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Philip Pullman – The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

December 23, 2011

158. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman (2010)

Read By: Philip Pullman
Length: 3h 29m (256 pages)

Genre: Historical Fiction / Mythology

Started: 30 November 2011
Finished: 05 December 2011

Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? I don’t remember where I first heard about it, but I loved His Dark Materials, and I also really enjoy books about religion (not religious books; there’s a definite difference), so this seemed right up my alley – and somehow apposite for a pre-Christmas listen.

If Mary did give
birth to twins, would we get twice
the Christmas presents?

Summary: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is a gospel: a retelling of the life of Jesus… and his twin brother, Christ. In Pullman’s version, Mary gives birth to not one but two boys in the stable in Bethlehem. As the boys grow up, Jesus becomes a famous preacher and radical, while Christ remains in the background, recording the things his brother says and does. But while Jesus seems unconcerned with the future, and preaches about the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven, Christ – at the urging of a mysterious stranger – has begun thinking about the long-term: the founding of a church that will carry his brother’s truths (or at least Christ’s version of them) throughout history.

Review: This short little book was fascinating, and – given what I know about Philip Pullman’s attitudes towards religion – very surprising. For a book whose basic premise is, if not blasphemous per se, at least counter-scriptural, I thought that it was actually very respectful. Its goal is not to denigrate religion in general or even Christianity in specific, nor to excoriate the Church (which was what surprised me, given Pullman’s attitude towards the Christian-Church-analog the Magisterium in His Dark Materials), but rather to encourage thought about the power of the church, and where it comes from, and how the stories of the New Testament may have been shaped by time, and by their passage through human hands, and what lies at the heart of belief, and the reality and the truth (which may not always be the same thing) of Jesus’s life.

I think this interplay between respect for people’s belief system and the desire to think critically about that belief system is apparent in Pullman’s treatment of Jesus’s miracles. In every instance, Pullman gives a possible common-sense explanation for the miracle that does not involve invoking supernatural powers, but he almost always leaves it open, and rarely comes right out and says that it wasn’t a miracle… because the point is not whether a given act was miraculous or not, but to understand why people might prefer the one explanation over the other. Of course, this does cut both ways: Pullman never outright names the mysterious stranger who is encouraging Christ to chronicle his brother’s life, but the implication is hard to miss. Leaving the point open to interpretation, though, gives the story more subtlety and more power, no matter what the reader decides about the man’s identity.

One of the most fascinating (and most surprising) aspects of this book is that the dichotomy between Jesus and Christ is a lot more complex than what is suggested by the title. Neither one is entirely a good man nor a scoundrel, but they both embody both the good and the bad. Jesus, when preaching, comes off as kind of sanctimonious (and his admonitions about abandoning your family are a lot harsher when his twin brother is standing in the crowd), but his hour of doubt in the garden of Gethsemene, where he questions his own faith in the face of a silent God, completely turned him around for me. Meanwhile, Christ is constantly wracked with doubts of his own; doing what he does out of love for his brother, but still secretly injured by his brother’s aloofness, and his own frustrated ambition. Similarly, Pullman is not even 100% anti-Church; he recognizes the church’s power to inspire great works of art and compassion, while also questioning its adherence to dogma and the perils of having a body with such absolute philosophical and political power. It was frustrating at times (morally frustrating, not frustrating as a reader), because in their arguments, both Jesus and Christ were so often right in their points of view, and simultaneously so wrong, that it made me wonder how we still, two thousand years later, haven’t figured it out yet. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: To come clean: Although I was raised as what I call “vaguely Christian”, I’m a non-believer, so without question my enjoyment and my interpretation of this book was colored by that perspective. But I think that The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ should be accessible, and interesting, to believers as well. It’s not pushing an athiest agenda, but rather encouraging independent and critical thought. Those Christians who believe that the Bible is the infallible received word of God may want to steer clear, but those who are willing to take a “what if” look at their own beliefs should find plenty of food for thought.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Chasing Bawa, Ela’s Book Blog, Page247, Stuff As Dreams Are Made On, Things Mean a Lot
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: This is the story of Jesus and his brother Christ, of how they were born, of how they lived and of how one of them died.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 24, 2011 10:42 am

    I should really find a copy of this. I can’t believe I haven’t read any Pullman!

    • December 26, 2011 12:33 pm

      Redhead – I can’t believe it either! I love the His Dark Materials trilogy, and the Sally Lockhart books range from pretty good to very good. I don’t know that this book is absolutely representative of his writing, but it’s definitely very interesting, and short enough that it wouldn’t be much of a time commitment if you decided you didn’t like it.

  2. December 28, 2011 1:07 pm

    I really need to get around to this book. I have heard good things…

    • January 3, 2012 10:12 am

      Kailana – Love it or hate it, it’s definitely thought-provoking, and certainly short…

  3. January 1, 2012 10:04 pm

    There is something about Philip Pullman that irritates the hell out of me, and I can’t put my finger on what it is. I really enjoyed the His Dark Materials trilogy, but whenever I read interview with Philip Pullman I want to slap him. I felt the same when I was reading the first third of The Good Man Jesus, and I ended up not finishing it. I suppose I should stick with his kids’ books. :/

    • January 3, 2012 10:17 am

      Jenny – I tend not to read interviews with my favorite authors, for exactly that reason. I also tend to find the public personas of most outspoken atheists annoying, for all that I share their point of view.

      Have you read his Sally Lockhart books? They’re historical fiction, and very different from his other books. I liked the first one, didn’t care for the second, but absolutely loved the third.

  4. January 8, 2012 8:18 pm

    I have this one on my list for this year as a part of reading more myths and fairy tales (and fantasy and sci-fi, by the way, which is right up your street, I know!) in 2012; I loooooved His Dark Materials. Hm, I should add a re-read of that for this year too. Oh, you know how that goes…pretty soon you’ve planned enough reading in an evening to stretch across a decade, or two!

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