Let’s not beat around the bush here. I’m going to make it very clear from the start that I am not one for religion. Each to their own, but I don’t need it and, if I’m completely honest, I find the general concept of religion very unnerving and uncomfortable. I wasn’t raised to be an atheist, my parents taught me to think my own mind and there were certainly members of my family who did have a faith, but I prefer to stick to the ground of scientific reasoning and my understanding of logic.
I chose to read The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ because I was intrigued. (Also because I really liked the title, but mainly because I was intrigued). There had been quite a lot of controversy when it was first published (apparently Philip Pullman was in danger of being condemned to eternal damnation or something equally dramatic), and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. I wanted to see how he would handle retellings (or however you want to describe it) of biblical stories. Philip Pullman is openly atheist and had already received some criticism from Christian organisations for his wonderful trilogy His Dark Materials, in which the character assuming the role of God died. However, the same trilogy also received praise from Christian organisations (and Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time) for his portrayal of Christian based ideas, so I was really curious to see how he’d interpret the biblical life of Jesus in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.
To really strip it down into a very basic and crude summary, the premise of the book was a reinterpretation of the life of Jesus Christ, only Jesus Christ is actually two people – twins Jesus and Christ. While both are very religious and in touch with God, Jesus’ focus is to serve God while Christ is most concerned with ‘spreading the word’ and building a long lasting church, which he does through recording (with some alterations) the miracles and acts of his brother Jesus. Christ is in a position to decide exactly what message he wants to be spread to the world and ultimately what should be recorded, and I think it’s fair to say that he manipulates the actions of Jesus to achieve this.
Having attended a loosely C of E primary school which included occasional assemblies taken by the local vicar and a variety of animal hand puppets, I recognised some (but not all) of the biblical scenes portrayed in the book. I wasn’t completely sure how the stories were really meant to pan out, but I don’t think that particularly mattered. I think what was really interesting about the book was the fact that it was really a book about storytelling, and about how stories are preserved and passed down, and occasionally distorted along the way. Who decides which parts of the story should be preserved? As a former history student, it’s a lesson we learned well. There’s a popular saying (which probably holds a great deal of truth), which is ‘history is written by the victor’. When stories have such a long lifespan, we can’t possibly hope to have the full picture. Who knows what bits and pieces fell out or were added in along the way! I think that’s definitely what Philip Pullman conveyed best, that we should always be questioning our sources (and not just the religious ones).
In terms of the story itself, I was actually rather disappointed. I don’t know how controversial it really was, but then I also don’t really think I’m in a great position to judge. To be honest I was a bit bewildered by it all. I couldn’t really work out what Philip Pullman was trying to do, or what end result he wanted to leave the reader with. It was all just a bit bizarre. I liked the concept of it, of dividing such a huge character in two and attributing different personalities to each. It was a really interesting idea, but I don’t think he quite pulled it off. Were Jesus and Christ meant to be polarised? Was one meant to come across better than the other? I was just a bit confused by it all. Considering the idea is of one person divided, the two characters didn’t really seem that different and I felt like there wasn’t a lot of significance in terms of which particular actions or events had been attributed to which character. The whole thing just seemed a bit muddled to me. Basically, I just didn’t really know what to make of it, and to be honest I still don’t. I did find it quite amusing when I browsed the cover to find a disclaimer in place of the blurb, which very boldly proclaimed “This is a story”. The only problem is that, for me, it wasn’t really that much of a story and, to be really frank, I was more than a little bit bored.