The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Philip Pullman
London: Canongate, 2010. pp. 245. £14.99. ISBN: 9 781847 678256.

Released just before Easter, Pullman’s latest novel, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, has become a publishing sensation, attracting considerable reviews and a great deal of attention. As President of the Blake Society, Pullman’s attraction to Blake is a deep and profound one, manifested at various points in the trilogy His Dark Materials and also The Adventures of John Blake. As such, there are several moments when Blake’s influence is a telling one in this particular novel – though before dealing with this in any detail it is important to make some general points regarding The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

Firstly, and in this I agree with a significant number of critics who have previously reviewed the novel, Pullman’s spare and simple style is immensely effective. Whether it was his intended effect to send readers back to the Bible is a moot point, but in many ways Pullman’s plain and unadorned writing is reminiscent of certain translations of the gospels of Mark and Matthew in particular (the latter, of course, a particular favourite of Marxist film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini). The undoubted power of the words of the good man Jesus made me wonder at times whether Pullman’s book even has designs on becoming a fifth gospel, one aimed at secular and atheist (or at least agnostic) readers, reminding them that while they may have cast off the bond of superstition perhaps they have also thrown out too much that is of undoubted good.

Much of the plot of The Good Man is largely familiar, aside from Pullman’s central conceit that Mary gave birth not to one child but two, Jesus and Christ (and carping by some readers that “Christ” is not a proper name but rather a title is completely irrelevant to Pullman’s parable). Events largely follow those of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), while John is treated suspiciously as the mystic and mystifier, the source of conversations such as the following between the unnamed stranger and Christ on the purpose of truth as being more important than history:

There is time and there is beyond time. History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of these things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history. You are the word of God. (99)

There is something in these words that at first sounds a little reminiscent of Blake (as in the aphorism “Eternity is in love with the productions of time” from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), but the objective of the stranger, an allegory for the church, is completely un-Blakean, the message being that the church must lie in order to maintain power. Regarding the use of the Johannine gospel, Pullman appears to more or less reject the fourth evangelist, although there is an irony in that one of the most potent stories of Jesus’s life, that of the woman taken in adultery who is saved from death by Jesus’s simple admonition, translated here by Pullman as “If there’s one you who has never committed a sin, he can throw the first stone” (154) – one of the strongest examples of the power of forgiveness of sin – is only found in John 7.53-8.11. Indeed, this is one of the problems I found with the book as a whole: Christ frequently rewrites Jesus’s life to emphasise the message that he believes to be most important, but then Pullman’s revisionary act also picks and chooses those parts that he obviously prefers.

What, then, of the Blakean aspects of the novel? The gospel narrative is, of course, much bigger than Blake, but Blake remains one of the most important commentators in English art and literature on the Bible and it is unsurprising that Pullman has taken elemnets from the Romantic. What first attracted my attention was a serialised extract that included his chapter on the conception of Jesus and Christ:

At that time, Mary was about sixteen years old, and Joseph had never touched her.
One night in her bedroom she heard a whisper through her window.
“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 . . .”
She was confused, and said “Who are you?”
“I am an angel,” said the voice. “Let me in and I shall tell you a secret that only you must know.”
She opened the window and let him in. In order not to frighten her, he had assumed the appearance of a young man, just like one of the young men who spoke to her by the well.
“What is the secret?” she said.
“You are going to conceive a child,” said the angel. (7)

The all-too human circumstances of the conception of the son of God are extremely familiar from the following lines of Blake’s epic, Jerusalem:

in the Visions of Elohim Jehovah, behold Joseph & Mary
And be comforted O Jerusalem in the Visions of Jehovah Elohim
She looked & saw Joseph the Carpenter in Nazareth & Mary
His espoused Wife. And Mary said, If thou put me away from thee
Dost thou not murder me? Joseph spoke in anger & fury. Should I
Marry a Harlot & an Adulteress? Mary answerd, Art thou more pure
Than thy Maker who forgiveth Sins & calls again Her that is Lost
Tho She hates. he calls her again in love. I love my dear Joseph
But he driveth me away from his presence. yet I hear the voice of God
In the voice of my Husband. tho he is angry for a moment, he will not
Utterly cast me away. if I were pure, never could I taste the sweets
Of the Forgive[ne]ss of Sins! if I were holy! I never could behold the tears
Of love! of him who loves me in the midst of his anger in furnace of fire.
Ah my Mary: said Joseph: weeping over & embracing her closely in
His arms: Doth he forgive Jerusalem & not exact Purity from her who is
Polluted. I heard his voice in my sleep O his Angel in my dream:
Saying, Doth Jehovah Forgive a Debt only on condition that it shall
Be Payed? Doth he Forgive Pollution only on conditions of Purity
That Debt is not Forgiven! That Pollution is not Forgiven (61.1-19, E211-2)

In Blake, the immaculateness of Jesus’s conception is not that Mary has no experience of sex, but that Joseph refuses to enforce the Mosaic law. My initial reading of the Pullman chapter had been to see it as a direct parallel to Blake’s lines, as well as the mischievous debunking that takes place in The Everlasting Gospel:

Was Jesus Chaste or did he
Give any Lessons of Chastity
The morning blushd fiery red
Mary was found in Adulterous bed
Earth groand beneath & Heaven above
Trembled at discovery of Love

On reading the whole novel, however, Pullman’s representation of Mary is a more complex one. Pullman’s Mary (unlike Blake’s) appears to be something of a simpleton rather than an innocent, for she takes Christ specifically to be her child, reserving Jesus for Joseph (14). The harshness of this assessment, however, does depend on taking the title of Pullman’s book at face value: throughout much of the novel, Christ is clearly a scoundrel, but by the end it is difficult not to feel sympathy for him.

