on April 18, 2010
The story of Jesus has been proclaimed by Christians as "The Greatest Story Ever Told". Pullman in his story "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ" makes the point that we can never know what happened especially when we were not present when a story was made. The story of Jesus Christ is a story. It was not sufficiently documented to be history, but even if it were to be taken as history for the sake of argument, Pullman's point was that history as told is not necessarily truth. Truth, he thinks, can be injected into history in any way the story teller wants it. When it travels far enough and is retold often enough, and is, above all, a good story, people will believe it.
Christians may likely find this book heretical and blasphemous. If the very idea that Mary, the mother of Jesus gave birth to twins, naming one "Jesus" and the other "Christ", may be sufficient justification for a charge of heresy, then to say that it was Christ who betrayed Jesus to the Roman governor must surely carry the aggravated charge of blasphemy.
However, this book is much more complex and complicated than that. Pullman did not write this book because he was an atheist with the intention of annoying Christians by disparaging Jesus Christ, God, and the Biblical account. He recaptured many of the teachings of Jesus - all taken from the Bible - and cast them in a context that made those teachings far more meaningful than they do coming straight from the Bible. His citation of the Lord's Prayer in the context that he had created would have moved many a Christian. It has many a teaching attributed to Jesus Christ that any man, Christian or atheist, will like to embrace. For example, "'Lord, if I thought you were listening, I'd pray for this above all: that any church set up in your name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest. That it should wield no authority except that of love. That it should never cast anyone out. That it should own no property and make no laws. That it should not condemn, but only forgive."
Slowly and ominously, Pullman spun a version of the life and death of Jesus, explaining the necessity if not the veracity of miracles in the story of Jesus. If miracles do not happen in real life, they had to be created. And the greatest miracle of all was the Resurrection. Pullman's account was contrary to popular Christian belief that the Roman soldiers did not break the legs of Jesus to hasten his death (a conventional practice in the art of crucifixion at the time). I will not add the spoiler here so that the reader can enjoy the book even more.
This is not a book that is proclaiming that the Bible was false, and it was made clear that the book was only a story. Pullman's is a story that we don't quite expect; but was the Biblical story of Jesus one that we do? The point that runs through it is that a good story is still a story. Its success depends on many factors, among them, the credulity of people and the desire to believe in miracles. It depends as much on the listener as it does on the storyteller. It depends, in other words, on you.
on April 11, 2010
If you look at the back cover of this book you'll find only four words: "This is a STORY." And at the most basic level, it is. It is a fictional story about Jesus and his brother Christ. But beyond that, and significantly more important, it is a story about stories, truth, humanity, religion, and how they all tie together.
If you are used to the writing style of His Dark Materials, you may be surprised to find that Philip Pullman has chosen to take up a completely different style of narration. This book takes a much simpler approach-- it almost sounds like it is written so that an adult could read the story out loud to a child. While it is a bit off putting at first, particularly for those who love the style of His Dark Materials, it functions perfectly for the book's purpose.
As the plot progresses Pullman beckons the reader to question whether or not truth and historical accuracy are one in the same; if an historical event is edited so that the truth is better portrayed, does that in some sense make the events that occurred more true, or more meaningful?
The beauty of the book is that Pullman makes us question this on two levels--through the story the characters write and the story he himself writes. Pullman obviously doesn't see his story as historical fact (as I'm sure certain reviews that pop up will miss), but by blending the New Testament, what historians can guess, and some fiction of his own, we are left with a unique work that in many ways is more interesting and fascinating than the sources he draws from.
As one might expect, the book, particularly by the end, is very critical of the concept of the Judeo-Christian God, as well as Christianity as it is often practiced today. Philip Pullman forces particularly the Christian reader to question what kind of person Jesus actually would have been--not as God, but as a human, and what beliefs he had as to what the Kingdom of Heaven is and how God should be worshiped. It's a shame that most Christians will be turned away from the book because of ideas they consider "blasphemous" (which is ironic because in the book Pullman cleverly explains how the ideas are not) because I truly believe, in the end, it will make the average Christian question if they are practicing their religion in a way that Jesus would approve of, and what needs to be done to become more "Christ-like."
In short, I highly recommend this book to anyone, nonreligious and religious alike. I would also strongly suggest this book to be taught in English classes to discuss storytelling, although of course the subject matter is quite controversial, which of course could spark even more interesting conversation.
