Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Review: Phillip Pullman's (Relatively) New Novel

C.S. Lewis once remarked that until one has had one's own book reviewed by critics, one will not grasp how much of the average review is taken up, not by discussion of the book's merits or lack thereof, but by imaginary accounts of how and why one wrote it -- and noted that in his own experience, they were usually wrong.  Be duly warned, then, as I comment on Phillip Pullman's novel (published back in May of this year) The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

It seems to me that Pullman has tried do several different things in this novel.  He is attempting, first of all, a retelling of a myth (the novel is explicitly described on the cover as part of a Canongate series retelling ancient myths).  But it also seems to be an allegory of the history of Christianity and a speculative naturalistic account of how Christianity originated.  On top of that, he's trying both to reconstruct what a historical Jesus was probably like, and reconstruct Jesus to someone more along the lines of Phillip Pullman, and I'm not at all convinced that Phillip Pullman's theological views could plausibly be those of the figure behind the Jesus stories.

Now, in all fairness, the only place where the "Pullmanization" of Jesus becomes blatant is in Pullman's reinterpretation of Jesus' "high priestly prayer" in the Garden of Gethsemane.  This is given rather differently from the account in John: Jesus, for example, declares that God has failed him, and if "the fool has said in his heart, there is no God," then Jesus is prepared to be that fool.  Now, this prayer is, on the gospels' own account, not witnessed by any of the apostles, and there is no suggestion that Jesus gave them a gist of it at some later time.  The prayer has to be a reconstruction of what the gospel writer thought Jesus would have, or should have, said on this occasion, and thus tells us more about the gospel writer's theology than about Jesus'.  Perhaps Pullman therefore thought it appropriate that his version of this prayer should tell the reader more about Phillip Pullman than about Pullman's Jesus.

I should probably tell you something about the premise and plot.  Pullman's conceit is that Jesus had a twin brother, and that Mary thought that this twin was the promised Messiah.  Hence, while the twin was given a common name, Mary always thought of him (and the novel always refers to him) as "Christ."  For my own part, I thought that this common name was "really" Judas, since [a] an old gnostic gospel refers to the apostle Thomas as "Judas Thomas" and the twin brother of Jesus and [b] the Christ of this novel takes the role of the man who betrays Jesus to the authorities, leading to Jesus' crucifixion (the role taken by Judas Iscariot in the gospels).  One thing the novel doesn't seem to be is, as one critic is cited on the cover as saying, a novel take on the two natures (divine and human) of Christ.  It's basically a novel of two separate human natures.

Early in the novel, Jesus is an outgoing, playful, somewhat rambunctious child (at one point, he runs away from home in an incident clearly modeled after and intended as the inspiration for the parable of the Prodigal son) while Christ is quiet, intelligent, and apparently able to do miracles.  For example, modifying an account in an apocryphal infancy gospel, Christ gets Jesus out of trouble for making clay birds on the Sabbath by turning them into real birds, which fly away.  What is notable about this incident is that later, Christ assumes that Jesus cannot do the miracles that the crowds expect of him, and never hints at any ability to do such miracles himself, nor laments that he used to be able to do them but no longer can.  When he encounters a prostitute with breast cancer, their interaction is premised on the assumption that neither he nor anyone else can heal her. It's not quite clear what this vanishing childhood capacity for miracles is supposed to represent or how we're to understand it in the context of the novel.

A similar clash of a world where miracles occur and where they apparently do not is seen in the opening of the novel, where a miracle assists the elderly Joseph in winning the hand of the virgin Mary (again, taken from an apocryphal gospel), but Mary apparently conceives Jesus and Christ because she is deceived by a village boy pretending to be an angel.  Joseph accepts her explanation that the conception is miraculous, and again, it's not clear whether he's being unduly credulous or just generalizing from the miracle he's already seen.

