May 7 2010 6:16pm

The Good Man Jesus & The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

A Story About Stories & Story Telling, Storytellers & More

Before looking at Philip Pullman’s just-published novel, a little back story…

Confession: At a tender age I was tossed out of Bible Reading. No more evening tea and biscuits. No more getting out of supervised evening “prep” (i.e., homework) on a Wednesday evening.

It was the work of a scoundrel.

True, I was complicit, but it took a scoundrel.

Ejected By Eden

Earlier in life I thought I might become a minister. At school in the UK I took Religious Knowledge O-Levels and A-Levels, earning As in both. I know my Bible—at least I used to.

Wednesday evening Bible Reading was held in the home of my colorful geography teacher. He’d teach seated on the back of his chair, feet planted where his bum should have been, falling over backwards only occasionally. Mr. Eden—I’m not making this up—took his religion seriously and in time was ordained as a minister in the Church of England.

All was well until the arrival of Jeremy, recently down from Oxford. Jeremy was a thoroughly respectable young man who, in time, became headmaster of a well-known boarding school in the north of England. But back then, when I came under his spell, he was a scoundrel. Jeremy had studied religion at Oxford and knew how to “demythologize” texts.

As he put it to the two of us in his A-Level Religious Knowledge class—held in his flat over tea and biscuits—“You’ve must put yourself back in the mind of a first-century Hebrew. No science. A constrained worldview. Lots of poetry and symbolism.” Jeremy felt that anyone who refused to understand elements of texts that any first-century Hebrew would have understood without question was “daft.”

The most provocative, the most memorable A-Level discussion Jeremy initiated began, “What if Jesus had never existed? Would that change the value of the gospels?” The three of us—Jeremy, myself, and my classmate, the son of a clergyman who’d wear his father’s dog collar on dress up days, shocking many—concluded the value of the gospels remained. A good story well told touched the heart and might even change behavior.

I made the mistake of sharing this conclusion in Bible Reading.

I was asked not to return.

Imagination & Revivification

Call me naïve, but this turn of events shocked me. I felt that demythologizing the gospels and asking provocative questions made the texts more interesting, more meaningful, more fascinating. We weren’t looking back from two thousand years later with the minds of scientists, but imagining ourselves into a different world, seeing with new eyes, trying to relive something that had powerfully touched the ancients. But Mr. Eden—Rev. Eden—didn’t see it that way. He expelled me from the garden.

Call me naïve, but I still believe the effort to re-imagine the events in Galilee two millennia ago breathes new life into the gospels, texts written by persons very different from ourselves. I believe this is true for believers and non-believers alike.

I believe in the power of the imagination.

The Part about the Twins

If you like a précis of a book’s content before you read it—or relish spoilers—I’m not your guy. NPR has a great précis/spoiler up on their website as does Newsweek.

I’m more interested in what Pullman’s latest story says about imagination, stories, and storytelling.

To be sure,

Pullman [condemned for the His Dark Materials trilogy] can expect plenty more condemnation.

His latest work, a radical retelling of the life of Christ, is his first written specifically for adults.

This time, he’s gone beyond the rich allegory of His Dark Materials and the battle of good versus evil (with a churchlike institution—known as “the Magisterium”—firmly on the side of evil).

The attention-grabbing title alone—The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ—has been enough to rouse his enemies, and reinforce his image as a church-baiting atheist who’s beyond redemption.

(The words “this is a story” printed on the back of the dust jacket have done nothing to appease the critics.)

In Pullman’s own unapologetic words: “It makes them certain that I’m going to hell.”

Pullman insists he’s primarily a storyteller. “This is a story among other stories, it doesn’t make any claims to be the truth about anything.”

What If?

The imagination asks “what if?” and whole universes open to us.

What if we could travel at warp 10 and visit a new planet every week? What should be done with a ring of power—rule the world or toss it into a volcano? What if, after we are murdered, we can watch events play out on earth? What if a child was raised in a graveyard by ghosts?

What if Jesus had a twin?

What if we split what we usually fuse: teacher and institution, time-bounded events and the unbounded time that follows, original thrust and later interpretation, spoken words and transcription?

A “what if?” that splits fused concept enlivens both pieces.

Imagining Jesus had a twin is, to my mind, a stroke of creative genius. The image strikes like a pick ax. It shatters mental ice. It turns ice into water.

The Power of Story

Even if we believe—from the crown of our heads to our tiniest of toes—that stories are powerful, it brings great joy to be reminded of his fact.

In The Good Man Jesus & The Scoundrel Christ Pullman retells much gospel lore.

While I was reading primarily with a mind to see that Pullman was up to, time and again I found myself pulled into familiar stories and astonished at what good stories they are. I’m not of the “greatest story ever told” camp, but I may be a member of the camp that says, “s/he who has the best story wins.”

The Power of Story Telling

Stories cut through mental chatter, outperform the dry intellect, deposit unforgettable images deep in the psyche. (“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…”)

Stories may also circumvent reason, then subvert reason processes. “The Horizon oil rig was blown up by eco-terrorists…”)

Stories embody truths. Some stories are out and out lies.

Turning from stories to story telling to storytellers lays bear the facts—or the politics, or the manipulation, or the wonder, the creativity.

Again the power of imagination liberates us. What if this story isn’t what it appears to be? What if I assume this oft-told story is true/false—but the story itself prevents me from determining the answer?

What if this storyteller doesn’t have my best interests at heart?

What if this storyteller wants me to wake up, take stories seriously (again, for the first time), discern the intent of storytellers, stop cruising the mentally lazy life, fire up my neurons and crank the dial to 10?