This is an amazing book. One chapter in particular is positively mind-blowing--the chapter with Jesus "praying" in the garden on the night before his crucifixion. I can't say more without spoiling key elements within the story the uncovering of which are among the book's chief pleasures.
That the overall impression one takes away from "Good Man" is so overwhelmingly positive is all the more remarkable because the book is, in so many surprising ways, profoundly flawed. Pullman says that "Good Man" is in part an exploration of story itself, and yet the narrative structure of "Good Man"--ingenious though its central conceit is--seems confused. A book that starts off with a character apparently able to perform "authentic" miracles (turning clay birds into live birds, for example) and then moves to a naturalistic explanation of Jesus' miracles would be, in less skilled hands, something of a disaster. Yet, for its brilliant ideas, winsome prose, and compassionate wisdom, "Good Man" overcomes chapter-by-chapter the yawning failures of the whole. The parts are greater than the sum of the parts.
Is the story offensive to believers? I suppose so. It seems rather tragic that such an honest and heartfelt--and uplifting--exploration of the Jesus story should offend Christians, but I reckon that inevitable. It's hard not to think that Christians offended by a work of such sheer grit and earthy beauty have their offendedness coming to them, though.
With the criticisms I offered in mind--and a further note that the earlier chapters are not as compelling as the later chapters, so don't give up too soon--I recommend "Good Man" as highly as it is possible to recommend a work of fiction. And remember, this IS a work of fiction, and makes no pretense to be anything but. So those who complain about it not being "factual" or "biblical" enough are missing the point in a truly astonishing display of obstinate ignorance. I have a degree in biblical studies from an evangelical college and imagine I know the Bible better than most believers do. It is precisely in its departure from the original Gospel stories that the reason for the book's existence lies.
on May 15, 2010
In Pullman's latest, there is no poetry, no complexity, no inspiration nor illumination. I usually love retellings of ancient religious/mythological stories, but this one is heavy-handed and stylistically inconsistent, as if the author both doubted his readers' intelligence and invested little of his own into a masterful recrafting of this tale. I can only suppose that the professional book reviewers at The Guardian, The Independent, and other big-name blurb providers have frothily praised this book on the bases of their expectations--or else of what they felt they were supposed to say. I was disappointed too, after enjoying Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy so much. Maybe I would not have expected all that I did of this book if it too were intended for children; in fact, it might even be a fine piece of literature for parents to share with young people they would raise to be freethinkers.
Rather than adding dimension or at least an interesting twist to the story or significance of a major religious figure, this book reflects a rather childishly dry interpretation of the words attributed to Jesus and a distant, erratic picture of its character by the same name. The other main character--the one called Christ--is just a nitwit, not a sympathetic or engaging figure at all; his idiotic credulity under the influence of a mysterious personage is the sole engine prodding the plodding plot along (and a book that takes only 3.5 hours to read out loud should not impress one with its slowness). It is not even fictionally plausible. The premise of Pullman's book--that Christ & Jesus are two people, twins--seems pointless in hindsight, when the author neglects to build great relevance upon that potentially promising foundation. The rest of the content is basically the original gospel story unaltered--another opportunity Pullman failed to cash in on. It is as if the author got so lost in hammering (and hammering, and hammering) home his bluntly single-pointed message that all other considerations were left by the wayside.
Oh, and that message? In sum: the story which many take to be true about Jesus and the institutionalization of Christianity could just as easily have been made up or wildly refashioned by its tellers. There, i've just spared you a great waste of time. Normally i expect stories of this genre to move me to a deepened perspective, or at least to fascinate with their recreation of the source material. Instead, i found myself turning the pages of this one as quickly as i could just to make it go away.
on April 25, 2011
What an amazing book. My first by Philip Pullman. As an adult Christian, I've been more moved by Jesus the man then Jesus the Christ. It was his humanity that inspired me to be a better person - to strive to bring God's kingdom to our lives on earth and not some far away heaven. The scene of Jesus in the Garden - his doubts, his fears, God's silence brought tears to my eyes. Thanks Mr. Pullman for making me continue to question my faith as I journey through life.
on August 25, 2013
I'm not a religious man. I think I should make that very clear, but a book review is no place for me to argue my stance on that. I do think it is fair to say however, that the mythology of religion appeals to me more than the actual spirituality of it. Of course, people who know me will also know that Philip Pullman is my favourite author, and with his often vocal stance on religion, I thought his 2010 release, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ would make for a fascinating read. The blurb didn't really give anything away of what to expect, and I thought what the hell. Let's give this a go.
