By Ron Charles
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; C01
THE GOOD MAN JESUS AND THE SCOUNDREL CHRIST
By Philip Pullman
245 pp. $24
Fear not, for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy: Philip Pullman's novel about Jesus is not quite as shrill as his public statements on religion would suggest. Choosing a vocal atheist and best-selling British fantasy writer to retell the story of the Gospels was clearly an answer to some publicist's prayer, but for all its satanic fanfare and heretical rejiggering, "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ" is -- God forbid -- kind of inspiring. It even manages to convey a message that's always been central to Christian thought.
Pullman's little book is part of the Canongate Myth Series, which began in 2005. Each volume presents a classic story reimagined by a popular author, such as Margaret Atwood on Penelope or Michel Faber on Prometheus. But let's be honest: If you play with "The Odyssey," people are mildly amused; if you fiddle with Jesus, people begin collecting dry sticks. Sure enough, Pullman noted recently in the London Times that he's already received "scores" of threatening letters from zealots who say he "deserves to be punished in hell." (For the publisher, those letters are like manna from heaven.) And for an extra thunderbolt of attention, he told another paper that he hoped the "wretched" Catholic Church would "vanish entirely."
But Pullman plays the role of devil's advocate so well that this battle sparks all the suspense of fulfilled prophesy. With its sharp critique of religion, Pullman's fantasy series, "His Dark Materials," is already among the most frequently challenged books in U.S. schools, and this slim, polemic volume will surely be the target of similar objections. (Hint to conservatives: To kill a book, ignore it; don't make it the subject of a thousand breathless stories about censorship.)
So what does Pullman do with the greatest story ever told? Essentially, he condenses the four Gospels, following the basic outline they provide of Jesus's life. Indeed, some of the text here -- such as his simple, beautifully rendered Sermon on the Mount -- will strike Christians as very familiar. Again and again, he displays a marvelous sense of the elemental power of Jesus's instructions and parables. Even when he transforms the canonical stories to match his atheist perspective, he emphasizes the basic Christian theme of universal love.
To a certain extent, he's dramatizing a view of the Gospels promoted by the Jesus Seminar, a group of liberal theologians and scholars who attracted considerable attention (and controversy) in the 1990s by stripping away what they considered layers of superstition and dogma to reveal "the historical Jesus." For instance, in Pullman's retelling of the story of the loaves and fishes, Jesus doesn't miraculously multiply the available food; instead, he inspires the multitude to overcome their avarice and share what they've squirreled away. In a similar manner, Pullman reworks the parable of the wise and foolish virgins to make it sound, frankly, a whole lot more Christian than the unforgiving parable we find in the Book of Matthew.
Before we throw down the palm leaves, though, let's admit that Pullman also takes some obnoxious liberties with the foundational story of Christian faith and relentlessly flogs the church. Trouble starts right off with the Annunciation, when Mary learns she's going to conceive a child. Like the late feminist scholar Mary Daly, Pullman recasts this moment as a kind of date rape. And it won't come as a revelation to hear that he pours cold water on the Resurrection, too. (But, heck, dozens of vicars in Britain don't believe in that climax either.)
His most radical alteration, though, begins in the Bethlehem manger: His Mary gives birth to twins, Jesus and Christ. A distinction between the human and the divine nature of Jesus is not alien to some branches of Christian thought, but Pullman has imagined something entirely his own: two wholly human boys, bound together in a tragedy of historic proportions. Jesus is a charismatic (not miraculous) teacher, who preaches boundless compassion, lashes out at religious hypocrisy and awaits the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. Meanwhile, his devoted brother, Christ (who isn't really a "scoundrel"), is shy and intellectual, constantly worried about his brother's safety and determined to promote his message.
It's that desire to institutionalize Jesus's word that Pullman sees as the snake in the garden. According to the Gospels, Jesus wrote only once -- in the dust -- but in Pullman's version, Christ is a writer, a careful, thoughtful scribe, who wants "to let the truth irradiate the history." And he repeats that phrase a couple of times in case, having ears, ye hear not. What's more, Christ is periodically encouraged by a mysterious, vaguely satanic stranger who explains that Jesus's statements "need to be edited, the meanings clarified, the complexities unraveled for the simple-of-understanding."
Like a preacher who wants to make sure everybody gets the point -- even in the last pew -- Pullman hammers away on how Jesus's message of radical compassion is obscured and perverted beneath a thicket of theology, regulations and miracles. In one of several dramatically recast scenes, Christ is the tempter who comes to Jesus during his fast in the wilderness: "Think of the advantages if there were a body of believers," Christ argues, "a structure, an organization already in place. 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! And there would be councils of learned men to discuss and agree on the details of ritual and worship, and even more importantly, to rule on the intricacies of faith, to declare what was to be believed and what was to be shunned."
For all its clunky satire, this is not a particularly original objection to the corrosive effects of ecclesiastical organization. (See: Reformation.) After all, even Pullman's arch villain, Saint Paul, warned that "the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." And our own Thomas Jefferson carefully remade his New Testament by cutting away all the miracles and spontaneous healings. Like Pullman, the Founding Father called them "superstitions" and "fabrications" added by people who had "an interest in sophisticating & perverting the simple doctrines [Jesus] taught by engrafting on them the mysticisms of a Grecian sophist, frittering them into subtleties & obscuring them with jargon."
Fortunately, not all of "Good Man Jesus" is consumed with this strident anti-ecclesiastical argument. Pullman is at least as interested in the moral value of the Gospels. Without any of the snuff-film eroticism that enlivened Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ," the action moves toward a conclusion that's inevitable but still startling and moving. Yes, some Christians will be offended by this book -- "No one has the right to spend their life without being offended," Pullman recently told an audience in Oxford -- but any honest reader will find here a brisk and bracing story of profound implications. And it's bound to send some readers back to the Bible, looking more closely at Jesus's words and especially at all those other words crowded around Him.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.