Sunday, 13 February 2011

Lives of Jesus 3.5 - Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ wasn't part of my original plan for reviewing Lives of Jesus.  It just leapt off the library shelf and into my hand, so I had to take it home and read it.  Spooky!

Pullman is, of course, not a noted Bible scholar but a famous novelist, best known for his fantasy writing.  He is also known for his distinct lack of enthusiasm for organised religion.  So of course he is the perfect choice for a secular publisher to commission to write a book about Jesus.  As Pullman himself says, "no-one has the right to go through their life without being shocked".

Having read a lot of Lives of Jesus, I have to say that I wasn't as shocked as Pullman may have been hoping.  More bemused.  Pullman is in fact rather timid compared to, say, Jim Crace's daring fictional treatment of the subject in Quarantine.  In general, he has stuck fairly closely to the structure of the life of Jesus as outlined in the gospels, starting with the birth in the stable (not, however, apparently a virgin birth), throwing in a few of the non-canonical childhood stories, and then following the broad outline of the public ministry of Jesus as we all know it.  Indeed, much of the book consists of reasonably faithful paraphrases of Jesus' teaching.

However, one of the privileges which novelists have and historians don't is that they are allowed to make stuff up.  Indeed, they are expected to do so.  The key thing Pullman makes up is Jesus' twin brother who goes under the name "Christ".  At the start of the story they have a bit of a Jacob and Esau thing going with Jesus as the father's favourite and man of action, and Christ as the stay at home mummy's boy.  Later on, Christ plays a number of roles in the story - the tempter in the wilderness, Judas at the betrayal, and finally Jesus himself at the resurrection.  All the while he is writing down Jesus' words and deeds, keeping a record which he alters and "improves" to fit in with a version of "truth" which is not the same thing as "history".  Jesus is the eschatalogical prophet of the Kingdom, uncompromising moral teacher and purveyor of grace of Schweitzer.  Christ is an embodiment of the "Christ of faith", a cautious, conservative figure with a love of order and authority, just rewards and punishments, and the subtlety to twist logic and justify moral compromise.

Another novelistic privilege is the right to avoid choosing between competing and incompatible theories.  As a result, Pullman's retelling of the tale is a curious amalgam of the various historical approaches to the Life of Jesus reviewed in this series.

At heart it is a rationalist account.  Jesus' moral teachings and even his eschatalogical ones come out of the story reasonably unscathed.  Anything miraculous, however, is explained away using the time-honoured (and frequently laughable) methods of the rationalists.  The feeding of the five thousand is an event at which people overcome their selfishness and share the food they have brought with them.  The healings are just cases of people feeling better in Jesus' presence.  And as for the resurrection...well of course Jesus has a twin brother, doesn't he, and he's easily mistaken for the man himself!

Yet this basic rationalism is combined with a heavy dose of the conspiracy theory genre of Theiring or Venturini.  Just like Theiring, the bad guy in the story (in this case Christ) plays various roles in the gospels - the Devil, Judas, the risen Christ.  As in Venturini there is a mysterious figure behind the scenes manipulating both Christ and Jesus, pulling the strings to ensure Jesus' death and the subsequent distortion of his message by the church.  This figure's name, who he works for and what motivates him are never revealed and hardly even hinted at.

At key moments Pullman's skepticism, and even more his bitterness against the church, break through to let you know that this is a 21st century story, not a first century one.  There are hints of it early on, as Christ tempts Jesus to work towards building a church, an earthly institution to guide believers in the right way.  Jesus angrily drives him away.  Yet in his long, bitter and thoroughly skeptical prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, in between berating God for his unfailing silence and lack of interest, Jesus forsees the creation of the Church in its gory, Satanic detail, complete with ornate palaces, corrupt leaders, inquisitions, crusades and habitual oppression of its members.

Once Jesus has died it is Christ's version of events which comes to dominate.  His altered and edited notes become the basis for the gospels.  His vision for the church wins out.  The shadowy figure succeeds in manipulating events to grow a faith and an institution which Jesus himself would have hated.

Pullman set out to be shocking and perhaps this book would shock someone who is unused to hearing orthodoxy challenged.  Admirers of his other work may simply have their prejudices confirmed and be discouraged from thinking any further about Jesus.  Yet he has let his hatred of the church distract him from a proper examination of his subject.  As a Life of Jesus this book is no more than a clumsy pastiche of disparate ideas, couched in an unconvincing conceit involving good and evil twins.  Jesus himself, without such fictitious or rationalist trappings, is far more shocking and far more offensive than anything Pullman can create.

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