The book itself is actually a part of the Canongate Myth Series and retells the story of Jesus, but in such a controversial and alternate way as the world knows. Mary didn't give birth to a son, she gave birth to twin boys; one called Jesus and one called Christ. And as the book progresses, we see the boys develop, drift away from one another and ultimately take a different stand on the 'coming of God's Kingdom'. It is an interesting concept that tells the history from the bible, but in such a modern and up-to-date way.
I have to admit though, that this wasn't really what I expected. It is a unique, complex and interesting device to adapt the story with two figures. Obviously one representing the human side of Jesus, the other the more spiritual. However, the book lacked any kind of religious sarcasm I was expecting from Pullman. It was as if he adapted the two figures into the history already told in the bible - and let's be frank, it is a pretty boring story. It wasn't exciting, it lacked any real depth, and the political situation the people found themselves in during the Roman occupation was completely two-dimensional. I hate to admit it, but this was a chore to read. I even put the book down for a while, hoping to come back to it with perhaps a little more energy and inspiration to seek the ending. Sadly, this did little to ignite my reading pleasure.
I found both characters utterly annoying. Jesus was arrogant, hypocritical and totally uninspiring. At first, you could be forgiven for thinking that this represents Pullman's view on Christianity, his voice coming through thick and strong, but sadly it isn't. Jesus preaches, he inspires the people, but the admiration doesn't seep through to the reader, as we see him shun his family and distance his brother. Christ actually takes it upon himself, with guidance from a 'stranger' to write down the truth Jesus speaks, keeping his distance so his brother isn't aware of his actions. But Christ is guilty of being whiny and moany; you often find yourself telling the guy to 'grow a pair' and stand up for his beliefs, but Pullman portrays him as a coward, who is tempted by sin. He creates such a show of Christ's 'sacrifice' towards the end of the book, but when it comes down to it, the actual betrayal lasts a minute paragraph.
Where Pullman's voice does come through however, is how Christ adds a little bit poetic licence when transcribing the sermons and speeches of his brother. He is completely engulfed that the world needs a Church, a sort of physical embodiment of God's Kingdom on Earth, whereas his brother is in total disagreement. The book tries to be clever, especially with its controversial title, but ultimately fails on all fronts - well for me anyway.
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is at best an unsuccessful attempt at retelling the 'myth' of Jesus Christ. It has an interesting concept of two brothers, who take a different stance on what God's vision is, but it lacks the miraculous message many Christians I assume finds in scripture. The language is pretty cold, lacking depth and interest, which would be forgiven if the book was more a satirical look at religion, but Pullman really creates the controversy, without backing it up within the pages. The characters are wooden or annoying, and the 'sacrifice' of Jesus doesn't engage any reactions of sympathy or gratitude. I found the book boring and actually, lacking in purpose. It is no wonder that the book was heavily criticised by Jesuit theologians. If you find the story of Jesus inspiring or interesting, I'm afraid this book won't do much to heighten or lessen that, but if you are interested in reading a slightly alternate take on the baby born in a manger story, you may find something that tickles your fancy.
on May 16, 2010
Having not read any of Philip Pullman's previous works, I didn't go into this with any particular expectations, but I have to say that my mind was blown by how much I enjoyed it. The news surrounding this has drawn criticism from many Christians claiming this book is blasphemous and even some fundamentalists sending the author hate mail. In fact I got quite the opposite impression from this book and although this hasn't been the first attack against Christianity that Pullman has waged in his writing, I got the impression that he wanted to handle this with a bit more care.
The story focuses around Jesus and his twin brother Christ and follows them as they grow up, depicting Christ as the true follower of his brother Jesus documenting everything he says and every miracle he performs so as to retain in history the story of this great man. However, a stranger approaches Christ with promises of helping retain this glorious documentation of the life of Jesus and the good work he has done. However, this help turns out not to be as straightforward as Christ is first lead to believe as the story of Jesus will be manipulated in favour of creating an image of the kingdom of God on Earth to lead the people to do good to their fellow man.
