Philip Pullman is, to me, a polarizing figure.  His Dark Materials is, without a doubt, among my favorite reads of all time.  Sure, he manages to not-so-subtly weave the “evils” of the Roman Catholic church into his invented fantasy world.  But honestly, the story is so otherwise compelling that such a deliberate and malevolent slight can be overlooked for its pettiness and childishness…in fact, in many ways, it serves the story quite well.

So given Pullman’s overt and public vitriol for Roman Catholicism specifically, and religious belief in general, I had some pretty strong assumptions about what he would do with the story of Jesus.  Now let’s be honest: such is inescapable when approaching any book–our presuppositions always drive our experience.  In this light, then, I think a really outstanding piece of writing is one that turns presuppositions on their heads–like His Dark Materials did.  A meager and ultimately unsucessful attempt, on the other hand, is one that leaves the reader saying to themselves, “Well, that was terrifically predictable.”  To spoil the ending right out of the gate, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ was the latter.

The Predictably Demythologized Jesus

Pullman’s work is a part of a larger collection of books by various authors in the Canongate Myth Series in which writers seek to retell famous stories and fables that are a part of the greater public consciousness.  In The Good Man Jesus, Pullman re-imagines the story of the life of Jesus, more or less following the chronology of the events of the four gospels (and some extra-canonical material).  The major twist in Pullman’s rendition, however, is that rather than portraying Jesus as the God-man of Christian orthodoxy, he bifurcates Jesus from Christ, casting each as a son of Mary and Joseph.

As the story proceeds, we find Jesus attempting to live out an ambiguous mission for God while his twin brother, Christ, vacillates between trying to assist him and doing his best to record the true meaning (more on this later…) of his brother’s teachings in anticipation of the church which Christ has ambitions to build.  This creates the tension central to the story, for Jesus is to the death a raw, careless teacher who eschews establishment, while Christ is the calculating institutional man whose dreams–in scope and grandeur–eclipse the paltry ends toward which his brother pointlessly strives.  In the end, Jesus dies, abandoned by God and betrayed by Christ.  Nonetheless, his mission is “resurrected” in the person of his brother whom the gullible disciples believe is their teacher restored and returned to them, and upon the backs of their naivety he is able to finally fulfill the mission which he has always felt “from God”–the establishment of the Church.

In perfect honesty, this twist (Jesus and Christ as brothers) is the only marginally inventive aspect of this retelling.  While there are certainly elements of the story that Pullman drastically alters, for those familiar with the critical studies of Jesus’ life (and the church’s tradition of the same), this “story” is really little more than something of a wholesale “fictionizing” of demythologized interpretations of the gospels and the life of Jesus that have been in circulation for centuries.

As if it were an introduction to the demythologizer’s handbook, The Good Man Jesus covers all the major targets of the gospel accounts, weeding out the “miraculous” from the “historical.”  Consider a few examples:

  • the “virgin birth” is nothing more than the naive Mary getting impregnated by an impostor pretending to be a messenger from God
  • the “healings” that Jesus performs are psychosomatic phenomena wherein the infirm are “inspired” by the teachings of Christ and feel empowered to do that which they did not believe they could do before
  • for healings outside the realm of the psychosomatic, the “healed” are really impostors who return to their deceit after the excitement of the event wanes
  • the fish and loaves are not miraculously multiplied; rather, enough food is found because the act of the sharing of the fish and loaves by the disciples inspires the crowds to share their food with one another
  • there is, of course, no resurrection; Christ witnesses several men removing the body of his brother from the tomb
  • all the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus are, in fact, his brother Christ who pretends (for his own reasons) to be Jesus resurrected

While some readers might be scandalized by such an rendering, for those even remotely familiar with historical/critical studies, such interpretations are old hat–simply duplications of ideas that certain biblical interpreters have been promulgating for ages.

The Real “Truth” in History

While the systematic demythologizing of the life of Jesus is a consistent strain throughout The Good Man Jesus, Pullman’s ultimate thesis (yes, it is certainly a thesis, for this is no mere work of fiction) is a critique of what he understands to be the preempting of the historical Jesus (and his teachings) by the church and its lust for power and the perpetuation of its theological/sociological hegemony.

Pullman outlines this thesis primarily through the internal struggle that Christ encounters in coming to grips with his place in history over and against the mission of his brother Jesus.  Throughout the narrative, Christ is shown to be peering beyond the simple phenomenology of his brother’s actions and teachings to a grander and more glorious manifestation of God’s kingdom as established in the institutionalization of a refined and systematized “faith” to be administered by the worthy, religious elite.  As Christ’s awareness of this “mission” grows, he is frequented by a mysterious stranger (a manifestation of Christ’s own power-lust and ambition, or as Pullman calls him, “the Holy Spirit”) who encourages him along the way.  The stranger suggests that he should not limit himself to merely recording the words and actions of Jesus; rather, he should speak “truth into history,” changing the narrative as needed into something commensurate with the vision of the kingdom of God which Christ has been urging Jesus to embrace all along.

Empowered by the mysterious stranger’s words, Christ throws himself fully into the work of sanitizing his brother’s teachings and actions.  So when Jesus’ words seem overly forgiving of the unworthy, Christ tweaks them as appropriate to coalesce with what he believes the institution of faith should be about.  When Jesus’ actions fly in the face of the institutionalized church which Christ believes should arise in history, Christ dons the pen of the theologian, interpreting the events in such a way so that the contradiction is not as apparent.  And when Jesus’ words leave even the smallest opening, Christ sacrifices no opportunity to expand upon his brother’s words to show that the institutions of the church to come were always nascent in his earliest teachings to his followers.

In the logic of Christ’s incarnate ego, the notion of writing “truth into history” is sanitized.  But the impression that Pullman seeks to effect is not so innocuous.  Rather, it is yet another example of his less than covert animosity toward Roman Catholicism and religious belief. The proclamation of The Good Man Jesus, ultimately, is that the history of Jesus’ life and teaching has been obscured and perverted by opportunistic scoundrels who were more interested in the propagation of their own systems and hegemonies.

This conclusion is, of course, in no way surprising coming from Pullman.  But like the demythologization of Jesus’ life and teachings, these developments are far from unique to Pullman.  For centuries, critical scholarship has shown how the development of the Scriptures was influenced by the early church’s experiences and theological intentions.  And of this scholarship, some has gone the way of commentary, suggesting that such interplay between theology and history has been inappropriate.  In the thesis which he develops narratively, Pullman brings little in the way of inventiveness to the discussion, and rather settles for a predictable parroting of that which his theological sympathizers have been advocating for years.

The Final Verdict

Now the question remains: is Pullman’s offering in The Good Man Jesus really a “good” addition to the Myth Series?  For all my disagreements with his unveiled bigotry, I recognize that this is a well-written book.  From a literary perspective, it is classic Pullman–it moves at a great pace, is packed with engaging dialog, and is expertly laid out.  But as I’ve shown through this review, Pullman’s intentions are far from literary.  This is no mere imaginative re-telling of popular mythology: it is an overt attack on Pullman’s favorite whipping boy.

So again, is this something that belongs in the Myth Series?  I would argue that it is not.  Outside of the twist of Jesus and Christ as twin brothers (which itself is VERY reminiscent of certain strains of thought in ancient Christian heresies), I find little that is original or inventive in this story.  To me, it seems much more like a compiled and story-ified version of ideas that are far from new or original, leading one to wonder what contribution Pullman really makes to this series apart from yet another personal manifesto against Roman Catholicism and religious belief.