Posted on February 23, 2018
What if the story of Christianity was different? What if Jesus had been a twin, and his brother was the one who collected the stories of his life and compiled them into the Bible? This is the world Pullman imagines in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, and it offers fertile ground for examining the formation of Christianity from a way of living preached by one man to a world-consuming organised religion.
[This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.]
In The Good Man Jesus, Pullman divides the figure of Jesus Christ into two. There’s Jesus, a bold, trouble-making child who grows into a renowned preacher, and there’s Christ, his weaker, quieter brother who is capable of performing miracles but who has very different ideas about how to spread the word of God. This is the heart of the conflict between Jesus and Christ in this book: Christ believes it’s worth compromising on some aspects of the Word of God in order to build a church that will be a stand in for the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, whereas Jesus thinks this is sheer blasphemy and believes that only God Himself can bring about the Kingdom of Heaven.
OK, there’s no doubt that this is a theologically heavy novel and it would certainly help to have some knowledge of Christianity and the life of Jesus before getting stuck in. I know a little, but I’m neither religious nor an expert, so a lot of what Pullman does in this book probably went over my head. Still, there were a fair few ‘I see what you did there’ moments, and I found it interesting to consider this much-retold story from a different perspective. The core of the book is the sometimes quite intense religious discussions between Jesus and Christ, or between Christ and the mysterious ‘Stranger’, so if you have no interest in Christianity then A Good Man Jesus probably won’t be your thing. It feels more like a theological thought experiment on Pullman’s part than a story that is enjoyable in and of itself.
The story is told in very simplistic language and there is some distance between the reader and the characters, so that it feels like reading a fairytale. The chapters are very short and focus on prominent events from Jesus’ life. The story of the loaves and the fishes is in there, the sermon on the mount, the temptation in the desert and so on. What I found particularly interesting was how Pullman explained Jesus’ miracles. While it seems that Christ is genuinely capable of performing miracles (e.g. transforming clay into a living bird), Jesus is not, and we see how the stories of some of his deeds are twisted and retold from something quite everyday into something magical. In fact, that’s a significant part of Christ and the Stranger’s mission, to turn Jesus from a regular man into someone people will really believe was the son of God. You can’t make a man go down in history without adding a little… flair.
Of course, in this story Jesus is just a man, and like his brother he is flawed and sometimes not very likeable. Naturally the whole world of A Good Man Jesus has its problems and in many ways is very different from our modern world. For example, the women are treated awfully – it’s not surprising, but it is noticeable. No wonder, then, that people have problems equating the Bible’s more outdated attitudes with contemporary life. But part of the job of modern religious leaders is to do just that, and in order to do so they often have to focus on the truth behind the words. Getting at the essence of Jesus’ message is more important, and this returns us to Christ’s main dilemma in this book: which is more important, truth or history? Is it worth sacrificing one in order to create something better that we can all aspire to? (In light of this question, Pullman proposes an interesting thought experiment for Christians. Would you crucify Jesus in order to allow Christianity to be born, or save his life and lose his legacy?) By the end of A Good Man Jesus, Christ is forced to decide between truth and history. And so, I suppose, must we.
“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.” – Jesus
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read it? You can buy the book here.