(Published in i-Witness, The New Indian Express on 25th April, 2010)
When the title was announced, the first thought in everyone’s mind was “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Pullman!” While some were horrified, his fans could only smile. Philip Pullman has done it again, and this time from within. What happens when a man perceived to be an atheist, quoted as saying, “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief” and believed to have written His Dark Materials as a counter to the religious overtones of Narnia, is asked to rewrite the Gospel?
This is what the author of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ replied:
Yes, it was a shocking thing to say, and I knew it...But no one has the right to live without being shocked. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to open it. And if they open it and read it, they don’t have to like it. And if you dislike it, you don’t have to remain silent. You can write to me, you can write to the publisher, you can write to the paper, you can write your own book…But there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published or sold or bought or read. And that’s all I have to say on that subject.
There is a reason Dr. Rowan Williams, The Archbishop of Canterbury, is reported to have suggested His Dark Materials be taught at schools. Philip Pullman’s lyrical writing is compelling, but his books would not be as successful if his imagination were not enhanced by scholarship. The blurb claims this book “is about how stories become stories.” In his quest, Pullman explores the interweaving of truth and history as he deconstructs Christianity. He ponders Biblical sayings freethinkers have so much trouble with, such as “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” He deals with the themes of Truth vs. History and The Church vs. God, turning the concept of ‘The Gospel Truth’ on its head. Pullman plays with the idea of a scientific, credible explanation for the miracles described in The New Testament, right up to the Resurrection.
And he does this by breaking Jesus Christ into two – Jesus and his twin, who is only identified by the moniker ‘Christ’ (meaning ‘Messiah’), though we do know he has a given name. The brothers are tormented souls, questioning themselves, even displaying bipolar tendencies. In a narrative that alternates between fable-like and irreverent language, Pullman portrays a human Jesus for the first time. Where else could you find Jesus saying “damn”, “bloody” and “smartarse”?
The title strikes one as ironic. While we tend to prefer Jesus over Christ when the boys are children, the latter’s appeal grows even as his power diminishes. The brothers seem to share an equilibrium, which alters for the first time when they meet John the Baptist. But one thing doesn’t change – Christ seeks to protect Jesus, from his own misdeeds as a child and from the misinterpretation of his sermons as an adult. And even after the final twist, one finds oneself thinking of Christ as the wronged one.
Listening to Jesus’ vituperative speeches against Gentiles, observing his contempt for those seen as virtuous, Christ is troubled. What Jesus seems to be saying with these stories was something horrible: that God’s love was arbitrary and undeserved, almost like a lottery.
The reader is moved by Christ’s unconditional love for his brother, even as the shades of grey shift between them. Jesus’ self-righteousness, his belief in saying it like it is, is placed in contrast to his brother’s keenness to mould the truth into a marketable form, to “magnify [his] brother’s name.” There are three particularly poignant scenes in the book – one, where Christ has a slow epiphany while speaking to a prostitute (“More than anything, [I want to be like my brother]. He does things out of passion and I do them out of calculation.”); two, where the rejects of society discuss the concept of goodness at the Pool of Bethesda (a scene which ends in irony); three, Jesus confessing to God that he doubts His existence, in the Garden at Gethsemane.
This book must be read if you want to wave goodbye to a Goody-Two-Shoes-Jesus. It must be read if you have wondered why one prophet stood out enough to have a religion started in his name. It must be read if the four gospels struck you as growing in fervour from Mark to John, but never questioning the fundamentals. It must be read if you want to know why so many bishops have spoken in favour of Pullman. And if you do pick it up and open it and read it, whether you like it or not, the last sentence will haunt you, bringing to mind the end of His Dark Materials.