The Scoundrel Pullman

I like scoundrels.

Han Solo was a scoundrel. My A-Level master was a scoundrel. Pullman’s a scoundrel.

If you’re fond of scoundrels too, find yourself a copy of The Good Man Jesus & The Scoundrel Christ and read it.

The very moment I heard tell of Pullman’s new novel, I cyber-raced to Amazon and let out a joyful cry: I could download the book to my Kindle.

Then I read The Good Man Jesus & The Scoundrel Christ in one sitting.

Pullman says that the Jesus who emerges from this story is a real person, a man the author admires for his strength and conviction, not to mention his gift for storytelling. Too true! As I read The Good Man Jesus & The Scoundrel Christ I was transported in time and space. I was learning from Jeremy again, re-learning the joy of asking questions about stories.

“What if—?

“What if Jesus had a twin?”

“What if I’m drifting along in life, living unexamined stories?”

Dr. Kirtland C. Peterson—"Cat" to his friends and colleagues—feeds his left brain with science, his right brain with the rich feast of fiction, including SF and fantasy.

Among his life’s highlights are sitting in the pilot’s seat of a shuttle prepping for launch at the Kennedy Space Center, and accepting Brannon Braga’s invitation to pitch Star Trek scripts at Paramount in LA.

Currently finishing up William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

Yonatan Zunger
1. zunger
The idea of Jesus having a twin isn't new. It was actually current among the Gnostics by the end of the 2nd century, saying that the apostle Thomas was Jesus' twin brother.

Thomas is introduced in the text as 'Didymos', and the (extracanonical, but late-2nd-century) Coptic gospel of Thomas introduces itself as being set down by 'Didymos Judas Thomas'. "Thomas" is a Greek mangling of Aramaic "Teoma" == "twin," and "Didymos" is Greek for "twin;" so this name is simply "Judah the Twin." Apparently the Gnostics went further and interpreted this as meaning the twin of Jesus in particular.

The idea was further explored by the Arrogant Worms:'+Brother+Bob
Joseph Blaidd
2. SteelBlaidd
"Fable has Strong Shoulders that can carry far more Truth than Fact can."-Barry Hugheart The Bridge of Birds

Sir Terry Pratchett has expressed several times that the thing that makes us human is that we tell stories.

Ive always appreciated the way a good story can make you think. Lois Bujold's Chalion series, for example, has some of the best writing about our relationship to the divine I have ever read. And though most of the Sword of Truth books a a bit too repetative Faith of The Fallen has one of the most unique and real life applicable, treatments of the battle between good and evil I have ever read.

I've tried reading Mr. Pullman and I'm sorry to say I just don't find the stories he tells very compelling.
JS Bangs
3. jaspax
Color me grumpy. After the utter wall-banger of an ending that Pullman gave to His Dark Materials, I'm not interested in reading anything else of his---especially not something related to religion. Like a lot of other authors, Pullman's writing gets worse in direct proportion to how ideological it is.
Andrew Barton
4. Andrew Barton
Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a very favourable review of the book in a recent Guardian.
Karen L
5. changisme
Have you ever heard the song Jesus' Brother Bob by the Arrogant Worms?
Tim Lewis
7. RaPToRFunK
If you look at the gospels as purely a story, I would think it would hardly be a good story by removing the antagonist: Jesus.
Luke M
8. lmelior
Thanks for the heads up. I thoroughly enjoyed His Dark Materials, and this sounds great. I'm now number two on the waiting list at the library.
Ian Gazzotti
9. Atrus
I think Pullman's books have more to do with promoting his worldview than with 'what if' storytelling and retelling/introspection on mythos.

If you want to read a *really* good retelling of the life of Jesus, go for Saramago's "The Gospel according to Jesus Christ". You won't be disappointed.
Andrew Barton
10. Jan McGee
Some decades ago, the now unappreciated writer of potboiler adventure novels, the talented Frank Yerby, a professed agnostic, wrote a novel entitled "Judas, My Brother". In it, the main character is an ambitious Jewish scoundrel who is Jesus cousin and is said to resemble Jesus. The story lacks the sort of character depth of a Pullman tale, but the intrigues and gladiatorial violence are cinematic in nature, and the story could be shaped easily into an interesting movie. Brad Pitt and Joachim Phoenix come to mind.
Andrew Barton
11. Nanette in Wisconsin
Dr. Peterson,

This is the best review of the book I've seen yet. Wonderful analysis of the power and meaning of stories. I picked up Pullman's book after hearing the NPR interview and I wasn't disappointed. The Garden of Gethsemane scene is absolutely outstanding. Wouldn't it be great if all church leaders - especially those who life in opulence - read it and actually changed their ways? It'll never happen, but it's delicious to think about.

But I agree with you that, more than conveying any kind of message, Pullman is chiefly interested in telling a good story, and getting us to think about storytelling in general. He succeeds on both counts.
Andrew Barton
12. Yohan John Kunnenkeril
Hi ! Jan McGee ( and Zunger )

I too was reminded of Frank Yerby and "Judas, My Brother" ! While an okay read, I loved the ending- Judas the brother (cousin), after explaining away most of the miracles and generally being contemptuous of Jesus, ends by realizing his deep love for Jesus Christ ! Oh ! How I enjoyed that ! Quite like Peter in the Bible, who after cursing Jesus, ends by answering well Jesus' thrice asked question "Do you love me ? " . Thus, overall, I quite liked the book ! I think quite kindly and even appreciatively of Frank Yerby ! This is all that really matters, loving the Lord Jesus Christ, Triune God and obeying his other commandment "Love Others as You Love Yourself" This is Christianity. YJK

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