The reason for this lies in the characters of Jesus and Pullman. It is when depicting the former that Pullman often reads at his most Blakean: Jesus is a natural rebel, and during one of his first appearances in the temple (taken from Luke chapter two), the learning ascribed to him by the evangelist is instead transferred to Christ, with Jesus instead daubing graffiti on the temple walls. In the chapter “Joseph Greets his Son”, it is Jesus who is the prodigal son, and Pullman elsewhere describes Jesus as “impulsive”, a word surely employed to evoke Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where a devil describes how Jesus breaks the ten commandments and concludes, “Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse: not from rules.” (plates 23-4 E43) Pullman, it must be said, does not quite emphasise the rebelliousness of Jesus quite as much as Blake does (as, for example, when he emphasises in his version of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus’s emphasis on fulfilling Mosaic law, something which Blake always kicks against), but his Jesus is given to spontaneous action that cannot be seen as anything but seditious by the self-righteous, as when he creates birds from clay on the sabbath – a story drawn from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas and the Qu’ran rather than more orthodox Christian sources.

In the story of the clay birds, it is Christ rather than Jesus who brings them to life. As Christ himself realises, he is calculating, rational, cautious – everything that his brother is not. Pullman’s Christ is very much a god of this world, one who wants fairness, logic and order as well as glory and power. The radical nature of Jesus’s kingdom of heaven is that it is unfair – that God gives love to lilies in the field and birds in the trees as much as to grafting men and women. In many ways, it is Christ who is the more “modern” character in the book, given to introspection and self-analysis in a way that never occurs with Jesus – and it is this that, ultimately, makes him sympathetic to the reader. Christ’s problem is that he clearly is too much a man and, if early in the novel there is something despicable about him that makes him appear a true scoundrel, as when he takes the role of the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness, by the end his own recognition of his shortcomings and failings is what makes him much more attractive. He is tricked by his own vanity and ambition into playing the part of Judas, and becomes so disgusted with this that by the end of the novel, having (almost accidentally) given hope to the disciples by making them believe that Jesus is risen again, he has turned his back on the world and become a net-maker. This is the only time that he seems content – until tempted once more by the mysterious stranger and his dormant desire to give more coherent shape to the story.

A number of reviewers have remarked on the fact that Christ is an analogue for Pullman. This, to me, seems both a fair assessment and also an indication of how Christ surprises through sympathy in the story. Jesus is radical – as Christ says at the end of the book, “He wanted perfection; he asked too much of people” (244) – while Christ is fallible. And just as Christ is an example of that familiar construct, the unreliable narrator, so Pullman in the end has to be an unreliable author. In most cases, I think this is a role that Pullman is perfectly content with – he wishes to undermine the authority of the transcendental narrative by which organised religion gains so much of his power, and if Christ is, after Nietzsche, human, all too human, then Pullman’s own humanism must recognise a deeper empathy with this failed divinity.

However, there are for me a couple of times in the novel when Pullman does appear to desire an alternative transcendental ground for his own narrative, one that will provide (as all such grounds do) at least the illusion of securer footing for his resistance to religion. The most notable moment is in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus launches into an atheistical tirade against God (191-201) which, while powerful, heartfelt, and full of good sense, simply does not sound like Jesus. By this I mean that Pullman the Christ, who has so deftly played with the gospel stories, now leaves those evangelists behind and makes Jesus his mouthpiece; this section felt to me very much a selection of ideas that Pullman wanted Jesus to express. I have no problem whatsoever with the sentiments that appear here – indeed I agree with many of them – but Jesus as ventriloquist’s dummy feels very much like a conjuring trick of the kind that Pullman wishes to denounce when it is employed by the church.

The second time when this happens is earlier in the novel, when Christ has sex with a prostitute. In many ways, this is one of the most interesting parts of the book, demonstrating Christ’s scoundrel nature while also – through his painful humiliation – eliciting sympathy from the reader. And yet, while reading and re-reading it, I couldn’t help but feel that this was another trick on Pullman’s part, a slightly gratuitous, extra-biblical degradation of Christ inserted into the novel to whip up some scandal and additional publicity. It is an extremely well-written chapter, and I shall not forget it quickly, but its inclusion does feel like an additional piece of authorial manipulation that did make me view Pullman’s rhetorical tricks much more suspiciously.

This is a shame, because the ultimate surprise of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is just how appealing it makes much of the gospel story, treating it as a perfectly human and understandable story rather than one shrouded in mystery and requiring the mediation of the church (a process that, Pullman alludes to again and again, began with Saint Paul’s revisionary exercise). In many respects, Pullman’s story often reads almost as a new translation rather than fiction despite the – rather forbidding – reminder on the back cover that “This is a STORY”. I have alluded to a few explicitly Blakean elements within the novel, but this is not by any means simply a retread of Blake’s ideas as alternative orthodoxy. Rather, Pullman appears to share with Blake a desire to reinterpret the Bible as parable requiring active, hermeneutic activity on the part of the reader. And Blake, despite all his injunctions against Urizenic reason, could be quite the rationalist when it came to the good book, as in the following defence of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason against Bishop Watson: “Of what consequence is it whether Moses wrote the Pentateuch or no. If Paine trifles in some of his objections it is folly to confute him so seriously in them & leave his more material ones unanswered Public Records as If Public Records were True” (E617). Or, more simply: “Both read the Bible day & night \ But thou readst black where I read white.” (E524)