Philip Pullman’s latest fiction opens with a caveat.
The story I tell comes out of the tension within the dual nature of Jesus Christ, but what I do with it is my responsibility alone. Parts of it read like a novel, parts like a history, and parts like a fairy tale; I wanted it to be like that because it is, among other things, a story about how stories becomes stories.
At a press conference, he also succinctly defended his right to shock, his right to write.
Nobody has the right to stop me writing this book.
Already, Pullman is anticipating the onslaught of religious complaints, the outcries of people clamoring to have his work banned, burned, suppressed. He is, of course, no stranger to offending the religious. He is an open atheist and a great deal of his fiction supports his beliefs. He’s been quoted as saying, “I hope the wretched Catholic church will vanish entirely.”
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is another volume in the Canongate Myth series which also features Margaret Atwood’s retelling of the Odyssey’s Penelope and Jeanette Winterson’s take on Atlas and Heracles. But Ron Charles has a point, if you’re going to retell Greek mythology people are mildly amused, but “if you fiddle with Jesus, people begin collecting dry sticks.”
Pullman splits, he literally twins the abstraction of Jesus Christ into the strong leader, the charismatic preacher Jesus and the weaker, more innovative pencil-pusher Christ. Pullman’s goal is to retell the Gospels of Jesus, replacing all supernatural miracles with hyperbole and misunderstanding. For example, a man comes to Mary claiming to be an angel. He beds her then leaves. Though Mary believes him to be an angel, it is more likely he is a farmhand taking advantage of a very young, naïve married woman. This is one of many liberties Pullman takes regarding Catholic doctrine.
Jeanette Winterson reviews Pullman in the London Times, beginning with a brief précis of Gnosticism, which, she says, is a doctrine of dualism that splits the human condition into a pure, holy spirit and a corrupt, tainted body. “Salvation is through knowledge (gnosis) of this composite self.”
The once suppressed Gnostic text gone DaVinci Code, The Acts of Thomas, has Judas as Jesus’ twin. Judas who still betrays Jesus, but then Brown has him sacrifice himself in order to save his brother.
This view of Gnosticism is directly in line with Logocentricism: the search for the one Truth, the privilege of the spoken word over the written, and language as a fundamental expression of reality.
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ plays with this fallacy.
We live in a binary world of opposites. We find them comforting.
(When I say we, I of course, mean some, as feminists have been in an uproar over this binary structure. And they should be.)
According to the psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan, a child splits her perception of her mother into anxious and non-anxious states. The scowling, angry, punishing mother is bad, while the good mother is caring, kind, loves unconditionally. Eventually, the child learns to predict whether the good mother or the bad mother approaches her through facial expressions, vocal intonations, etc. But in time, the child discovers that the arrival of those foreshadowing images hinges upon her behavior. This is where a sense of self evolves.
But still, often there is a dichotomy in our sense of self, and in our sense of others.
This is why the twins trope has been so prevalent in literature. Winterson:
The twin motif is a binary that allows us to look at aspects of the self within the self that are uncomfortable, contradictory or disowned. The twin motif is stretchy enough to include the Jekyll and Hyde problem, where the good self secretly harbours the bad self — the Jungian Shadow that we often deny but that must eventually be met and integrated for psychic wholeness, resolving the dualism of our natures.
As Pullman said, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is supposed to represent the dual nature of Christianity. Even though he transforms Jesus Christ as myth into a historical Jesus, one without superstition or dogma, Pullman still stresses the good message of universal love and compassion. He’s saying that the theology, the magic are what vilify the church.
This is where the “scoundrel” Christ comes in. He thinks that Jesus’ message would best be absorbed if they were to turn his teachings into a business.
I can see it so clearly, Jesus! I can see the whole world united in this Kingdom of the Faithful – think of that! Groups of families worshipping together with a priest in every village and town, an association of local groups under the direction and guidance of a wise elder in the region, the regional leaders all answering to the authority of one supreme director, a kind of regent of God on earth!
Though Jesus rejects both his brother and his ideas, Christ surreptitiously follows him and records all of his teachings. But a mysterious stranger approaches Christ and urges him to alter Jesus’ sermons for the sake of Truth. “There is time, and there is what is beyond time. History belongs to time. In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history. You are the word of God.”
This is Pullman reminding people that recording history and retelling history changes history. That one cannot tell a story without the lens of subjectivity. That magic can arise from misconstruction. Like he said, this is a story about how stories become stories. This is why, I think, Pullman chose to write this text very plainly, with Orwellian precision.
Just as Orwell wanted to present 1984 with as much objectivity as possible, Pullman stripped his prose bare of any adjectives, adverbs, devices, metaphors, allusions, convolutions, mystifications, manipulations, and disorder. His language, therefore, is simple and clear.
Winterson complains about this; she complains about a lot that I disagree with. I think she misses Pullman’s point, almost completely. It’s not to retell the Gospels of Jesus to illustrate how strong and important women really were, it’s not to consider Jesus as miracle-worker so we can all ponder the what-ifs of bending natural law. She also complains that the book isn’t literary enough, it’s not artistic enough. Pullman’s point is to show that the Gospel of Jesus is just a story. To remind that it is simply a myth. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is an atheistic representation of probability. He took the Canongate assignment and made it political.
Religion is a hot-button topic, and it should be.
Church and state are separate. The secular humanists therefore see religion as a political issue, the religious don’t even see it as an issue, they see it as a way of life. And until they agree to keep their beliefs and their opinions away from our laws, then this is a battle that we must, as a nation, encourage at every turn to debate. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is an excellent catalyst to get the discussion rolling, and I think it would be wise to make this book part of the high school canon.
Note: I do find it interesting that Winterson critiques Pullman so when she wrote for the same series. I’ve added Weight; the Myth of Atlas and Heracles to my wishlist, but if anyone has read it I’d love to know what you think of it.