Book Review: The Good Man Jesus


WHEN it comes to books, I am an impulsive buyer. Sometimes, it is the title of the book that attracts me and sometimes the cover. But I usually read a couple reviews before I purchase a new book. But I took no precautions before I bought a Kindle version of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman. I had read an interview the author had granted to a Western newspaper which the Indian Express had reproduced. He had talked about undermining the whole Christian faith with this book. So I had dismissed him as a pompous humbug.

Pullman, perhaps, wanted to provoke the Christian community like Salman Rushdie did when he brought out the unreadable The Satanic Verses. Then I realized that by using a larger type-size and leaving larger margins, the publisher, Canongate Books, had puffed up the book to make it more impressive and appealing to the buyer.

The greatest strength of the book is the title which is provocative, if not blasphemous. Pullman did everything possible to evoke a reaction that would have pushed the sales to dizzy heights. Alas, nobody demanded a ban on the book, except a stray reader of the Indian Currents who felt it was blasphemous. When I read his letter, I was reminded of a telephone call I received from a Catholic priest in Patiala who sought my opinion on The Da Vinci Code, a mystery-detective novel written by the American author Dan Brown.

The priest was disturbed after reading the book and wondered how it was going to affect the Christian faith. My answer to him was that I read Brown’s book with great interest but if I were asked to read it again, I would not even touch it. In sharp contrast, I had no problem in reading the Bible again and again as it never bored me.

Pullman’s His Dark Materials had made him a cult figure for the atheists. I understand he had left out Jesus in this trilogy. Deliberately because he was planning this book with which he wanted to knock down the Christian faith, once and for all. How far he has succeeded is a matter of opinion but if sales are any indication, he has succeeded in making some ripples, if not waves, in the literary ocean. He has impeccable credentials as a story writer.

One of my relatives from Mumbai after thumbing the pages showed me the last cover page on which was written “This is a story” in probably 72 points. My relative who is a staunch believer did not know that Pullman’s whole purpose in writing the book was to reduce the Biblical story to just “a story”. If that was his attempt, he should have shown greater scholarship and done greater research than referring to just three versions of the Bible, King James being the oldest as he admitted in an interview.

Where Pullman has shown ingenuity is in seeing Jesus and Christ as two distinct personalities. In an interview he mentions the fact that Paul in his epistles refers to “Christ” more times than to “Jesus”. He sees “Christ” as a Christian “construct” on which the whole edifice of Christianity is built. So, his attempt is to defrock “Christ” and show up Jesus as no more than an itinerant preacher who believed in the immediacy of the Kingdom of God.

He seeks to accomplish this by giving a twist to the Jesus story. Jesus and Christ are, therefore, twins born to Mary. While Jesus is “strong and healthy”, Christ is “small, weak and sickly. Mary wrapped the strong boy in cloth and laid him in the feeding trough, and suckled the other first, because she felt sorry for him”.

She was happy to have twins. “One for Joseph, and one for me, thought Mary, and kept this idea in her heart, and said nothing of it”. Since Pullman is an atheist, there can’t be any place for Immaculate Conception. But he is not upfront, either. So he has an “angel” (what kind of an atheist is he who believes in angels!) to facilitate the conception.

This is how he describes the event:

“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.

“Mary was bewildered.

"But my husband is away," she said.

"Ah, the Lord wants this to happen at once. I have come from him especially to bring it about. Mary, you are blessed among women, that this should come to you! You must give thanks to the Lord." “And that very night she conceived a child, just as the angel foretold.”

Again, Pullman does not differ much from the Biblical account of the census and Joseph not finding accommodation in any inn in Bethlehem. “There is no room” said the last innkeeper they asked. “But you can sleep in the stable – the beasts will keep you warm”. Thoughtfully, the author brings a “midwife” to help in the birth of the twins.

What is amazing is that the author does not differ much from the Biblical account of the sages from the East visiting Infant Jesus. The star of Bethlehem that guides them and the angels who brief shepherds about the birth of the child are all there. Thus we have in Pullman an atheist who believes in astrologers and extraterrestrial phenomena.

He portrays Jesus as the good boy and Christ as the wicked. But when Jesus lands in troubles, it is Christ the brilliant one who helps him wriggle out of such situations. Consistency is, however, not Pullman’s hallmark. So when Christ returns home like the prodigal son, Joseph prepares a feast for him. Instead of rejoicing, Jesus is sad and jealous. He questions his father’s decision to give Christ a treat. For once Jesus becomes the “scoundrel”.

Yet, Christ loves Jesus and believes he is the “messiah”. In a further twist, it is “Christ” who is the tempter and not Satan as in the Bible. Pullman cannot carry forward his story without the help of some “strange” characters. It is one such character whose identity is never revealed, who converts Christ into a spy-like person, who follows Jesus in disguise and notes down everything he utters for record. Christ also employs one of Jesus’ disciples to spy on him.

Christ thus becomes a slave of this “stranger” and puts down on a scroll everything that his brother says and does. And there is this great conversation which is the central theme of the book. Says the stranger to Christ: “But there is more, and this is not for everyone to know: in writing about what has gone past, we help to shape what will come. There are dark days approaching, turbulent times; if the way to the Kingdom of God is to be opened, we who know must be prepared to make history the handmaid of posterity and not its governor. What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom than what was. I am sure you understand me."

What it implies is that the Bible is not a truthful account but has been done deliberately to perpetuate the myth. To put it bluntly, the divinity attached to Jesus is a myth. He was at best a good man, though a little crazy. However, Pullman cannot claim any originality in this assertion made by countless others in the past.

In his version, it is Christ who betrays Jesus and not Judas. To make the book controversial and salacious, he introduces a scene where Christ visits a prostitute “realizing that no one would see them”.

“Have you come to me for business?”

“He could say nothing, but she understood, and invited him to lie on the bed with her. The business was concluded rapidly, and afterwards Christ felt moved to explain why he had accepted her invitation.”

Later, Pullman shows Jesus having doubts about the existence of God. It was Christ, who looked like his twin brother, who appeared to the disciples on their way to Emmaus. Thus he dismisses the resurrection story!

“The moral right of the author has been asserted” says the book. If copyright rules were applicable to the Bible, Pullman’s “moral right” would have been challenged. I wonder what would have happened if he had chosen to “expose” the fundamental faith of some other religions. I know what happened when Aubrey Menen tried to retell the Rama story in Rama Retold.

No, I do not want that to happen to Pullman’s book. Let people read it and feel cheated as in my case. As for the followers of Jesus Christ, the Bible is a descriptive and a prescriptive book. It unfolds in two significant events. God spoke through the prophets and the apostles.

The central theme of the Bible is: Not only is God holy, but he reveals to us the sacred nature of love, to which he beckons us. And from this sacredness of his love must flow all other loves. The incarnate figure of Jesus reflects everything God intended for us to be. We are fashioned to resemble Him.

As I conclude this column, let me quote Douglass Coupland. In his book Life After God, he gives a sobering reflection of a generation, himself included, that wandered in the wilderness of life without God. He cuts through the hype and the velvety veneer of absolute freedom. At the end of his book he writes a surprising postscript:

“Now, here is my secret: I tell you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God, that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love”.

The love Douglass Coupland seeks is not the love Philip Pullman describes in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

Asia, ReligionAJ Philip