Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

At first, I was a bit puzzled by Philip Pullman’s latest book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ — puzzled, and a little bit annoyed. This was because I’d been led to expect a quite different book, not just by the title (if it was just the title, it wouldn’t matter, because good titles are often deceptive, or at least gain a new relevance on further reading), but by the summaries people have given of the book in reviews on TV and in the press. For instance, the Archbishop of Canterbury (who gives a favourable review in The Guardian), gives this explanation of the basic idea behind the book:

“Its premise is that Mary gave birth to twins: Jesus, an earthy, generous visionary, radical enough to create panic in conventional religious and political authority; and ‘Christ’ – a nickname for the weaker, self-righteous, fearful brother who shadows Jesus, trying to persuade him to accept a destiny he refuses.”

Yes, Mary gives birth to twins. But the two — Jesus and Christ — are not as Rowan Williams characterises them. To start off with, for instance, the Jesus character is rather withdrawn and distant, in the shadow of his brother, Christ. Later, he comes across as quite resentful, even spiteful, of his brother and his family, even while preaching the message of universal love. Meanwhile the Christ character, though he does at one point try to “persuade [Jesus] to accept a destiny he refuses”, is for most of the book quite passive, self-abnegating, humanly weak as opposed to “fearful”, and entirely accepting of the Jesus character’s view of things. In fact, there’s only one chapter — one short conversation between the two brothers — in which the above characterisation applies; after that, the brothers separate and, learning from the event, the Christ character, at least, changes.

Once I’d got over that slight confusion, I read the bulk of the book thinking Pullman’s title must be ironic — that it is in fact the Jesus character who is the scoundrel, and the Christ character who is the good man, and that worked for a while. But, although there’s an argument to be made, I don’t think that’s entirely true, either. Rather, the Jesus character is an idealist — and idealists can be good, because they offer us visions of good things to strive for, but on the other hand, every idealist is a tyrant in embryo — and the Christ character is a realist — and realists can be scoundrels, because they are always undermining the good we find in ideals, but on the other hand, realists can at least put a plan into action and get things done. In other words, neither character is wholly good nor bad. Things are confused by the roles they find themselves playing: Jesus as the preacher, teacher, and revolutionary proclaimer of the imminent Kingdom of Heaven on Earth (the most potentially damaging idea he or his brother presents in the book), Christ as his chronicler and, later, his betrayer. But the roles are predetermined by the story they are stuck in, and neither character is really responsible for their decision to be in that story. If there is a moral colouring to be applied to anyone in Pullman’s book, it is the the third, never-named character, the angel (or presumed angel), who guides Christ on the way to eventually playing the Judas role. This third character, who at one point explicitly denies that he is Satan, is, I suppose, the embodiment of the story itself, gently prompting characters to play their appointed roles. In fact, I came to think of him as the Philip Pullman character, a sort of shepherd for the potentially unruly three-dimensional characters in a myth, a form that does not comfortably support three-dimensions in its characters.

I finally overcame my ambivalence about the book when I did what I should have done from the start — forgot what other people have said about the book, and decided to understand it in my own terms, in my own way. I realised I wasn’t really interested in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ as a book about religion, or even (as Rowan Williams says) a book about the church (though it is that, too). This is why I’ve been saying “the Jesus character” and “the Christ character”, because I don’t want anyone to happen on this blog and think I’m talking about the religious figure who goes by those names. I’m interested in the book as a story, and the characters as they relate to that story. (Pullman, after all, has “This is a story” emblazoned on the back, but I at first thought this was just him being provocative.)

For me, what The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ was about was writing. Pullman’s innovation is to have two boys born to Mary, one called Jesus and one called Christ. When the Jesus character proves to have a vocation as a somewhat revolutionary wandering preacher (whose teaching — all paraphrased, in more modern diction, from, I assume, the Gospels — is often contradictory, with the Jesus character talking of loving your neighbour at one point, then refusing to help a woman because she is not of his race at another, and also being pointedly rude to his family), the Christ character decides to write his brother’s teachings down, seeking to preserve them as accurately as possible. (Because, far from being a scoundrel, he has a deep love of his brother, and a respect for what he is teaching, even though the Jesus character has no love for him.) For most of the book, then, the Christ character is a writer. He is, in effect, producing the version of “Jesus” that will be preserved after his brother’s death, and indeed after his own: the version that we find in the written books of the Gospels.

What makes this aspect of the story interesting is that the Christ character pretty soon becomes aware of the possibility of improving on what the Jesus character says and does. In fact, he is prompted to do this by that third, unnamed character who guides the story. I don’t know if Pullman is providing subtle characterisations in the ways that Christ’s writings differ from what the Jesus character actually says, but anyway I think that’s beside the point. The real point is that by differing from what the Jesus character says and does, an ideal version — a myth — is created.

In effect the book is asking: which is more important, the literal, historical truth, or the ideal, more meaningful version? In some cases — legal cases, for instance — obviously the literal, historical truth is the most important. But when we’re dealing with ideals, it is the myth that is more important. Because we know that reality never lives up to our ideals, and that human beings, though they strive, often fail, or are divided, or feel impure or less-than-holy feelings even when they succeed, or act on baser motives than we might like. But the ideal can exist nevertheless — and ought to be allowed to. Just because, in all history up to now, there has never been a wholly, truly, perfectly “good” man, does that mean we should give up striving to be good? Just because, if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we will never manage to be fully, truly good, does that mean we should give up trying? No, and no. And really, this is the point about myth. Myth is not, as some definitions would have it, a lie that debases historical truth; rather, it is a truth that has no need to have ever actually occurred in order for it to be true.

So, the Christ character makes the decision, as a writer, to betray the historical Jesus, and write what he feels ought to have been said or done at this or that moment. And this “betrayal” becomes enacted in the story itself, as the Christ character acts out the Judas role that leads to Jesus’s capture and eventual death.

What’s interesting is that the Christ character, who I described above as a realist, acts in order to preserve an ideal. He betrays not just his brother, but himself. This idea of the writer as, necessarily, a betrayer, a traitor, a “scoundrel”, seems somehow fitting, though I can’t quite work out why. Are all writers, necessarily, scoundrels of a sort, in that by creating something — their own version of the truth — they are in fact betraying the truth of the world around them?

(If I can add one reading recommendation, I’d say Ted Chiang’s novelette “Hell is the Absence of God” (collected in Stories of Our Life and Others, a real must-read of an SF collection) is the most powerful exploration of religious themes (also by an atheist, or agnostic, I’m not sure which Chiang is) that I’ve ever read. Pullman’s novella is thought-provoking, but not really on religious themes, though unfortunately this is how everyone’s going to see it, I suppose.)