The first line of Philip Pullman’s novel reads:
This is the story of Jesus and his brother Christ, of how they were born, how they lived and how one of them died.
Despite the use of the definite ‘the’ in the first line of Philip Pullman’s new novel, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, it is not actually claiming to be the real back-story of the influential spiritual leader. Rather it is a telling of a myth; a fable. And in doing so makes us face what the story of Jesus really means. All stories of the Gods are the subject of myth and they all have within them the patterns that stretch directly into the mind and subconscious. As with other tales of half remembered, but not forgotten, ancient wisdom, the story of Jesus has meaning beyond the telling. His is the hero’s story told again and again through the ages, and its lessons are to be read and dwelt upon over many tellings. So, as he steps though the doors of his life – the foretold stages of his journey – we step with him and arrive on the other side together.
The layers of understanding, which come with changing from child to man, are ones I remember clearly. At 10 I was always told that Jesus was also a God. Or was the Christian God himself in a certain form. This lesson led to my childlike wondering of, given the immense creative powers ascribed to this God, how it was that Jesus allowed himself to be nailed up in the first place. Why did he not use his godly power to save himself? Such are the practical thoughts of the child.
To an adult, the answer to this question is Gnostic and illuminates the spiritual level, understanding and beliefs of the speaker. The story sold to me at my Sunday school was that Jesus let himself be executed because he wanted to save us. This was something my young mind could not understand and, I presumed at the time, I would have to ‘grow up’ to realise. In the same sense that one finds an answer to Santa Claus’s apparent ability to travel around the world in one night, I did. In the sense of coming to an understanding of the churches’ view of Jesus, I did not. Growing up involved coming to terms with the world, my limited place within it and to walking some of the steps of the spiritual journey within myself. Together with the practical teachings of my schooling, the categorisation of reality scientifically defined in certain ways, this meant that the Christian God did not fit into my life.
I then came to another step on the path by wrestling with the relationship between God and Jesus. I was told that he was the father to Jesus, the son. My now adolescent mind, fresh from GCSE Biology and genetics class, wondered at the holy power that Jesus would inherit from having such a powerful father. After all, God apparently created everything, and had only one son. That son should have some serious power. I did not know then of the power of myth or of the real Jesus inside the tale. I had only the first inkling of the separation between the man and the myth. For Jesus died in a very human way. A visceral end of brutal reality. A grounding. At this point the myth rises to meet us, finding us contemplating the horror of such an end. My school told me that this was a humbling of the God, a sacrifice by the creator who wanted to understand his creations. But, my mind knew that the God could not really sacrifice anything. Astride the clouds of time and space, outside the mundane and unknowable in his extremes; so that even hearing his voice would shake the foundations of the planet, a God could not know fear, and without fear Jesus’ death meant less. His was the certain knowledge of his coming assention and his seat next to the father. For Jesus’ death to mean what it claimed he would have not been able to ask his father to forgive his persecutors. He invalidates it by his knowledge that he was immortal.
Finally, as an adult, I came to fully understand myth. I came to understand allegory and the nature of belief. Jesus suddenly became what he truly was; just a man. His is the hero myth of my culture, adopted over those of countless others. The myth of Jesus and God the Father rather than that of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas of Compassion. Or the Avatar Krishna and great blessings of Shiva. Jesus, like all these heroes’s, wandered into the desert, or sat under a tree, or flew through space or any number of ways of being removed from normal life. These forced the hero to look within and pass through temptation. Coming back from such an experience with new powers, new understandings and the ability to grant boons in the form of special teachings. The power to promise futures near at hand and of rewards from the Gods. Jesus was a man with in certain frame of mind. A man who had an experience in the desert that changed him. A man who really died on the cross and who suffered fear, doubt, uncertainty and pain for teaching his understanding. A human man of special significance, whose mind altering thoughts have been distilled into the strong myth around us today, taking in parts of all other myths, fulfilling all prophesies and speaking all truths.
That Jesus would have disappeared into the sands of Israel, swallowed whole by history like so many enlightened ones, without such myth making is a fundamental truth. As such was necessary for the teachings of Jesus to survive and flourish. How that came about is one of the great stories never uncovered. Who made the man Jesus, who died on a Roman cross as a Jewish heretic, into one of the ultimate personifications of the monomyth?
And what was their motives?
This is what is explored in Pullman’s novel. But instead of placing it historically or pointing the finger at anyone in particular (such as Saint Paul), Pullman makes his story a part of the myth itself. He uses the language of the myth to highlight the influence and effect. To point out which parts are which. So in this book Jesus is like so many other spiritual leaders in that he had an epiphany in the desert, changing him forever. However, in this book Jesus is born along with a brother called Christ. Christ represents many characters in the familiar story, but is actually the chime of the myth acting on the history of the man. At one point Christ acts in place of Judas, in another he is the elder brother in the prodigal son fable and in the finale stands in for Jesus himself.
As Robin Williams once said, being the brother of Jesus is a tough gig, especially since Jesus pretty much ignores his brother all the way through the story. Christ is left to run around after his more popular sibling and, like someone not cool enough to be in the band, becomes a chronicler of the events in Jesus’ life. The story is about how those events are presented in future times.
And the lesson is that no one can watch and record without changing what they write.
Jesus is not the first ancient philosophical master to have his words distorted by those around him. Socrates also never wrote anything down, yet he had all the ideas. It was his lover and friend Plato who was the author of the Republic.