I can understand how Christians may see it as just another mainstream attack on the church as it certainly depicts the idea that the church is a result of a manipulation of history and proposes that Jesus may not be as perfect a man as he is depicted in the Bible. But to say that this is outright blasphemy is, in my eyes, wrong. When an individual looks at history, they will plainly see that throughout there has been a continuous manipulation of the documents that formed the bible and the catholic church as a whole. To imply that the Catholic church is free from corruption and anything that suggests otherwise is also misleading and I think Pullman is simply putting across the idea in this book, that things such as this should never be taken at face value.
The characters are well rounded in their own part. Jesus is the mischievous child who grows into the loving, but sometimes temperamental individual, whilst his brother Christ comes across as the naive man who has always wanted to do good but is driven to betrayal and sin through his own self pity and distaste at the way some perceive his brother as somewhat of a trouble maker. This is a terrific read that I found to be both enlightening and thought provoking and one that I would highly recommend.
on December 3, 2010
I've read a number of retellings of the central Christian story recently: C K Stead wrote a fascinating and surprisingly faithful (irony intended) secular retelling from the eyes of Judas Hiscariot; I was fortunate enough to attend a performance of the famous, once-in-a-decade Oberammergau Passion Play in Bavaria, and now I've stumbled over the famously atheist Philip Pullman's take - which involves a fair bit more licence than Stead's but is otherwise of a similar demystifying disposition: rationalising miracles into ordinary materialistic phenomena, and rebasing Jesus from mystic to idealistic, but nonetheless political, historical figure.
Pullman's licence is to pull Jesus Christ apart into two figures: Jesus (an idealist if naive populist) and Christ, his twin, a more introverted, but more intelligent, dark inversion.
Curiously, the Passion Play - which is entirely reverend to orthodox Christian doctrine in a way that Stead's and Pullman's works are not - also de-emphasises the spiritual in favour of the political machinations of the Sanhedrin and the political dimension of Christ's mission. All three, in some way, accordingly miss what's so special and clever about the passion. But we live in rational times - or so we like our chroniclers to tell us.
All three also bring the character of Judas into sharp relief: Stead and Oberammergau by his prominence, Pullman by his notable absence.
The thing is, unless read purely as a pantomime villain, Judas is the not only the central driver of the passion's narrative, but also the most interesting and recognisably human character of the lot: he means well, but is naivety/stupidity/vanity/self importance (delete as applicable) lets him down. His is the character arc which gives us lessons: if this were a Shakespearian Tragedy he would be the lead: a complex, brooding anti-hero in the vein of Macbeth. Jesus, by contrast, is a rather cardboard cut-out good guy not unlike the fated Duncan: At key points in the drama, Christ remains passive and stays pointedly silent. By contrast Judas agonises, soliloquises, and, for better or ill, acts.
While Judas is not represented by name here, his actions are, and it is telling how Pullman has re-designed the whole myth to accommodate them (it would spoil it to say more: you'll have to read the book to see what I mean). Much of Pullman's industry is to illustrate that there is no such thing as truth other than the compelling story contextualised and carved out of events which, in their unfinished natural state, don't have a moral or didactic dimension. Jesus provides the unshaped events, Christ the chronicle. Christ is, by turns, appalled by and drawn to the power he derives from his narrative talent.
This brief book is written stylishly and evenly in Pullman's curt and economical prose. He might seem a controversial choice to retell this particular story, yet despite his inventions Philip Pullman generally does not let his atheism get in the way of the thrust of Jesus' central message. Indeed, as a storyteller of the first order, you wonder whether he doesn't see a little of the tragic scoundrel Christ in himself.
If you like this, try C.K. Stead: My Name Was Judas
Phillip Pullman must annoy his fair share of die-hard Christians. Like Christopher Hitchens, he dares to challenge us on our most sacred ground, but unlike Hitchens Pullman uses an intellectual rapier rather than Hitchens' hefty broadsword. Among the many common denominatri these two share, they both can write and write well.
With "The Good Man Jesus," Pullman takes on the foundation of the Christian faith, the life of Jesus. In this telling, Jesus and Christ are twins. Jesus is a powerful voice challenging the corruption of God's message. Christ is a cowardly chronicler who agrees to work with an unnamed advisor who wants somebody to keep track of Jesus's travels and teachings. Pullman tracks the well-known life of Jesus, including the Sermon on the Mount, the Garden of Gethsemane, and the other famous events. The question of Jesus's divinity is left a bit murky, but what is clear is that Jesus has no intention of creating a major politicial institution, the Church.
