Reviewed by Doug Brown
Philip Pullman is primarily known for the excellent His Dark Materials series, in which religion was the bad guy. Now he has taken on the life of Jesus, adding the literary twist that Jesus had a twin brother named Christ. Christ is the smaller introvert who always has to get Jesus out of trouble. As Jesus begins his ministry, a stranger tells Christ he should begin documenting his brother's sayings and exploits, which he does. Over time The Stranger lectures Christ on the difference between history and a truth that transcends facts, and Christ thus begins to color his chronicles in this new truth. It is this revisionism that sets the stage for the Christian church, and it's why Pullman refers to Christ as a scoundrel.
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is told in short passages that are set up as chapters. These have scripture-esque titles like "The Priests Test Jesus," "The Death of John," and "Christ and the Prostitute." Most are from the gospels, and, in fact, the first quarter of the book is pretty much just a modern English retelling of the childhood and early ministry of Jesus. The only thing different is that Jesus has a twin; other than that, I was starting to wonder if Pullman had gone Christian for the first 80 pages. Only slowly does the true nature of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ unfold.
In Pullman's version, Jesus is very opposed to religion, as no one is closer to God than anyone else. He speaks of a kingdom to come soon to Earth, not in the afterlife. The Stranger convinces Christ that, while this may be history, the truth is that getting the word of Jesus out will require a lot of infrastructure -- namely a church. And while Jesus historically may have spoken of a kingdom on Earth, the truth is of a kingdom after death. So the scoundrel Christ writes the story of Jesus' life with his words and actions spun to favor the establishment of the church (thus creating the version found in the gospels).
From the author and title, I expected The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ to be a lot more inflammatory. Pullman never questions the sincerity of Jesus, though. Even Christ is a basically decent chap, seeking to ensure his brother isn't forgotten. As in His Dark Materials, religion is the scoundrel seeking to mask reality with "truth that will make everything true." Due to the layout of the chapters The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is a quick read -- I read it in an afternoon. Strict biblical literalists will probably be quite offended by the suggestion that the gospels are spin-doctored versions of Jesus' life. But as Pullman has said, no one has the right to spend their life without being offended. For the rest of us, Pullman has created an interesting parable on the formation of religions sure to stimulate thought and conversation.
Books mentioned in this post