The Good Man Philip or the Scoundrel Pullman?

01/05/10 | Posted by MattPage

Back in February we published a list of significant books about Jesus ranging from the pope’s own “Jesus of Nazareth” to the highly controversial novel “Last Temptation of Christ”. Yet if we’d published the list a couple of months later, I suspect we may have added the latest novel from Philip Pullman, “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ”.

Pullman is well known for expressing his anti-religious views through his work. His “His Dark Materials” trilogy was frequently interpreted as an attack on both the Church and God himself. Interestingly, that series dealt with the Old Testament and the history of the Church but skipped over the gospels, but now Pullman has returned to fill that particular gap.

 Philip Pullman: “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

The story (and both the back cover and the book’s website are at pains to tell us in big letters that “This is a Story”) is a fictionalised take on the life of Jesus. But whilst in many ways the story sticks closely to the gospels, it introduces one major deviation: Jesus has a twin (called Christ) who alters Jesus’ message in order make it more popular.

Pullman does this not because this is what he really thinks has happened, but as a way of exploring how the radical teaching of Jesus somehow birthed a rich and powerful church.  In doing so he’s tapping into a long established tradition of contrasting the ‘Jesus of history’ with the ‘Christ of faith’. Of course many reject the idea that the two are somehow in opposition to one another, but even in church circles there are many who wish the church would be truer to its humble origins. 

The book has been out for a month now and has received a wide range of reviews, most notably in the Guardian (which has published three different reviews) but also in The Times, The Telegraph and The Independent. What’s most interesting about the reviews so far is not only the wide range of opinions that it has received, but the impossibility of predicting who is going to say what. The critic for the strongly pro-establishment Daily Telegraph suggests that “Pullman has done the story a service by reminding us of its extraordinary power”, whilst the frequently dissenting Guardian takes criticises it for being “totally without subtlety”. Most unusual of all is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s considered review (also in The Guardian) which offers a couple of gentle objections but nevertheless think it is “mostly Pullman at his very impressive best”. A week or two later Pullman returned the compliment praising the archbishop for being “intelligent”.

The book has already upset many people, however, some of whom don’t really get it, and others who get it all too well. Whilst some praise it for revitalising the words of Jesus others see it as offensive tripe. Pullman’s hope is that his book “will lead people back to the Bible itself”1. Whether it will or not, remains to be seen.

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