Tim's Reviews > The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman
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's review
Aug 05, 12

bookshelves: modern-lit, religion
Read from July 27 to 29, 2012

Philip Pullman's re-imagining of the Gospels is an intriguing idea badly hamstrung by a disastrous stylistic choice.

In Pullman's retelling, Jesus Christ was born as twin boys, Jesus and Christ, and the familiar Gospel stories are retold as an interaction between the two men. Pullman is drawing (at least) two separate distinctions here. His "Jesus" is bearer of the traditionally "human" elements of Jesus Christ -- he is a carpenter, a preacher of the coming Kingdom of God, a lover of justice, a companion of the down-trodden, scornful of power and the powerful. Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the Good Samaritan and Pullman hardly changes a word. Ironically, this human Jesus is almost too perfect, too divine.

In contrast, "Christ" is the bearer of the "divine" or "supernatural" elements of the stories. Christ is the one who is transfigured and, (view spoiler). In keeping with the dualism, the divine Christ is all too human: flawed, ambitious, willing to compromise and rationalize his decisions.

Christ is also the one who tempts Jesus in the desert with the promise of power, in particular with a vision of an institutional church who will carry his word into the world and do good works. Christ makes himself the un-official historian and scribe for his brother, writing down and occasionally "improving" the traditional Gospel stories. This is Pullman's second distinction, contrasting Jesus with the organized religion that followed him.

I'm not entirely sure that it makes sense to embody this second distinction by an internal division within the figure of Jesus Christ himself. Perhaps a better contrast would be with Peter, Paul and the early church fathers? But of course, criticism of the institutional church (the Magisterium) is what animated Pullman's fantastic His Dark Materials trilogy and here provides Pullman with his most passionate moments, for better and for worse.

Unfortunately, Pullman decided to write the book in the terse style of the original Gospels and the entire middle section is a forced march through the most famous passages of the Bible with Pullman changing parts of the stories or offering commentary. This decision reduces his interesting ideas to a kind of trite one-up-manship. When Christ tempts Jesus in the desert with the vision of churchly power, it's a clever moment and a clever twist on the story, but it also comes off as shallow and juvenile. (You know who the *real* devil is, man?)

When Pullman steps away from this stylistic choice the book shows real passion and promise, most especially in two paired monologues given by Jesus and Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. Those chapters point to the book I wish Pullman had written, a longer, more literary work where the ideas arise out of the characters and the plot, rather than vice versa.
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