But later on, there are no miracles.  Jesus is an itinerant preacher, telling people to wait patiently for the imminent Day of the Lord when the ordinary oppressive course of events will be miraculously overturned by God's direct intervention.  Christ follows Jesus around, taking down his words, and occasionally altering them when he finds them too scandalous or impractical (and sometimes leaving them as they were even when he is troubled by them, as there are too many witnesses who can recount the original version and dispute the "improved version."  I think, here, that where Jesus represents the Jewish, apocalyptic Jesus movement that presumably lies at the root of Christianity, Christ represents the budding institutional church that tries to present Jesus as the Messiah and turn his teachings -- focused on the coming end of the world as we know it -- into something suitable for an enduring institution embracing Jews and Gentiles alike.

There is also an unnamed, mysterious stranger who appears to Christ on many occasions.  Christ suspects him of being, successively, an eminent Jewish scholar, a Gentile philosopher, and, as the stranger's goals become clearer, Satan himself, but his identity is deliberately left ambiguous (it's left possible that he's just a hallucinated projection of Christ's own darkest impulses, though he seems to have a lot of servants for a hallucination).  I take him to represent the full flowering of the institutional church, ready to press Jesus and his teaching into a mold serviceable to the leaders of the church.  This stranger encourages Christ to continue to write down and edit Jesus' teachings, encourages him to replace Jesus' policy of simply waiting for God to act in history with the establishment of an institution to act in God's name in the world, and eventually convinces Christ that Jesus can be betrayed to the authorities for his own good and the good of the movement, and without harm.  Later, after allowing Jesus to be crucified (to Christ's horror and disgust), the stranger arranges to have Jesus' body stolen from the tomb to convince the apostles that their teacher has risen from the grave (Christ himself becomes the man two disciples meet on the road to Emmaus, so that some resurrection accounts are simple cases of mistaken identity, though others are implied to be the result of the mere accretion of legend and rumor over the years).

As I said, the various parts (a mixture of incidents from canonical and apocryphal gospels and Pullman's own imagination, and a mixture of allegory, historical speculation, and deliberate mythology) don't quite jell; though the novel is interesting and well-written, it's not quite convincing on any of its various levels.


  1. Pullman's conceit is that Jesus had a twin brother, and that Mary thought that this twin was the promised Messiah.

    This happens to be perhaps the single most popular re-writing of J.K. Rowling's plot in Harry Potter fanfiction. (The apocryphal gospels, so to speak.) Apparently we like to see our heroes undergoing extra added rejection, even (especially?) those heroes who are already labeled as "despised and rejected."

  2. Steven, what books or websites would you recommend for a person interested in learning about Jesus, theology?

  3. Rey Discomfort, I'm not sure I'm the ideal person to ask. What I've learned about Jesus and theology has been spread out over most of half a century, starting with Sunday School and working through quite a few bible commentaries, textbooks, books on a variety of subjects only tangential to theology, etc. I think I'll give you that classic evangelical standby and advise you to read the Bible itself: regardless of its reliability, it's as close to "primary sources" as anyone has on the subject (extrabiblical references to Jesus are later, and, except where they come from church fathers who understandably had much to say, brief asides from discussions of other matters.

    Bart Ehrman's Jesus Interrupted is, I think, the only book I have currently that deals with Jesus and does not take an orthodox-inerrantist approach to its subject. It's an interesting examination of the different ways the biblical authors treat Jesus (although it also concerns other differences in their theology).

  4. Jeffrey replied to me:

    This happens to be perhaps the single most popular re-writing of J.K. Rowling's plot in Harry Potter fanfiction. (The apocryphal gospels, so to speak.) Apparently we like to see our heroes undergoing extra added rejection, even (especially?) those heroes who are already labeled as "despised and rejected."

    I should point out that in Pullman's story, Jesus is generally more popular with people than Christ is (Jesus is, after all, the one with hundreds of followers and an audience in the thousands). Indeed, one of the stranger's enticements to Christ is the assurance that some day, Christ's name will shine as bright as Jesus'. The flip side of this, of course, is that Jesus has more enemies as well; people are just generally more interested in him. So arguably Christ, here, is playing the Harry Potter role, second fiddle to Jesus, who isn't supposed to be the Chosen One, but somehow ended up with the job anyway.

  5. Steven, in case you're interested, here's a transcript of a debate between Bart Ehrman and William Lane Craig on the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.