The greatest ‘story’ ever told?

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

Storytelling is something that Philip Pullman cares about very much –  he told the audience so at the Oxford Literary Festival a week or so ago (link here). It is also immediately apparent when you start to read this book.  The language is very straight-forward, with few embellishments and descriptive touches – simple almost, as you might expect from an author who has written so much fantastic fiction for children. Superfluities have been pared away to the plot only. As the back cover reminds us – This is a  story – that’s all.

This deceptive simplicity instead generates intensity and a longing to read on.   From the very first sentence you know you’re in for something a little different …

This is the story of Jesus and his brother Christ, of how they were born, of how they lived and of how one of them died.

Pullman separates the dual-nature of Jesus Christ into twin brothers. Jesus is the firstborn rebel who will become the visionary teacher and healer, and Christ is the quiet and observant, questioning younger brother who stays mostly in the shadows. When Jesus goes into the desert, it is Christ that plays devil’s advocate, tempting him with the lure of being the front man of something big that will last forever.

‘…Won’t you be a part of this most wonderful work and help bring the Kingdom of God to earth?’
Jesus looked at his brother.
‘You phantom,’ he said, ‘you shadow of a man. Every drop of blood in our bodies? You have no blood to speak of; it would be my blood that you’d offer up to this vision of yours. What you describe sounds like the work of Satan. God will bring about his Kingdom in his own way, and when he chooses.  …’

Pullman uses the device of a mysterious stranger who comes to visit Christ to make his question everything even more. The stranger suggests that Christ starts to chronicle Jesus’ acts, and Christ resolves to turn the truth into history, (as will the writers of the Gospels later). He also manages to put a great spin on the miracles. In that of feeding the 5000 for example – he has Jesus wave his food in the air and suggest everyone shares whatever they have, and only his five loaves and two fishes get remembered – this certainly raised a chuckle. But as we near the end, it becomes just as heart-breaking as the real thing, (Jesus’ rant at God in the garden of Gethsemane brought to mind Ian Gillan’s anguish on the original studio recording of Jesus Christ Superstar.)

But I mustn’t digress. I did love every word of this book, and it made me want to revisit the Gospels, if only to double-check  my memory of certain stories within. Pullman is fascinated by the story, and how truth is made into history, which is converted into myth, legend, even religion – and this book has been published as part of the Canongate Myths series. The title is certainly controversial and, of course, in making Jesus and Christ doppelgangers of a sort, he has taken liberties with the authorised version. Audacious that may be, but it’s done with reverence too, and for me it worked – it’s a brilliant story!  (10/10)

This post was republished into its original place in my blog’s timeline from my lost posts archive

Source: Own copy

Philip Pullman, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Canongate, 2010), paperback 272 pages.

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