He Ain’t Heavy

Just imagine the familiar nativity scene of Mary and Joseph in the innkeeper’s stable, with the animals keeping patient watch as Mary gives birth not to one child to be wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, the forthcoming savior of humanity, but to twins, one strong and healthy, one weak and retiring, whose destinies clash and collide but ultimately unite in dark ways to create the story we know so well. This is the audacious move that Philip Pullman makes in his rewrite of the gospel story, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, and he pulls it off brilliantly. If I were a gambling woman, I’d place bets on this book finding its way almost instantaneously onto the list of modern classics, it’s that good.

So Jesus of Nazareth has a twin, whom his mother calls Christ, and the boys grow up together displaying very different characteristics. Jesus is a normal, lively, naughty boy, always getting into scrapes, whilst his brother is quiet and learned and devoted, following around after Jesus and managing to clear up the messes he makes by miraculous means. As the boys grow, however, Jesus starts to come into his own, his passionate, engaged nature making him into an electrifying teacher. Wherever he goes, trouble and excitement follow. Christ stays back in the shadows, watching the effect he has on people and listening to his uncompromising message of humility and extreme goodness. Jesus demands that the people look to their deeds before all else, reviles wealth and importance, insists that the lowliest, least superficially deserving of beggars is more readily accepted by God than those who trumpet achievement and virtue. When Jesus heads out to the wilderness to see whether he can hear the words of God, Christ follows him and attempts to persuade him to temper his performance with the use of miracles and wonders. What if there were an organization of men like Jesus, who could establish a Kingdom of the faithful? Who would set up ethical laws and see they were enforced, who could convert others to the cause, who would make sure no one ever went hungry and unloved again? How much more powerful it would be than one man, how much more good they could do. But Jesus angrily refuses to even consider such a thing. There is only one way, and that way is solitary and passionate.

And so Pullman cleverly sets up a divide between the religious spirit and the organized Church, and to begin with it looks as if Jesus with his stubborn principles is in the right, and Christ, with his manipulative PR is in the wrong. Christ is visited by an angel, who tempts him with the idea that he should be as famous and important as Jesus. The angel encourages Christ to be a chronicler, to write down all that happens to Jesus, so that his teachings should not be lost to future generations. But there is a catch here, as what matters is the coherence of the story, the power with which it is told. ‘There is a time and there is what is beyond time,’ the angel says to Christ. ‘In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history. You are the word of God.’ And so Christ doctors his testimony, adding details here and there to make the story better, to draw out and emphasise the message it contains. Already the opposition of Jesus as good and Christ as bad is troubled – the story is not exactly what happened, stories always shape reality up, tidy it up, in order to reach a truth that could not be seen without such editing. So how are we to judge stories, when the crimes they commit are precisely what results in their value? Indeed, how are we to judge a story that questions the ethics of storytelling? As the narrative progresses, Christ will be drawn into committing terrible deeds for the sake of the story, but because we know what that story is, and how powerful its effects, we cannot easily judge his actions.

In the meantime, Jesus, with his insistence on the literal and the real, sinks ever deeper into an existential stance, one that approaches life as a perpetual call to heroism in the face of its injustices. He ends up inevitably questioning the very existence of God as it is something he cannot see or touch. Jesus loves the world, and has nothing but profound admiration for every part of creation, but he comes to the conclusion that it is a world vacated by God, who has abandoned his children for unknown reasons. What is intriguing about this portrayal is that Jesus doubts, but his angry, questing righteousness leaves no room for sorrow and suffering, or for being humbled by love. It is Christ who will really suffer, who will understand the torture of not being good enough, of making mistakes and being forced into awful situations against his will. Christ will be the sinner whose genuine regret makes him forgivable, whilst these humane positions are never ones that Jesus, in his undeviating trajectory towards holiness, will ever inhabit. Jesus and Christ together make the one man who reaches down through history towards us, Jesus embodying the ethical principle in a way that often seems untouched by genuine, complex emotion, Christ embodying the contemplative, overarching meaning, in a way that is undermined by human weakness and by ends justifying means. The life of the spirit is one of endless paradox, in which there is no good intention without unwelcome consequence, no vision without arrogance, no humility without error, no truth without lies.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of this book, it is so rich. It doesn’t matter if you have no interest in religion whatsoever; at basis, it’s a story about right and wrong, about the uses and abuses of power, and about the things we do in the name of love. It’s a book that provokes you into thinking and the conclusion is as moving and extraordinary as you might expect. I was completely blown away by it, as you can probably tell! And in awe again at what stories can do when they are placed in the hands of incredible writers

23 thoughts on “He Ain’t Heavy

  1. I just have to add one little thing–Jesus is a name, but Christ isn’t. It’s the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah. If a Jewish mom (Mary) named her son Messiah that would require an explanation, and it would be a big burden for a child to bear. I’m just curious whether the author incorporates that. (One can imagine the mom, seeing her weakly twin perhaps giving him the name as protection?)

