Sure, his story has two characters, Jesus and Christ, in the place of a singular ‘Jesus Christ’ figure. In Pullman’s story, Mary gives birth to twins: Jesus and Christ. Pullman sets up the Christ character as a foil to Jesus: Christ wants to build a controlling church institution, while Jesus wants to free people from the shackles of moralism and soul-destroying religious obligation.
Like the Gospel writers of old, Pullman gets this point across through the medium of story. Almost all of the material in the book is based on stories recorded in the Gospels, but with a twist or embellishment.
In a mocking review of Pullman’s method, the Guardian’s John Crace writes:
And lo! Dawkins begat Hitchens begat Pullman, and Pullman went off to his desk for 40 long minutes to knock up an alternative Bible to give the Church a right kicking and make a few quid for himself at the same time.
I have to admit having similar thoughts when I started reading the book. The idea of twins is an original and clever way of getting his points across, I suppose, but I was expecting more than a glorified re-translation of the gospels.
As I read, I asked myself if I would have reacted so critically to something similar written by say, the philosopher-theologian Peter Rollins. Rollins has recently published The Orthodox Heretic, a book of ‘impossible tales’. Some of these tales draw on biblical parables or bible stories, but with a twist or embellishment.
I appreciate Rollins’ parables, and think they communicate profound ideas that are better understood through stories rather than logical argument. So isn’t that what Pullman is doing as well?
I think the answer is yes. And there are a few passages in the book in which Pullman’s writing goes beyond the expected and clumsy bashing of the institutional church.
For example, I got a lot out of Pullman’s account of Jesus’ prayer in the garden at Gethsemane (p. 191-201), in which Jesus questions God’s very existence. Take these words (p. 195-196),
But you’re in the silence. You say nothing. God, is there any difference between saying that and saying you’re not there at all? I can imagine some philosophical smartarse of a priest in years to come pulling the wool over his poor followers’ eyes: ‘God’s great absence is, of course, the very sign of his presence’, or some such drivel.
The people will hear his words, and think how clever he is to say such things, and they’ll try and believe it; and they’ll go home puzzled and hungry, because it makes no sense at all. That priest is worse than the fool in the psalm, who at least is an honest man. When the fool prays to you and gets no answer, he decides that God’s great absence means he’s not bloody well there.
The idea of Jesus questioning and even doubting God isn’t new either, of course. Remember Jesus’ words from the cross as recorded in scriptures: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
One doesn’t have to be a Pullman, Dawkins, Hitchens or other brand of atheist in order to reflect on the idea of Jesus doubting God’s existence and goodness. The Belfast-based Ikon group with which Rollins is involved has regularly played with ideas like the absence of God, doubting God, etc. etc.
Indeed, while others might find Pullman’s story of Jesus and Christ shocking, I think my exposure to Ikon over the last number of years has inoculated me to what Pullman is trying to do in this book. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ just didn’t seem all that radical to me.
I can contrast that to John Carroll’s book, The Existential Jesus, which I reviewed recently on this blog. Carroll works almost exclusively with the actual texts of the gospels of Mark and John, and he manages to make similar points about Jesus’ life without inventing a twin brother Christ. I found The Existential Jesus a much more powerful piece of writing than The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.
That’s not to say that Carrolll, Ikon or Rollins would agree with everything Pullman is saying, or that they are all making exactly the same points.
What’s more interesting is that groups like Ikon – loosely associated with Emergence Christianity – are asking the same sort of questions as Pullman. That tells us something about the zeitgeist when it comes to thinking about Jesus.