The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ – Philip Pullman

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.

 Tomcat

 

 *[NOTE: I’m not the biggest fan of the so-called ‘New Atheists’; not because of any religious reasoning you understand, but because they sully the image of secular humanism by misrepresenting it as fundamentally aggressive and intolerant.  If you read Dawkins (and I have), secular humanism appears to be something that’s negatively self-defined against theistic religion; rather than positively identifiable by its own good works and ideologies.  Basically, the ‘New Atheists’ give atheists a bad name; as a very clever friend of mine recently put it: what they are really all about is just another form of intolerance.]

The 2010 Man Booker Prize for Fiction

The more astute among my readers (that’s both of you: hi mum!) may have noticed that the past four novels I’ve written about (One, Two, Three, Four), all have something in common.  No, they weren’t written by Katie Price under the assumed pen-names of Tom McCarthy and Andrea Levy*; nor were they rescued from imminent pulping by an action-hero Judy Finnegan** (Mr and Mrs Madeley, anyone?).  The unifying factor is: they’ve all been longlisted (is that a verb??) for this year’s Man Booker Prize for fiction.

 “What a coincidence!”, I hear you cry; yet be not so amazed, for the action was deliberate.  I’ve set myself the daunting, un-called for and ostensibly pointless task of reading the entire 2010 Booker Prize longlist before the winner is announced on October 12th.  Return here on October the 11th to read my final thoughts on the nominees, as well as my pre-award show gossip and predictions.  Expect it to be an immoderate furore of well-meaning platitudes and civilised propriety.  Unless Peter Carey arrives at the ceremony drunk and naked, tearing pages out  of Helen Dunmore’s The Betrayal and throwing them into the air like so much literary confetti as he declares himself the King of Booker, wearing The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas as a crown.  Don’t look at me that way! It’s possible…Stranger things have happened…

 

The Man Booker Prize, along with the Pulitzer and the Nobel, forms part of the ‘big three’ of literary awards.  It’s a single, annual prize awarded to a full-length novel, in English, written by a citizen of the British Commonwealth (I believe Irish authors are eligible as well).  Despite the patriarchal impression given by its title, both men and women are permitted to enter.  The prefix ‘Man’ is a rider added in 2002 when the Man investment group began to sponsor the prize.

Publishers may enter two novels from their imprint for consideration each year, and books by previous winners are automatically considered.  Judges also reserve the right to ‘call in’ novels which they personally believe are attention-worthy, whether their publishers have entered them into the competition or not.  This year’s most talked-about ‘call in’ is Room by Emma Donoghue, which was requested by the judges before it had even been published; such was the novel’s pre-release hype.

 This year’s booker prize, however, has already become the subject of controversy (that is, if you can call the petty exchanges of bibliophilic dorks ‘controversial’).  The literary press has spent more time discussing what hasn’t been nominated than what has.  And it does strike me as odd that the brilliant Solar by Ian McEwan has been looked-over (surely it couldn’t have been over-looked?) and rejected by the selection committee.  Similarly, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman didn’t make the cut; neither did The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis.  All three are wonderful, accomplished novels; superior, in my opinion, to some of the nominees I’ve thus far encountered.

Perhaps you can infer more from the judges’ omissions than from their inclusions?  These three rejected novels are loaded with risqué, contentious subject matter (global warming, atheism, trans-gender), and it would be easy to accuse the judges of ‘playing it safe’ with their nominations: are they afraid to give the award to a novel that might see them accused of having some kind of agenda? 

Unfortunately for the judges, excluding a book from the longlist is just as much a loaded act of volition as including one.  Maybe they’re deliberately courting controversy by disregarding the more acclaimed books, in a bid to reverse the waning public interest of recent years.  Maybe they’re afraid that nominating Pullman will see them accused of committing to an atheist point of view?  Facile as such concerns may be. 

My greatest fear, however, is that none of these explanations is the correct one; maybe the judges are such terrible arbiters of literary taste that they genuinely  believe Trespass  by Rose Tremain is better than Solar by Ian McEwan.  In which case, they have my pity; subjective as my argument may be.

On the topic of ideal nominations, I would also like to have seen Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds long-listed.  I see no reason why science-fiction should be so disregarded by the Booker judges.  Perhaps giving the nod to a sci-fi novel may challenge the established notion that science-fiction is an esoteric and clichéd genre that lacks depth and literary significance.  Terminal World is insightful, original and very accomplished, and its nomination would only have been a force for good, I feel.

 

Finally, I’d like to make some notes about why I’m doing this.  I’ve always been curious about literary awards.  Don’t get me wrong; I don’t let the judges of such prizes dictate to me my taste in books; but I’m intrigued by the influence such people seem to have over the reading public.  It’s easy to rail against institutions like the Booker prize and accuse such awards of being reductive and popularist.  Yet as I perpetually fail to pin-down and understand my own taste in books, maybe I’ll be helped by gauging the responses of other people: looking outward rather than inwards, for once.

 Last year’s winner Wolf Hall enjoyed a frenzied rise in sales and popular attention once it won, and surely it can only be a good thing that Hilary Mantel’s masterwork finally got the attention it deserves, after spending so many months bothering the lower-regions of the bestsellers list.

I’m also intrigued by all the conspiracy theories that surround the award.  It’s even been suggested by the conservative right of the literary world that, in recent years, the amount of ‘minority’ fiction (gay writing, black writing, Afghan writing etc) nominated and awarded the prize is massively disproportionate to the out-put and quality of the niche that produces it, and that a miss-guided agenda of political correctness is fuelling the engines of the judges.  I’ve not read widely enough to make any comment on this, but it interests me nonetheless.

So, I thought that the only way to make an informed and balanced judgement on the Booker prize would be to do exactly what the judges are doing: read every novel on the longlist and decide for myself which is ‘best’.  I’ve already taken issue with the omission of some of my favourite books of the year, and perhaps my frustration at this will be sated by the process of reading the other nominees.  Also, I like a challenge and it’s nice to have some direction to my reading, for once.

 

It’s also going to be difficult.  Not least because my reading technique is that of subvocalisation; by which I mean that when I read, I imagine the full sound and spacing of words, correct to grammar and rhythm.  I can’t help it; it’s how I’ve always read.  I read in my imagination at the same speed I would read aloud to an audience; hence, for me, books are broadcast in ‘real time’, as it were.

What I’m trying to say is: I’m a slow reader.  Sub-vocal, internalised reading has its advantages: apparently it’s more conducive to analysis and understanding, it’s just damn slow.

But thus far, I’m on target to finish just before the award is announced.  I don’t want to jinx my mission, but I should be successful; pending any major life-changes or disruptive incidents. 

I hope that you enjoy (and have enjoyed) my rolling book-by-book reviews of the nominees. As always, comments and criticism are welcome.  Many thanks for reading.

Tomcat.

*It was, at one point, rumoured that Katie Price’s latest ‘novel’ was being considered for nomination; even though her books are actually written by somebody called Rebecca Farnworth.  Thankfully, this rumour turned out to be un-founded.  I may have to check my sources, but isn’t Jordan winning the Booker prize one of the harbingers of the apocalypse?

**After being named ‘the most powerful people in publishing’ by various sources in recent years, it is constantly rumoured that Richard and Judy are going to become judges of the booker prize.  Apparently, it’s only a matter of time.  God help us.  This, of course, would only fuel the miss-guided notion that quantity of sales is equal to quality of product. Which it isn’t – otherwise more people would be talking about ‘The Wire’ and fewer people would talk about ‘Glee’.