  2. Great review! I’m leery of this because although I liked the His Dark Materials books, I thought they became rather heavy-handed as they went on – like Philip Pullman’s dislike of organized religion became too much for him to control, and it began to interfere with the story (for me). But I love stories about stories, and I’ve heard nothing but good about this book so far.

  3. Laughing — I was about to make the same point Lilian did … that Jesus is “the” Christ, not Christ. And I wondered the same thing, as I am sure Pullman knows that as well; he’s clearly an excellent scholar.

    This book almost sounds like a wondrous love child of Robert Graves’ King Jesus and Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

  4. I wasn’t interested in this book until I read your review. It took all the willpower I had not to put it directly on hold at the library (although this being Atlanta, they may not abide it) and forget the stack of books I need to get through in May. But I will read it…soon!

  5. It has always interested me the differences between religion and churches, how what is vibrant and human becomes stratified and encoded into a system, which then develops itself. This is equally true I suspect of all organisations, governments, legal systems, corporate businesses, oh, and univerities of course, especially literary critics – excepting yourself, open to everything with a generous approach – although you have the benefit of operating outside the requirements of a system and long may that continue.

  6. Excellent, excellent post! I loved this book too – like you, I particular loved the way Pullman moves away from what seems like a fairly simply dichotomy at first. The end result is so, so much more interesting that if he had stuck to a “good twin” and a “bad twin”.

  7. It sounds so good. The idea of the historical Jesus vs the created figure of Christ is one of those topics I’d love to delve into, but it always feels like I would have to make that kind of reading a big part of my life to learn anything. Perhaps this will be a useful primer.

    It’s really interesting that this book is getting some positive buzz from Christian reviewers. I think Anglicans are getting behind him because he seems to have focused his rage on the Catholic church (actually not sure it was ever off the Catholic church in His Dark Materials really, but people seemed to take that more as a general swipe at religion). Personally I find that kind of odd, he’s still an aetheist and he’s still extremely well read when it comes to religion, but now they’re looking on him differently because they feel he supports their group by condemning another religious group.

  8. Hadn’t heard of it yet, but now (says the minister’s wife), it must go on the list (and I am eager to check and see if any of the libraries in this part of the world is going to be brave enough to order it). I suppose I should get around to reading the third in the His Dark Materials trilogy first, though. I loved the first two, for pure fantasy, even if I think he did a bit of “knocking over the head” with the anti-organized religion bit. I’m sort of anti-organized religion the way I’m anti-money. I can see that it often does a lot of good and have witnessed beautiful things in loving, organized communities whose basis is a particular religious belief, but I’m also aware that it can be a very dangerous thing with a potential for devastating abuse, and that, I find very scary. I can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, though, and I find the old “I’m not anti-religion or anti-spirituality, just anti-organized religion” argument a bit tiresome (even though I was all about that when I was in my twenties). It seems like an argument that comes from someone who either hasn’t put much thought into it and has had little experience with organized religion, or else who had horrific experiences with organized religion, as many do.

    All that being said, I have no idea why people focus so much on the fact that Pullman is an atheist (maybe because atheists feel a need to speak out and to be accepted? They want their famous figures and to be represented in pop culture, just like any other minority?). That fact is completely unimportant to me. His trilogy is true fantasy, which means that, far more than religion, it addresses the old “science” v. “romance” theme, as well as addressing issues of power and greed and parent-child relationships (actually, as I was typing that, I found myself thinking, “Well, those are all religious themes aren’t they?” So maybe my argument doesn’t quite work). Yes, he wants to make his points about religion, but if no one knew who he was and what his own religious convictions are, would they make such a big deal over them?

    Finally, this sounds like a great work to follow Life of Pi (which I finally just read. It’s only taken me six years to get around to reading the copy my brother gave me. I hope it doesn’t take me six years to read the Pullman). That’s another one that’s all about storytelling, and I LOVED it. Martel really wrote an extremely provocative book (oh, and I adored HIS take on atheists and atheism, which made me realize why I have so many atheist friends, despite describing myself as a “Christian”).

