Philip Pullman is the man who killed god in the His Dark Materials trilogy so his was obviously a name that was going to be top of Canongate’s list for someone to reinterpret the Christian gospels. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is the result – a novel that remains true to the enigmatic and page-turning nature of the gospels whilst, as one would expect, undermining their claim to any form of literal truth.
It’s not a book that will take you long to read. A few hours should be more than enough time to cover off the book in its entirety, including Pullman’s Afterword. Along the way, if you’ve had any kind of religious education at a school that does that sort of thing, you will come across material that is mostly familiar. Here’s Jesus in the temple as a child, here’s the parable of the Good Samaritan, here’s the betrayal of Jesus to the authorities … and so on. Everything that is referenced here draws on extant canonical material. The subversion is a familiar one – that of Jesus having a double to carry on his work after a death from which he did not rise again. The invention and beauty of handing this notion to a writer such as Pullman is the meditation on storytelling this becomes and how it all reads in the same manner as a rhythmic English translation of the bible itself. All it needs is chapter and verse numbers and we’d have a Gospel of the Atheist Philip to add to the apocrypha.
There is much here that is beautiful: for example, Jesus’ lament of God’s forsaking of him in the Garden of Gethsemane takes Douglas Adams’ quote about the beauty of nature not requiring the divine and sends it to new heights. There is much more that is clever: the parable of the women at the wedding is read differently here with a twist about the understanding we now have; the background to the parable of the prodigal son. There is also, surprisingly, much that a devout Christian should cherish, not least through its understanding of the good that people do when guided by pure faith. But, and coming as no surprise to anyone who has read His Dark Materials there is little here for followers of ‘the church’. Pullman again, through every sympathetic voice in the story and his own in the Afterword, can find nothing positive about an organised body of the keepers and interpreters of religion who use their power to control the thoughts of others.
I haven’t read enough reviews of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ to know whether it’s been damned by believers or non-believers, or how it’s been received more widely. With his very human Jesus, Pullman reveals a deep understanding of the good that people do when inspired by faith but at the same time clearly shows where he, as an atheist, places the limit on the role of the gods in people’s lives.