20 years later.
How accurate an account is that going to be? Is there not a lot of temptation to round off the corners of the story and to join up the loose ends? To smooth out the kinks, enhance the events and to simply make the story fit with what you want to say? At which point do such actions become alteration and embellishment, rather than clarification and judicial editing? And why do it? To place yourself in the story or to keep on message?
Or just to make the story survive? To make the power of the message live on in myth?
Jesus didn’t write anything, but taught much, and so perhaps he expected such treatment? I feel that is the question Pullman must have asked himself before writing this novel and he really does a magical job of weaving the story of his narrative into the history, embellishing it so that the myth is formed in front of our eyes. Christ is present, Forest Gump like, at many major event in Jesus’ life and writes down what he sees. Jesus is presented as a powerful and contentious religious leader, more forceful and less eloquent than in the Bible. I found the speech of Jesus to be much more believable than in that older-tome. Jesus, in much of the New Testament, spoke in the riddles of emotionality and story, all powerful myth indicators. Indeed he never debated anything directly. Everything was thrown a curve ball that illuminated his point of view rather than expressed it. However, this may have been as in reality; I once met a poet on a train who spoke in the same rhythms and it was almost impossible to get a straight answer, which was most hilarious when he was asked for his ticket. This is not because Jesus is being difficult, says Pullman; it is because he has been getting rewritten. Jesus in this novel is a practical man, not aloof in his view of the world, but more alive, closer to the core of it.
In Pullman’s account Hirram the cripple is briskly told to, “take up your mat and walk”. This “get on with it” style of speaking is how Jesus deals with almost everything. Very direct, cutting out peoples illusions. Indeed Jesus is very believable and I found myself liking him. His directness and sight of what is really there is at the core of my own religious beliefs founded on yet another hero, Lao Tze. Of the events around Jesus Pullman reports those plainly and lets us draw our own conclusions. It is only into the mind of Christ we are shown, not Jesus, until the last moments. Christ wants Jesus to start the church and it is he, not the Devil, that approaches Jesus in the desert to “tempt” him with tales of the church’s future.
Christ himself is eventually approached by, “the Stranger” who convinces him to record the life of his brother, and he does but cant help subtly editing it. Why he would do this is brilliantly realised. The message of Jesus is not timeless, but the story of Jesus is. Thousands of preachers have expounded similar teachings. History has crushed them all underfoot. It is only Jesus’ story that is allowed to shine by the church in his name. Anyone else with a vision of eternity was burned or simply ignored. Christ needs to make Jesus special or, as the Stranger says, Jesus will disappear into history; forgotten. The Stranger tempts Christ by using his wish to help his brother and also his want to grab some of the limelight for himself. A subtle fall. The fall of making a myth. Christ is given a decision atop a slippery slope: help the Stranger and Jesus lives forever, refuse and stay true to your brother and his truths die with him.
I felt sorry for the Christ character, his final fall – the betrayal of Jesus – is seductively realised. Brought into the presence of the Jewish religious leaders by the Stranger, Christ is completely overawed by the proximity of their power. Suddenly he is inside the circle where he wishes he was with his brother, he is being asks for his advice; solicited not politicked. He gives Jesus up with barely a whimper of complaint by swallowing some comfortable lies. The arguments given by Pullman in the passage are those given to the coward looking for a way out, agreeing to anything to end the torment of embarrassment of being in the limelight for a brief moment. Told that it is the “right thing to do” and, believing it over his better judgement, it is he who kisses his brother in the famous olive garden and sends Jesus to his death.
This leaves Christ to become the immortal and risen saviour and to be mistaken for Jesus on Easter and suddenly the myth is made real. The actual message of Jesus almost becomes lost against the power of this story. Myth that grows to reach all corners of the world. That allows for no questioning of the story because pull the myth down and one risks pulling the message down with it.
I get the distinct impression that Pullman respects Jesus but hates Christ. I think he understands the power of the myth all too well. He blames the priesthood for using that power to conduct “evil”. So much “evil” that there aren’t enough rivers to hold the blood that has been spilt in the myth’s name.
Pullman has written an excellent book and one I recommend. It is important to be able to step along the hero’s journey and understand the ever repeated rhythms within it. Whether it is the ancient story of the Minotaur, the modern tale of the Skywalker or the encompassing monomyth of Jesus, the story goes on and will be retold in the same forms forever. I don’t think Pullman has a problem with that, his is a problem with what we listeners then go and do after hearing the story. We forget the point is to transcend the tale and grow spiritually along with it. As the Buddha said of his teachings – that it is a boat to cross a river – once to the other side you no longer need the boat.
You leave it behind.
I realised that those questions of my youth have no answer, no truth, they are the unknowable koans of my tribe. I celebrate them and no longer resent my apparent lack of answers for I have put away childish riddles and have found my way in the spiritual realm; this other shore. I can love Jesus the man as I can see him separate from the myth created around his life. I don’t think of him as God, unless in the sense that “I am God, you are God and we are God”.
Pullman too respects Jesus, but he cannot forgive the myth for its affects. He cannot forgive Christ.
A note on versions.
I read this novel in the iPhone Enhanced version and it was fantastic. Philip Pullman himself read the audio novel aloud and with a quick gesture I could move from the audio to the text version. The package also included some interview videos with Mr Pullman that I found most interesting.
You can also get the audio version on Audible without the text, also read by Mr Pullman.
Finally, you can of course buy the book in the traditional sense.