Saturday, 14 May 2011

Book #34 The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ
After I'd completed this novel I read that it belonged to The Canongate Myths Series, a range of books by prominent authors retelling popular myths. Margaret Atwood chose the Odyssey and wrote The Penelopiad, Michael Faber chose Prometheus and wrote The Fire Gospel, Jeanette Winterson chose Atlas and wrote 'Weight' etc. For Pullman, an atheist, Christianity was his myth of choice.

Philip Pullman of course is most famous for the popular 'His Dark Materials' trilogy, a series of books that I have always meant to read and never have. I remember being quite excited when I saw this book, an adult book, being released and immediately intended to read it. I have an interest in philosophy and theology, I was quite excited by it.

I don't know why I expected it, but I expected grown up, intriguing detailed, original prose, asking important questions and sparking thought. The central conceit is interesting of itself that instead of having one child Mary had twins, one called Jesus and the other known as Christ. In their childhood it was Christ who was considered special but in adulthood Jesus became the preacher and Christ his biographer taking notes of his teachings. Christ, religious in himself wants to build his own Church and so he begins to make changes to the stories of Jesus to "improve" them or leave things out according to his own agenda.

I think Pullman thinks he's being very clever here by using the Christ character to point out that the Gospel stories as we know them are probably not an accurate depiction of the life of Jesus and that the authors of the Bible had their own agenda. However anyone with a basic amount of New Testament theology knowledge knows The Bible was written many years after the death of Jesus.
That which we call the Gospel According to "Mark" is actually a redaction of multiple sources most notably the Q source and that there was probably no "Mark" in the first instance. So this isn't news to me. Even most educated people without theological knowledge are not under the assumption that the Bible Stories are entirely fact; just the written record of the oral tradition of the Jewish people and early Christians, which of course is subject to loss and change over time prior to becoming a written record.  It's the only point he really makes, and I probably just made the same point in a better way. It feels quite patronising in a way like atheist Pullman thinks he's just come up with this idea that none of these " silly Christian types" have considered, the fact that an editing process went into constructing the Bible and how far can we trust it as an accurate historical document therefore? Perhaps I'm wrong but I'd like to think that most Christians have considered this as a philosophical issue. "History is written by the victors" said Winston Churchill. The history books are biased too.

He got a lot of flak from Christian fundamentalists for blasphemous content, but I don't even think its particularly blasphemous. It is frustrating and it is irritating. The basic content of the book is Gospel Stories, but they are written in such a simplistic style that it literally feels like reading a Child's Bible. He just tells the stories you already know if you grew up with them with no vast differences between what Pullman's Jesus says and the Jesus of the Bible despite the rather minor, it has to be said, meddling of the scoundrel Christ.

If you ask me you'd be better off reading a copy of the New Testament whilst bearing in mind that the stories therein probably didn't occur exactly as described if indeed they occurred at all. I found this book a massive disappointment, I was expecting something a lot more, perhaps a lot more adult, a lot more challenging and I think crucially a lot more controversial and informed. I think I wanted that. Instead what I got was a rather pointless alternate spin on the New Testament for kids with delusions of grandeur of mentally ill proportions. I don't think it was meant as a kids book though, it certainly wasn't marketed that way, which leaves me sort of flummoxed by it.
As far as I was concerned it's all a bit Emperor's New Clothes.

I do like the word Scoundrel though. It's a great word.

I think I can only give this book a 3/10. If I wanted to read a Child's Bible I'd buy one.

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