Which is exactly what has happened, and according to Pullman it is due to the works and naivete of Christ.
More thought-provoking than bomb-throwing, "The Good Man Jesus" offers a respectful alternate take on Jesus that would have gotten Pullman burnt at the stake for heresy in many a bygone age. Thank goodness he lives and writes now.
In this audiobook version, Pullman reads his own words, and he reads them well.
on May 14, 2010
From the back cover:
In this ingenious and spellbinding retelling of the life of Jesus, Philip Pullman revisits the most influential story ever told. Charged with mystery, compassion and enormous power, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ throws fresh light on who Jesus was and asks the reader questions that will continue to reverberate long after the final page is turned. For above all, this book is about how stories become stories.
I'm going to start this review with a statement about my own faith so I might best explain how I feel about this book. The reason why I really loved this story is so intertwined within my own journey through a religious upbringing that I can't think of any way to review it and offer my opinion without including it. I was raised as a church attending Roman Catholic so I know the story of Jesus pretty much back to front. These days I'm definitely what you would call a non-practicing Catholic. I still have belief in a higher power (though not a 'personal' God), and my views are definitely heretical. I also very strongly believe that everyone has the right to believe or not believe anything and everything and that everyone should leave everyone else to their own devices on their spiritual quest (or non-quest or non-spiritual quest as the case may be).
As a general rule I try to avoid both Christian literature and books written by atheists. As far as Christian literature goes it's just not my thing, and as far as the atheist stuff goes I tend to get a bit irate at the authors - for God's sake (sorry, couldn't help myself), let them believe what they want, what does it really matter? (And here's where the atheists get antsy about religion interfering with politics etc etc - and quite rightly so I have to say). I'm really not interested in having either God-bothering rhetoric shoved down my ears, or listening to a rant by a person enamoured with the cleverness of their own logic-fanaticism (looking at you Richard Dawkins).
So it would seem that this book is the kind of thing I would try to avoid. But there was just something about it that peaked my interest and I had to give it a try. Most likely I was intrigued with the reference to it being a book about how stories become stories - a personal interest of mine. I'm so glad I decided to read it, this is the best book I have read this year. I know it's only May and early days yet, but this is a likely contender for the best book for 2010 for me. It is a short novel, and written in a manner very close to the Gospel format and is easy to read. I finished it in a few hours.
I suppose that most Christian readers will consider this book both blasphemy and heresy, but there is something different about this than most atheist writing. There is something respectful and honouring of the traditional myths of Jesus, Pullman's Jesus is a good man, better than any other in some ways, and like in the bible versions, he is often troubled and difficult to understand, but always preaching his message of compassion, forgiveness, understanding and love. His twin brother, Christ, records his actions and words and has his own part to play in the unfolding of the story of Jesus that we know today.
The crux of the story comes from the scene of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, which is powerful and moving and is a heartrending confession from a man who is unsure if God really exists. The heresy is most potent and of course most poignant here, with Jesus lamenting what would come to be in the future if a Church was to be founded on his words. I think this is where the book has struck a chord with me, as it reflects my own journey through faith with the church. My experience and personal opinion is that if I want to follow the teachings of Jesus I can not follow the teachings of the church as they are at odds. It seems to me that the very church who claims ownership over the teachings of Jesus has missed the point of them and has come to enact the very opposite of them. It is in this section of the novel that the meaning of the title (and its cleverness) becomes clear - The Good Man Jesus refers to the man and his message, The Scoundrel Christ is the 'Jesus' the modern world has become familiar with, the original story changed over time to suit the purposes of an organisation intent on manipulating and controlling a people. So it is not the words and message of Jesus that Pullman is drawing out for examination but instead the misrepresentation and use of them by organised Christian religion - the real Scoundrel, always pulling people away from the true message Jesus was trying to spread. What is so great about this book is the way in which this idea is examined. It isn't given a scathing, logic-oriented, proof seeking examination, instead it is a passioned lament on the tragedy of one good man's intent to bring compassion and love to human kind become hijacked by an organisation which uses all his words but misses the intent of those words entirely.
The title of this story is so clever and I think it would be a shame if people would choose not to read the book due to taking offence at it. I would highly recommend this book to anyone with an open heart and mind (religious or not) who would like some food for thought about one of the most influential figures in history.