Guest review-Francisc Nona reviews The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman
The great merit of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is that it handles so well the delicate issue of the relationship between the historical figure of Jesus Christ and the role he plays as the central figure of Christianity.
The story, the way Pullman tells it, starts with two boys and follows them as they grow up. The boys are called Jesus and Christ. They are the sons of Mary and Joseph. The parents are described in terms that follow the New Testament almost ad litteram. There is a tinge of miracle, like an aura, around these two characters, but their condition is always resolved within the limits of the human. When Joseph declares his love to Mary, his words must be read in two ways: the way of the Biblical myth and the way of human love stories.
“Mary, do you know how beautiful you are? You are the most lovely of all women. The Lord must have favoured you especially, to be so sweet and so gracious, to have such eyes and such lips…”
It’s important that the readers see such episodes with their minds open to these double meanings, because most of the text is constructed around the rather clever balancing of mythical aura and human familiarity.
Later on, when they take center stage, both Jesus and Christ behave within the limits of the same dichotomy. Jesus is the flesh-and-bone figure of history. He appears rebellious most of the time. He challenges authority, does things differently, gathers masses and talks to them in ways that tames the harshest of his critics. He is a rebel also because he brings about a new way: a way of peace but also a way of critical assessment of the world.
Christ, on the other hand, slips into an alternative position. As the story progresses, he is given a role that overlaps considerably with that of Judas. Unlike his brother, who is a doer, Christ is endowed with a philosophical mind. He weighs the pluses and the minuses of every action. He sees in the future, when the legacy of his brother will be turned into a true religion. He is different from Jesus in the sense of being concerned with things that transgress history. The anonymous angel (the most intriguing of all characters) makes Christ understand that Jesus’s weakness resides in his being too hopeful of the human condition:
“Perfection does not belong here; we can only have an image of perfection. Jesus, in his purity, is asking too much of people. We know they’re not perfect, as he wishes them to be; we have to adjust ourselves to what they are. You see, the true Kingdom would blind human beings like the sun, but they need an image of it all the same.”
With this in mind, Christ is made to believe that, in order for Jesus’s teachings to be preserved, a dramatic event has to take place. And that dramatic event is, obviously, the betrayal (which is not exactly a betrayal, if looked at from the perspective of Christ).
All in all, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is a book full of wisdom, worth reading especially for the clever ways in which most of the myths associated with the figure of Jesus Christ are treated, from perspectives that are entirely human. I liked especially how the miracle of the bread and fish is told, by bringing it down to pure human goodness: a miracle, no doubt, but who would have thought?
Francisc Nona has two blogs, where he writes book reviews and/or commentaries on cultural issues. He welcomes comments, suggestions and contributions to these blogs. He can also be found on Twitter as @ferinona.