a far cry it may seem, because facts are the only points of reference we have. Religious scriptures are among some of the oldest stories, and possibly none of these are more famous than the Christian Bible.

The New Testament’s most prominent books are The Gospels, four books that describe the life of Jesus Christ. Atheists will no doubt regard these books as pure fiction, but it’s undeniable that while the miracles taught by the Gospels might be the work of fiction, it’s entirely possible that two thousand years ago, a preacher named Jesus existed, and rallied people in the name of God, before stepping on some political toes and getting executed by the Romans in the fashion of the time.

This is the pre-tense on which Phillip Pullman’s new book, The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ, is based on. This book forms the newest addition to The Myths series, published by Canongate, a set of books by celebrated authors aimed at taking an old Myth and re-writing it in a contemporary fashion.

Having been written during the first three centuries A.D, The Gospels are pretty tough going, but Pullman has achieved a writing style in The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ that makes the book both legible to us mortals, and still eloquent enough to describe life in biblical times. The book is beautifully presented in white or black hardback, with large margins, a large font, and red chapter titles and page markers. Some books on my shelf are old and battered and charismatic, but this is a book where my first impression was simply to look at it and it’s fabrication for ten minutes before even thumbing through to the first chapter. It’s an expensive book, for the privilege of reading it before the press release I had to pay £14.99 RRP for it, but New Release special offers should make it affordable to the masses. You can also obtain a new and fancy Enhanced Edition in the form of an iPhone / iPod / iPad application, which features the electronic book, an audio reading of it, which you can listen to as you read, and exclusive video comments from Pullman himself. This is a book for discussion, and I’ve seen some of these videos- it’s worth a look-see.

So onto the story itself, it’s not a simple re-write of The Gospels per se, but a new angle on them. Pullman starts out not with the birth of Jesus, but the birth of Mary and how she came to be with Joseph. This follows on to the primary angle of the book, when Mary gives birth to twin sons, whom she names Jesus, and Christ.

Jesus is everything we would expect of a normal boy, Christ is his quiet and soft-spoken brother, who is the observer, rather than the participant. When Jesus grows into the man who became the preacher, Christ remains always in the sidelines, recording everything he says and does at the instruction of a mysterious stranger who appears only before him alone.

As per the original story, Jesus travels with his followers to many places, and performs many so-called Miracles, but he makes no claims, and takes no credit. All of his miracles have plausible explanations, but perhaps could not have been achieved by anyone more ordinary than Jesus.

“Are you the Messiah?” people ask him,

“That is what you say,” he replies.

The core dilemma faced by all parties of the story, is that Jesus is a good man with God in his heart and a good message for everyone, but as per his belief, aspires to nothing more than a preacher, trusting to his faith that The Kingdom of God is imminent. Christ, on the other hand, knows that The Kingdom will not come by God’s hand, but by man’s, and tries to convince Jesus that a Church is required to unite and organise the people. Such an idea is an affront to Jesus’ ideals, and he casts his brother’s ideas scornfully aside, but with God in his silent absence, Jesus himself cannot hold his faith forever.

The mysterious stranger tells Christ that history is not always truth, and that people need truth as much as, and sometimes more than history. The plausible logic behind Jesus’ miracles is not good material for the basis of a Church, interprets Christ, and so he re-tells his account in a modified form- thus revealing how the true life of Jesus was sensationalised into The Gospels we know today.

The climax of Christ’s role in the life of Jesus is to immortalise his brother in the eyes of his followers, and at the Stranger’s order, he betrays Jesus as Judas was said to have done, and Jesus is crucified. And in the nick of time, Christ, being the identical twin, walks out of the tomb on the third day as the resurrection, and Jesus transforms into Christ, and the Church is born.

The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ is not the heavy read I imagined, but a excellent retelling of both the Myth and it’s ideas, but also fiction, of what might have been. Although the title deceives you as such, Christ is never portrayed as the bad guy, but shows a starkly flawed, but human, embodiment of a man assumed to be the original saint.

This book is a cracking read for a quiet afternoon, and suggests how religion itself was not at fault, but the organisation thereof was it’s demise. To quote Pullman, it is a story about how stories are made.

