This review first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 34, number 01 (2011). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
A review of
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
by Philip Pullman
(Canongate Books, 2010)
Anyone familiar with the award-winning British author Philip Pullman’s children’s book series called “His Dark Materials” or who has seen the major motion picture produced from his book The Golden Compass knows that Pullman has it out for church. Although the Roman Catholic Church is probably the target he most has in mind, from his descriptions of the offenses committed, any Eastern Orthodox body, Protestant denomination, or country chapel will fall under Pullman’s blanket condemnation.
The malevolent picture he paints of the church through obvious analogy in his fantasy books for children, Pullman makes explicit and direct in his latest publication, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. This is a story of the life of Jesus and the origin of Christianity that includes all of the familiar names and places of the Gospel accounts. The story that unfolds, however, is anything but familiar to those with knowledge of the New Testament.
This book has the texture of historical fiction—a legitimate and popular genre of literature in which foundational historical realities ground and then propel a story forward. From this foundation, the author of historical fiction carefully weaves in plausible new characters, events, settings, and side stories to enliven the documented facts, which are sometimes few in number. Fine examples of this kind of writing involving the life of Jesus would be The Man Born to Be King by Dorothy Sayers or Pontius Pilate by Paul Maier. Pullman’s life of Jesus has only the feel of historical fiction but none of the research or substance. To be sure, once Pullman’s work is lined up against the reliable historical record (and, yes, there is one!), his book is catapulted out of the genre of historical fiction into that of hysterical fiction—using both senses of the word. This book is both laughable at certain points and a cool but venomous rant about Christian origins, ideas, and practices.
The book covers the life of Jesus from conception to death. But it also covers the life of His identical twin brother whose name is “Christ.” Both are born in the stable in Bethlehem but their differences emerge quickly. Jesus is full of life, at home in His physical body, in tune with the hurts of humanity, and full of kind words and down-to-earth human wisdom. Christ, on the other hand, was sickly, dependent, and in awe of his brother and his gifts. Christ studied the scriptures and curried favor with religious leaders. As they came into maturity, their identities became more and more polarized—Jesus popular with the crowds, and Christ increasingly isolated and a pawn of the religious establishment.
Many of the familiar Gospel stories are presented and given new twists. Any that centered on supernatural acts are reworked to excise the miraculous. Jesus’ twin Christ is enlisted by the religious leaders to help write down the events in Jesus’ life—the actual source of the Gospels. A mysterious stranger who conspires with Christ to lie and dramatically embellish the life of Jesus is insistent that there is a “truth that irradiates history” (p. 224) by which he means that Christ should continue to tell the “truth”—a new version of the facts that will inculcate belief in the metaphysical, the supernatural, and the goodwill and wisdom of the church and her leaders.
The ultimate “truth”-telling comes when Jesus is crucified by the Romans, dies on the cross, and His corpse hauled away from the tomb by conspirators. Jesus’ identical twin Christ appears to the disciples as the risen Jesus. This hoax is transformative in the lives of Jesus’ followers and they go out to preach a message that helps build the fledgling church exactly as Christ and his handlers had planned.
Although the publisher has made an attempt to call this Pullman’s first book for adults, it is most definitely written to include children—I can’t develop this argument here, but don’t be fooled. He had children in mind. And Pullman, being a thoughtful educator, throws in some challenging vocabulary for the young ones. He must want his young readers to grow in their knowledge of English as they lose all hope of things eternal.
This book saddened me deeply at several points, but perhaps most when I remembered the words of the real Jesus in Luke 17:2 addressing those who cause children to stumble into sin and faithlessness. “It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck” (NIV). Pullman has found great personal joy spending his life cornering the market on millstones.
Craig J. Hazen, Ph.D., is the founder and director of the M.A. program in Christian apologetics at Biola University and the author of the novel Five Sacred Crossings.