Let’s talk about religion. It’s seasonally apropos, at least. In recent years, religion has become somewhat the low-hanging fruit of the controversy tree. Any writer wanting to whip up a media hullabaloo need only pen a few pages of outrageous blasphemy and their Nielsen rating (or the literary equivalent thereof (if such a thing exists)) will soar to previously un-dreamt of altitudes, and the writer will find himself riding comfortably high on the lofty (and lucrative) thermal pocket of religious contention for years to come.
I say ‘religion’, but ‘religion bashing’ (not to be confused with ‘Bible bashing’; actually, it’s somewhat of an antonym) would be a more accurate nomenclature. You can’t have failed to notice the current trend of aggressively militant evangelical atheism that dominates the non-fiction book charts. Everyone from Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Victor Stenger and even Stephen Hawkins have jump-started their waning careers as popular science writers with punchy and attention grabbing anti-religion tracts. And despite what the old adage tells us, books really are judged by their covers. So the ‘New Atheists’ have employed a bewildering array of in-your-face and provocative titles to festoon in bold font on the front of their works: ‘The God Delusion’, ‘God’s Undertaker’, even the petulant ‘Lies! Lies! Lies!’ was given the green-light by one publisher, presumably desperate to cash-in on the current trend of atheist dialectic.
Not that the ecclesiasts have been shy or retiring with their own output; there are countless rebuttals, refutations, confutations and denials doing the rounds, most with equally pathetic ad hominem titles like ‘The Dawkins Delusion’. Unsurprisingly, the religious counter-arguments don’t sell half as well as their atheist competitors. Maybe they’re not as glamorous.
For as literature 101 will teach you; conflict is the heart of dramatic tension, and nothing is as contentious right now as religion. Sure it’s controversial stuff: the liberal press, ever desperate to portray themselves as insurmountably PC, love to pounce on any book of the atheist ilk and cry ‘offensive, offensive’ (which I’m sure the publishers relish) in a strange attempt to curtail this sort of writing. This is an obviously self-defeating act, as it only goes to make the books appear more edgy and sensational. But as it’s been said many times before, by many people much brighter than me: the risk of offence is the price we pay for freedom of speech, and what a tiny price it is. My over-worked point being: these books sell! This literary season’s a-la-mode must-have accessory is a piece of oh-so-stylish designer atheism.
And so it was only a matter of time before one of the big-hitters of the fiction world turned their hands to New Atheism to produce the novelistic equivalent of ‘The God Delusion’ or ‘God is Not Great’ (or whatever). Enter Philip Pullman, with his new novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (hereafter referred to as ‘TGMJATSC’ – because I’m lazy and because it’d look ridiculous to have that title repeated over and over (and over) in such a short article).
Even before this book was published, the marketing guys were making sure that everybody knew it was coming. ‘Fierce’, ‘Provoking’, ‘Deliberately Outrageous’ were some of the pre-release adjectives being spun by Pullman’s promotional team. “O M G it’s about the Bible” (I believe was how The Times put it). We were told to expect controversy. The world was bracing itself for another onslaught of antagonistic atheism – this time, in a novel.
But lo-(and indeed)-behold; the book isn’t the religion-hating bitch-fest the marketing guys would have you believe. TGMJATSC is deeply respectful of its source material and neither patronises the Bible, nor treats it with any sense of irony. This book has been entirely misrepresented by its publishers. This is probably because “The Next God Delusion” is a much sexier and more reliable marketing statement than “a historical revisionism of the synoptic gospels”. Still, a reprimand is in order….naughty publishers.
TGMJATSC is essentially a re-telling of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew (there’s bit of Luke: no John) i.e. the Jesus story. The miracle of the clay sparrows is also included, showing that Pullman is at least passingly familiar with the apocrypha. The significant point of difference is that Jesus now has a twin brother called ‘Christ’. The Jesus character is familiar: an itinerant preacher held in suspicion by both the Romans and Jewish elders. Christ is his less-gifted but loving brother who follows Jesus, secretly writing down his teachings so that others may learn about Jesus’ ideas. (The lit. theory dorks amongst you might call this an inter-textual narrative: as the story that Christ is writing on his journey is supposedly the exact one you’re now reading centuries later).