Comments (4) — Add Yours

I’m excited to read a new Pullman book, but I’m also somewhat confused. I don’t think Pullman’s ever been pushy with his beliefs - and I’m happy for that - and by the review it sounds like this is the Pullman we’re familiar with - a storyteller who is just good at it and doesn’t push things on us. However the title & the publication date…well, make me think there’s some marketing at work here that might not meet expectations for new Pullman readers who might set out after the book based on the title.

Currently reading CS Lewis, this will be next probably…there’s a transition for you.

I’ve heard a bit that the way Christ acts is almost author-like, that’s another interesting thing to look for (if it’s there). Thanks for the review!

# Posted by Phit on 14:40, 1 April 2010

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Bought it today and I’m going to start reading it tonight. By the sounds of it, it sounds like a cracking read.

# Posted by Sayuri on 17:50, 1 April 2010

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Leave it to Pullman to come up with a story like that. Can’t wait to read it!

Great Review!

# Posted by Mils on 22:36, 20 April 2010

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I agree with the synopsis that with Philip Pullman’s books, you can read some in an afternoon but they resonate long after you finish the last page, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is no exception
I studied the bibles in detail in school, including the teaching on the redaction of the gospels by events following the destruction of Jerusalem, by communities and by the Church and you can see this in the Pullman’s books with Christ and the Stranger trying to distort history to suit the troubled times Jews and Christians lived in after Rome sacked Jerusalem. Of course in such a short story, this had to happen real-time to get the point across that Jesus’ messages were being undermined form the beginning by Christ’s redaction.  However in actual history, the gospels weren’t to be written down until later on but during the period of its oral teaching, the original messages could be lost or added to by followers and travellers. 
The Gospels themselves I find easy to read and understand, most of the parables or beatitudes retold by Pullman are instantly recognisable and understood by someone who knows the Gospels but also explains them for mere mortals i.e. atheists who perhaps have shunned the books as fictional nonsense with no real moral fibre. Pullman follows in the long line of narrative critics of the Gospels, and in his fictional retelling of the myth of the Good Man Jesus, he shows that a church was never at the forefront of Jesus’ mind and he rejected such insidious suggestions from his brother, who was more pragmatic and calculating. Christ had faith in God but believed that God would not help them until man helped himself, and through Jesus he saw a popular leader who could bring about a following, to create a Kingdom on Earth. In this, you can see that Christ isn’t really a scoundrel, just a weak man [as enforced by the earlier descriptions of his childhood] who wished to do well by everyone, to help people get along. In the end however we see his dismay with how the progression of the Church is coming, that other people have jumped on his redactions, his seeking of the truth, the word of God and are creating a cult of Jesus and renaming it in his name – Christianity. The book therefore stands as Christ’s name being a byword for deception, distortion and deceit, and in this sense Christ is the Scoundrel.
I also think Pullman glossed over the Passover/last supper and the Crucifixion to lay emphasis on Jesus’ teachings and not what Pullman might view as myths cultivated by a cult of Jesus – that he knew he was doing to die and sacrifice himself. However I think his depiction of Pilate might have been in this same vein of trying to gloss over the condemning of Jesus to death but I don’t believe Pilate was so brutal or off-hand. I believe Pilate hated being a governor of Jerusalem and Judea, and that he cared little for what transpired to people, I’m sure though he did not treat Jesus with so much contempt but with dismay at why he’s being brought to him and washing his hands of him after Jesus wouldn’t save himself by admitting his supposed crimes. Pullman does show Jesus as a man confounded by everyone’s fervour to idolize and worship him and in this sense he is a Good Man, seeking no praise and not recognising it when asked by the authorities.
It’s odd that Jesus could foretell the crusades, the inquisition and the molestation of children in the Roman Catholic institutions centuries ahead in an established Roman Church and yet could not foretell his own downfall, imminent in the Garden of Gethsemane. I think this is Philip Pullman’s own selfish rhetoric, being spoken through Jesus and can be viewed as inflammatory to some.  Even if Jesus was a preacher, and a prophet, with no real significance or a fictional pawn to atheists, the words are clearly Pullman’s own thoughts and criticisms of organized religion, demonised in his books, such as His Dark Material’s trilogy.

# Posted by paddy on 18:55, 4 May 2010

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