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