I’m not a religious man. I think I should make that very clear, but a book review is no place for me to argue my stance on that. I do think it is fair to say however, that the mythology of religion appeals to me more than the actual spirituality of it. Of course, people who know me will also know that Philip Pullman is my favourite author, and with his often vocal stance on religion, I thought his 2010 release, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ would make for a fascinating read. The blurb didn’t really give anything away of what to expect, and I thought what the hell. Let’s give this a go.
The book itself is actually a part of the Canongate Myth Series and retells the story of Jesus, but in such a controversial and alternate way as the world knows. Mary didn’t give birth to a son, she gave birth to twin boys; one called Jesus and one called Christ. And as the book progresses, we see the boys develop, drift away from one another and ultimately take a different stand on the ‘coming of God’s Kingdom’. It is an interesting concept that tells the history from the bible, but in such a modern and up-to-date way.
I have to admit though, that this wasn’t really what I expected. It is a unique, complex and interesting device to adapt the story with two figures. Obviously one representing the human side of Jesus, the other the more spiritual. However, the book lacked any kind of religious sarcasm I was expecting from Pullman. It was as if he adapted the two figures into the history already told in the bible – and let’s be frank, it is a pretty boring story. It wasn’t exciting, it lacked any real depth, and the political situation the people found themselves in during the Roman occupation was completely two-dimensional. I hate to admit it, but this was a chore to read. I even put the book down for a while, hoping to come back to it with perhaps a little more energy and inspiration to seek the ending. Sadly, this did little to ignite my reading pleasure.
I found both characters utterly annoying. Jesus was arrogant, hypocritical and totally uninspiring. At first, you could be forgiven for thinking that this represents Pullman’s view on Christianity, his voice coming through thick and strong, but sadly it isn’t. Jesus preaches, he inspires the people, but the admiration doesn’t seep through to the reader, as we see him shun his family and distance his brother. Christ actually takes it upon himself, with guidance from a ‘stranger’ to write down the truth Jesus speaks, keeping his distance so his brother isn’t aware of his actions. But Christ is guilty of being whiny and moany; you often find yourself telling the guy to ‘grow a pair’ and stand up for his beliefs, but Pullman portrays him as a coward, who is tempted by sin. He creates such a show of Christ’s ‘sacrifice’ towards the end of the book, but when it comes down to it, the actual betrayal lasts a minute paragraph.
Where Pullman’s voice does come through however, is how Christ adds a little bit poetic licence when transcribing the sermons and speeches of his brother. He is completely engulfed that the world needs a Church, a sort of physical embodiment of God’s Kingdom on Earth, whereas his brother is in total disagreement. The book tries to be clever, especially with its controversial title, but ultimately fails on all fronts – well for me anyway.
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is at best an unsuccessful attempt at retelling the ‘myth’ of Jesus Christ. It has an interesting concept of two brothers, who take a different stance on what God’s vision is, but it lacks the miraculous message many Christians I assume finds in scripture. The language is pretty cold, lacking depth and interest, which would be forgiven if the book was more a satirical look at religion, but Pullman really creates the controversy, without backing it up within the pages. The characters are wooden or annoying, and the ‘sacrifice’ of Jesus doesn’t engage any reactions of sympathy or gratitude. I found the book boring and actually, lacking in purpose. It is no wonder that the book was heavily criticised by Jesuit theologians. If you find the story of Jesus inspiring or interesting, I’m afraid this book won’t do much to heighten or lessen that, but if you are interested in reading a slightly alternate take on the baby born in a manger story, you may find something that tickles your fancy.
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is available in Hardback, Paperback and eBook from:
Earlier in the year I read and reviewed Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by AS Byatt, which is also part of the Canongate Myth Series
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