You can’t say he doesn’t warn you. The title of Philip Pullman’s new book is The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. The first sentence is, “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.” A few pages later, the 16-year-old virgin Mary, with her husband Joseph by her side, gives birth to near-identical twins. You know right away that this is not going to be a conventional retelling of the gospels.
This thoughtful and ingenious novel, if novel is the correct word for it, is not only a meditation on how time can take the truth out of reality and turn it into fiction but also a condemnation of how the church and organized religion have subverted the meaning of Jesus’ teachings.
The wonder of the book is that Pullman, an atheist, sees the beauty of Christian teachings so clearly. He takes Jesus’ words at face value and, like many of us atheists, has concluded that much of what Jesus stood for was pretty sound. The Jesus depicted here does not perform miracles. Instead, he quietly offers his sermons and instruction to a growing cadre of admirers while Christ, his brother, follows him in secret and, at the request of an unnamed stranger, records his brother’s words for posterity.
Christ doesn’t realize the stranger’s plans for the scrolls on which he’s writing his brother’s words until it’s too late, but Jesus, by the time he is alone in the garden of Gethsemane, is all too aware of what will happen once he is gone. His message is that people should learn to love. He worries, however, that someone will one day create an organization called a church, and that this organization will “serve as the vehicle for [God’s] Kingdom on earth”. And he knows what will happen when “men who believe they’re doing God’s will get hold of power”: They’ll build elaborate temples for themselves while the poor starve, and punish or even kill people for ills that supposedly go against God’s wishes. And they’ll invoke Jesus’ name and his teachings to justify their actions.
The argument that Pullman puts forth against organized religion, at least as it’s currently practiced, is sensible and beautiful. His language is as simple as the writing in the bible and yet also modern: One can only smile at the idea of Pilate saying, “What’s the hurry?” when Joseph of Arimathea tells him that members of the Sanhedrin want to bury Jesus before the sabbath.
I suspect, however, that few believers will give this book a chance. Surely Pullman knew this as he was writing it. One wonders, then, whom he wrote it for. Perhaps for himself, which is not a bad reason for any writer to undertake a project. Or perhaps he was just trying to do what zealots don’t: to see all sides of a dispute, to acknowledge the good in another person’s argument while gently pointing out the bad. This seems to me the only way that one can ever hope to achieve understanding. But before that can happen, the other side has to listen.