  9. Lilian – (and David, too, who raised this same point) – you are quite right, and the naming of Christ is complicated. Basically, it’s not his name, it’s a nickname his mother gives him, because of the words of the angel who tells her she will bring forth the Messiah. Christ is the weak and sickly baby and so she feeds him first after the birth (he’s also his mother’s favourite), and for that reason he is in the crib and his brother out of it (being fed) when the wise men appear, and so he gets the appellation. But apparently he has a name, just one we never get to hear. Sorry, even writing that out now it doesn’t seem particularly clear, but you may be assured that Pullman is aware that Christ is not a name. His biblical knowledge is very impressive in this book.

    Harriet – I am so interested to know what you make of it!

    Stefanie – yes, I’m not sure when it will be out with you, but I’m sure it will be. Would love to know how you get on with it!

    Jenny – I haven’t read His Dark Materials at all (I know I should). But this book isn’t heavy handed at all with regard to Pullman’s own religious views. It is a marvel of paradox and ambiguity, so no need to fear any kind of propaganda.

    Claire – It’s a quick read so hopefully the library waiting list will turnover fast! I’d love to know what you think of it!

    David – lol! Love that description! And if you haven’t seen it already, check out my response to Lilian, where I say that yes, you’re right and that Pullman does deal with that.

    Grad – you are such a dear heart. Thank you, and I’d love to know what you make of it.

    Priscilla – you may be saved by the difference between publication dates in the UK and US! But I’d love to know what you think of it when it gets to you.

    Bookboxed – what a sweetie you are. And I admit I do like having a foot outside of any organisation, and tried to maintain one even when teaching full-time at the university. I quite agree that organisations can be beset by dominant ideologies, and that makes me very uncomfortable.

  10. Miriam – I must still read His Dark Materials! I must be the last person in the world to get around to them! Would love to know what you make of this one.

    gaskella – and I really appreciate your description there – simple, pared-back storytelling is a perfect way to talk about the book.

    Nymeth – I couldn’t agree more! And his timing is perfect – just as you think, oh there’s going to be a split in the twins, he starts to complicate it and complicate it. Have you reviewed this? I must check out your last few posts as I would so love to read your take on it.

    Kathleen – I’d love to know what you think about it!

    Doctordi – Yay! And I would also love to hear your thoughts. It is such a cleverly done tale. And you remind me I must also read Wolf Hall. I’m looking forward to it.

    Jodie – I read this book with no idea that Pullman had been a vociferous opponent of the Catholic church – and from this book you could never tell as it doesn’t endorse any particular view, or only that paradox is fundamental to existence. But you are right that for an atheist he is extremely well read. Although I kind of feel I read him described as an agnostic somewhere, which might explain it a bit. I’d love to know your thoughts on this if you read it.

    Emily – as I’ve said to other commenters, I read this with no idea what Pullman’s views on religion were, and having read it, I would certainly not have got the impression that he was a virulent campaigner against the church. What I loved about this book was that the situation between the brothers was so paradoxical, and so finely balanced. It seemed to me to be saying that you cannot have good without evil, right without wrong, justice without injustice, and more than that, that what seems good can sometimes be bad and vice versa. And it was this sort of clever, intricate perspective that made me admire the book so much. I haven’t read His Dark Materials (my son wasn’t interested in it when he was the right age for it, and so it sort of passed me by), but I’m quite keen to in a way now, to see how he expresses himself against organised religion. Although it also makes me hold back, as I loved this new book for its very undecidability and lack of clear cut message.

    And thank you for such a ringing endorsement of The Life of Pi – it’s a book I’ve never really fancied reading, until you just described it as being all about storytelling – I am a complete sucker for that!

  11. I love Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and I would love to read this one too. I was already intrigued by it, but your review is making me even more determined to get to it! I’m really glad to hear you loved it so much.

  12. I’ve also heard great things about His Dark Materials. And I can see that despite my slight aversion to religious books, I’ll have to read this one soon too. The concept alone is fantastic.

  13. I hope this doesn’t sound bad, but the premise is a bit off putting to me as I am not fond of ‘religious’ themed books (well, not overtly religious anyway), but I do love anyone who is a good storyteller and it sounds like–while I’m not sure it’s his ultimate goal–he knows how to tell a good story. I’ve always ‘meant’ to read him, maybe I should start here?

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