Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Unprofessional Book Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scroundrel Christ by Phillip Pullman

Phillip Pullman drew a lot of attention from Christians when his children's book The Golden Compass was brought to the big screen. Most reviewers of the films pointed out that although the film didn't seem to have many atheistic elements to it, Pullman's books in the rest of the His Dark Materials series did, in fact, display a decidedly anti-Christian approach. For my own part, when I reviewed the movie for Reformation 21, I was not a naysayer of the film, although I recognized the problems which the books presented. If there was ever any doubt as to Pullman's agenda, however, those doubts are long gone with Pullman's new book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

What Pullman has done with this short book is attempt to retell the story of Jesus with enough radical departures from reality that we can see he is attempting something significantly different. Lets just say the book is more The Last Temptation of Christ than The Passover Plot. Pullman isn't positing his version of events or even a plausible alternative to what we find in the New Testament. Instead, he is writing a fictionalized account of Christ's life through which he can express his opinion that Jesus may have been a good teacher whose "editors" misused his life in order to create what we today know as the Church (I honestly think he is primarily taking a shot at Catholicism more than he is Protestantism).

The book begins with the conception of Jesus. An angel enters Mary's room, tells her how beautiful she is, and there is an implicit sexual encounter between Mary and this angel.

Jesus' birth soon follows, but after Jesus is born, a twin brother also emerges, and Mary chooses to name him Christ. Pullman's Jesus is a typical child who finds himself periodically in trouble, while his twin brother always seems to find a way to put a righteous spin on what he does. When Jesus writes with mud on the wall of the temple, Christ tells the religious leaders that Jesus was just enacting a passage from the book of Job. Confusingly, there is a scene where young Jesus makes clay birds on a Sabbath, and Christ claps his hands causing the birds to come to life and fly away. This is honestly confusing because while this is depicted as a genuine miracle, Pullman depicts the rest of Jesus' miracles in the story in terms of naturalistic explanations.

It becomes apparent that while Jesus is basically a good guy with a rebellious streak who is wise and loves God, Christ has a bit of a Messiah complex - no pun intended. During Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, it is not Satan who appears - but his brother, Christ. Christ reveals his plan to exploit Jesus' following he has developed so that together they might birth what is essentially described by Christ as the Catholic church with its elaborate magesterial structure, bishops, and all the bureaucracy that attends systems of that sort. Jesus tells his brother to get away from him because this is a wicked and satanic plan.
What you describe sounds like the work of Satan. God will bring about his Kingdom in his own way, and when he chooses. Do you think your mighty organisation would even recognise the Kingdom if it arrived? Fool! The Kingdom of God would come into these magnificent courts and palaces like a poor traveller with dust on his feet. The guards would spot him at once, ask for his papers, beat him, throw him out into the street. "Be on your way," they'd say, "you have no business here." '
The rest of the story involves Christ following Jesus around, writing down his sayings, and people thinking that Jesus is performing miracles. Jesus doesn't seem to like it that people think he is doing miracles, but for some strange reason, he doesn't try to stop the people from believing that he has special powers. Christ, all the while, is actively spinning everything that he writes about Jesus' life. Pullman's agenda is a little too obvious to make for good reading. Essentially, Pullman is doing nothing new, here. He's copying down the New Living Translation and occasionally perverting the story wherever he feels like. This is hardly novel or clever, by my own estimation.

The Stranger continually is telling Christ to edit Jesus' life in a way that will inspire future generations. At one point, Christ has been finding out much of what Jesus said from one of the disciples. The Stranger asks him about his approach:
'What did you tell the disciple who is your informant?'

'I told him that I was writing the history of the Kingdom of God, and that he would be helping in that great task.'

'A very good answer. You could do worse than apply it to your own question. In helping me, you are helping to write that history. But there is more, and this is not for everyone to know: in writing about what has gone past, we help to shape what will come. There are dark days approaching, turbulent times; if the way to the Kingdom of God is to be opened, we who know must be prepared to make history the handmaid of posterity and not its governor. What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom than what was. I am sure you understand me.'
So we see Pullman's agenda is to call into question the editors of the New Testament by assuming that they saw all of the implications of what they were building and how their teachings would eventually be adopted by some sort of magisterial structure hundreds of years down the road.

In the end, it is Christ - spurred on by a Stranger whose identity is never explained (though I assumed him to be the Devil) who betrays his brother. Jesus is crucified, and what should happen but several days later, people begin to mistake Christ for Jesus. Christ, believing that his brother is the history and Christ is meant to be the truth, assumes his role as his risen brother.

The ending would have been funnier if Pullman had done a Weekend at Bernie's and had Christ walking around with Jesus as his puppet after the crucifixion. It wouldn't have been original or true, but then again, there was nothing original or true about this book. It certainly would have been more interesting.

My greatest criticism of Pullman's overall point is not simply, "This is blasphemy" (even though it is). Pullman makes what I believe to be a fatal assumption. He seems to believe that the New Testament accounts of Jesus' life are friendly towards an eventually bloated and power-hungry Catholic Church.

Simply because the Catholic Church did emerge and that they claim that their edifice is built upon the New Testament does not prove Pullman's point. If one looks at the Gospels specifically (since they are the focus of Pullman's argument) one struggles to find endorsements of organized, systematic, bureaucratic, authoritarian, hierarchical, papal forms of church government. I will grant that the case could be made that those sorts of things are hinted at in the New Testament epistles, but when it comes to the actual teaching of Jesus Christ as found in the Gospels, you largely see general condemnation of the sort of people who abuse power.

Just as one example; Jesus' disciples are arguing among themselves who will be greatest in the Kingdom of God, and Jesus comments on their argument. If I were an editor, and I wanted to strengthen my position in the church, then I would have Jesus saying something like, "Whoever has been made greatest among you - let him exercise the authority God has given him," or something along those lines. Instead, Jesus says, "Let the greatest among you be the servant of all." The message of Christ is one of humbling those in leadership - not building them up and strengthening them in the selfish pursuit of power.

In my opinion, this is a fatal flaw for Pullman's argument. It strips his case of all its power.


  1. "Most reviewers of the films pointed out that although the film didn't seem to have many atheistic elements to it, Pullman's books in the rest of the His Dark Materials series did, in fact, display a decidedly anti-Christian approach." I am completely in agreement with that. There's a really fascinating debate that I thought would be of interest on evolution vs. intelligent design going on at http://www.intelligentdesignfacts.com

  2. Cammie, maybe when I am older and wiser, I will grasp the connection between the comment you agreed with and the fine folks at "intelligentdesignfacts.com".


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