27 Apr 2010


Something a little different for today Husband dearest has agreed to a guest spot on Pen And Paper.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
Phillip Pullman
2009 Canongate

Philip Pullman's story, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, imagines Mary as having given birth to twins: the inspired, plain-speaking, revolutionary Jesus, and the anxious, manipulative, Christ. The annunciation is nothing but a seduction; the resurrection a trick, and Jesus's faith hangs by a thread.
Charlotte Higgins – The Guardian

…and thereby hangs the tale. In pensive mood and being thoroughly sick of text books I thought that I may indulge myself in a novel or two in the last week, just to convince myself that reading remains an enjoyable thing. With Pullmans latest offering it could certainly be said to be relaxing and for the deconstructed christian who likes his scripture tempered with a dose of historical reality there is nothing in the book which could be said to be challenging. Anyone who has simply read the four canon gospels as we have received them is already acutely aware of the discrepancies therein, the scope for mistranslations, redactions and simple interpretation by the reader. This book simply pushes the scope of these things a step further by providing an example of a continuous narrative of a narrative produced with specific intent.

In fact Pullman quite probably has done a service to the gospels that he would never have intended, as readers with but a dull remembrance of Sunday School stories may return to a swift read of Mark just to reassure themselves that it was as they remembered it. It won’t be. One of my favourite lesson starters with students when encouraging them to think about why they think the things they do is to ask them which animals were present at the birth of Christ. Years of singing ‘Away in a Manger’ have of course done the job nicely and students are shocked when provided with a copy of the bible and asked to show me where it says so. The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ, have a similar sort of feeling for me. There was nothing in there that horrified, not even the little Pythonesque hat-tip to Michael Palins ex-leper, nor the more detailed extrapolation of bits of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Pullman has of course received the obligatory threats and abuse for suggesting that Mary was just a gullible little girl abused by a stranger and that the resurrection was a quiet shuffling off, stage left of a body, to be swiftly replaced by the twin brother, again at the behest of the same stranger. Our blessed leader who art in Lambeth* described the story as a ’searching, teasing and ambitious, narrative’, whereas I simply found it, brief and a bit dull in the main.

Pullmans central theme, seems to me to be that the massive and organised bureaucracy of church which he so despises, was in fact ordained and achieved with remarkable precision from the outset. Who might be responsible in this respect and any notion as to why is conveniently got around by the presence of the guiding hand of the stranger who remains anonymous throughout. Anyone who has really engaged with the church, certainly in the modern era knows all too well that achievements garnered through deliberate intent, are probably few and far between and much of the theology which has guided its development through the last 2000 years has been a mish-mash of to-ing and fro-ing between political and economic realities. The notion that the current Pope, with all of the current difficulties he is challenged with, was the manic scheme of a stranger 2000 years ago, is a little far-fetched, although there is certainly an integrity within the story that lends it credibility. It is perhaps too easy to believe in the tropical storm when the only evidence presented is the butterfly flapping its wings. Just because the theory says its possible it doesn’t mean it is likely. Conflating the existing organisational problems and conflicts with one possible variant of the mythical cannot be called conclusive in any measure.

In his favour I( will say that Pullmans description of the church is sadly recognisable and probably painfully apparent to anyone of a liberating theology. Further, I will not stint with praise for his rendering of Jesus last moments in Gethsemane , which are worthy of consideration for anyone interested in the human/divine argument in christological study or simply in a finely rendered bit of prose.

So for a nice, quick, unchallenging Da Vinci Code version of the life of Christ, go for it. For a serious engagement with the church, go find a priest.

Neal Terry,

* The Archbishop of Canterbury .


Jessica said...

Good review, my copy of this book is arriving hopefully today and I was brought up in the church (my father is a minister) so this one did appeal.

Vivienne said...

I really want to read this one soon! Congrats to your hubby for a fabulous review.

Kelly said...

Well.... it does sound like quite a different twist on the Gospel.

Thanks to your husband for stepping in today with this contribution!

Anonymous said...

Great review , congrats to your husband.
Sounds like an interesting book
B xx

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Oddyoddyo13 said...

So in depth! Loved it!

kathryn said...

So, how did you really feel about it?

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the "Dark Materials" trilogy, this sounds interesting, thank you for sharing the review.

....Petty Witter said...

To answer your question Kathryn, I'm Busy reading the book now so I'll let you all know in due course.

Cara Powers said...

Excellent review Ms. Witter. I've actually read a couple text books on the first 500 years of theology and church history. There was definitely no one person doing the guiding. There was a lot of politics and power mongering. All in all, I think the first 500 years set us up with some pretty good theology as a base. Pullman is very anti-Christianity. It even showed in His Dark Materials Trilogy.

Kelly said...

Well.... as a Christian, I like to believe the Holy Spirit was doing the guiding.

....Petty Witter said...

Not very good at subtle, you weren't talking to me , were you Kathryn?

Alexia561 said...

Well done Mr. Petty Witter! Had never heard of this one, but now I'm curious and will see if I can find a copy.

Have you ever read "Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal", by Christopher Moore? Would love to read your take on that one!

themethatisme said...

Had never heard of it Alexia, but I shall look out for it.

themethatisme said...

Had never heard of it Alexia, but I shall look out for it.