Adding puzzling mystery to Jesus' story

By  Maria Di Paolo, Catholic Register Special
  • May 19, 2010
The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel ChristThe Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ, by Philip Pullman (Knopf, 256 pages, hardcover, $27.)

Well-known authors have tried to retell the Jesus story in fictional form over the last few decades. Some, like C.S. Lewis in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, used a highly imaginative and metaphorical setting. Nikos Kazantzakis with his very earthy Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ and Anne Rice with her recent and much more prosaic rendering in the Christ The Lord series both chose a literal retelling of the Gospel.

In Kazantzakis’ novel this works because he chose to take risks by challenging people’s conceptions of Jesus’ life on Earth. Whether you like his Jesus or not, whether you agree with his interpretation or not and regardless of whether you find it shocking or not, it is a very gripping read. Rice on the other hand tries overly hard to fit her Jesus in with every Gospel story, and to fit every Gospel story into her Jesus. As a result, her story is flat, her Jesus a soulless, inhuman automaton spouting Gospel words without charisma, personality or originality.

On balance, the metaphorical approach works best. It allows the author to open the reader’s mind to new possibilities by challenging readers.  

Philip Pullman used this approach very successfully in his richly imaginative His Dark Materials trilogy, where he challenged our concepts of God and organized religion. His most recent book, The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ, falls more into the literal category. It is much shorter and more direct, but it lacks the punch of a good tale and fails to engage the reader nearly as much as his Dark Materials books.

{sa 080212996X}Pullman’s thesis is that there was a real Jesus — a good human being, who lived on Earth 2,000 years ago but who was clearly not divine. According to Pullman, Jesus as the Son of God, the third member of the Trinity, equally human and divine, were later creations of a corporate Church to justify its own existence — more marketing tools than anything else.

Pullman uses the literary device of a twin brother called Christ who, at the instigation of a mysterious stranger, rewrites the past as it occurs in order to create the future as we know it and includes a mix of stories from all the Gospels and some parts of infancy narratives which are not recognized as part of the New Testament. As a result it is hard to see exactly what the target of Pullman’s criticism is. Is it literal biblical interpretation? If so, then stories that are not even included in the Bible are irrelevant.

The device of the twin itself proves awkward. This is evident in the chapters dealing with the birth of Christ/Jesus when he tries to explain the presence of twins in his story while at the same time acknowledging that only one is mentioned in the Gospels. Confusion reigns evidently, especially in the manger.

If Christ is Pullman’s metaphoric note taker and witness, then surely Christ would not have needed to invent such an awkward set of events to justify his editorializing of the Gospel story — particularly since Pullman makes it clear that no one seems to notice the physical resemblance between the two men in the first place.   

Likewise, the presence of the mysterious stranger is a puzzle. Does Pullman believe him to be an agent of the devil or of God? Regardless, Pullman clearly hints that the stranger is other than human. So presumably some spiritual presence is involved?  If so, this would seem to contradict Pullman’s thesis that the Christ story is solely a human construction in the first place.

Finally, Pullman’s human Jesus is not necessarily good, nor is his Christ a scoundrel. In fact, Christ appears to be more human than his twin brother as he struggles with some crisis of conscience over his role in rewriting history. The Jesus figure, on the other hand, is flat, lacking in dimension, humanity or understanding.

It reminds me of Ezekiel’s dry bones before the breath of God brings them back to life. But in this case there are too many bones strung together and no life or flesh on them. At only one point does Pullman’s Jesus come alive and that is in the garden at Gethsemane when He prays to God. His feelings of despair and abandonment are palpable. Pullman’s human Jesus acknowledges the spiritual presence of God as He cries out for us all. Perhaps this is yet another puzzling element to this mysterious story?

(Di Paolo is a freelance writer in Toronto.)

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