Poor Christ is soon corrupted by a mysterious stranger (whose identity is never revealed; possible contenders include: the Devil, a Sanhedrin elder, a Roman spy or even an angel) who insists that in order for Jesus’ teachings to flourish, Jesus must die. Christ unwittingly fulfils the role of Judas, betraying his brother so that Jesus’ word will become immortal. Pullman stringently plays-down the supernatural aspects of the story: and so instead of Jesus rising from the dead, Christ pretends to be his brother risen: creating a doppelganger scenario that explains the resurrection without any supernatural or divine impetus. It’s the Jesus story mythologized for a secular audience.
The real controversy lies behind Christ’s motivations: the ‘mysterious stranger’ convinces Christ that everyday folk are too stupid to make moral decisions or to be their own masters: only an all-powerful church can be responsible. So, if anything, TGMJATSC is a dig at the precepts of organised religion, rather than the spiritual nature of religion itself. A firm criticism of the church as establishment is about as contentious as this book gets. Aside from a re-imagining of some of Jesus’ miracles, Pullman makes no attempt to destroy the foundations of religion with scientific determinism; which is refreshing, coming as this book does from a writer famous for his atheism*.
Jesus’ message of love and humility remains completely intact, and Pullman’s own telling of the Sermon on the Mount is especially striking for its faithfulness to the original. Jesus is sacrosanct, it’s the church that Pullman attacks: “Under its authority, Jesus will be distorted and lied about and compromised and betrayed over and over again”.
The prose is charmingly understated; monosyllabic words and single-clause sentences are the name of the game (think: Good News Bible rather than King James). And the majority of the characters perform their roles adequately, if without any real charisma or depth. Doubting Thomas is doubting because the Bible says he is; similarly John the Baptist baptises and Mary Magdalene is maudlin. In fact, in terms of the Pullman-to-Bible ratio, I’d say about 90% of TGMJATSC is just a straight-faced and unembellished paraphrasing of the gospels. This is a shame, because the book is most interesting when Pullman deviates from his sources.
The changes that he does make to the Bible account for such a tiny percentage of the book that most of the novel feels underdeveloped. The unidentified stranger who corrupts Christ does so with some baffling and unexplored theology, which is so brief and poorly articulated that I didn’t really understand what Pullman was getting at, despite taking pains to re-read the passage multiple times: “He is the history and you are the truth, but you will have to be wiser. You will have to step outside time, and see the necessity for things that those within time find distressing.”
Equally as frustrating is the fact that Pullman takes great pains to humanise the figure of Jesus; but only at the very end of the novel. On the eve of his execution, Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane. At this juncture, the writer takes a dramatic schism from his sources, and gives Jesus a ten-page soliloquy in which he questions the nature of God, sacrifice and belief. It’s beautifully written and thoughtful, filled with poignant self-doubt and, in context, is deeply moving:
“No answer, naturally. Listen to that silence. Not a breath of wind; little insects in the grasses, a dog barking on some farm beyond the hills, an owl in the valley; and the infinite silence under it all. You’re not in the sounds are you? If I thought you were, I could love you with all my heart. But you’re in the silence. You say nothing.
If I thought you were listening, I’d pray for this above all: that any church set up in your name should remain poor, powerless and modest.”
It’s the best (and longest) scene in the novel; but the only one in which the writing really comes alive and gets to grips with the issues at hand. If the whole text were as probing or as full of ideas as the final act, then TGMJATSC would be something special. But most of this book is nothing more than a paraphrasing of the gospels, injected with the occasional original short scene or comment.
Unfortunately, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ never manages to transcend the novelty of its premise. The basic idea that Jesus had a twin brother is the most interesting thing about the book: but it isn’t developed to its full potential. On the rare occasion that Jesus and his brother interact, the tension rises and my interest piqued. But these scenes are few and far between. The book was also over-hyped to a preposterous degree: and that the media misrepresented the novel as being a religion hating atheist’s rant didn’t help matters either. I don’t think I’ve ever accused a novel of being too short before; but Pullman should have given these ideas room to breathe and develop; when Pullman hits his stride things get really good; I just wish there was…more.