I remember the hype around this when it came out, as the first major work from Pullman after His Dark Materials and promising a similarly inflammatory reading of religion. It was available in two simple-but-beautiful editions from Canongate, suggesting a choosing of sides or an aligning of allegiance (I’d be interested to know which sold better, the black or the white. My money’s on the black).
Anyway, when I finally settled down to read it, it was in a much less imaginatively designed paperback and on loan from a theology graduate friend who described it as ‘really disappointing’, but who also acknowledged that she has a much deeper knowledge of the Bible than your average reader and thought she might have been giving Pullman a bit of a hard time.
Not so, theology friend! For somebody who had obviously done his homework on religious literature for The Amber Spyglass, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is an incredibly simplistic retelling, and I say this as somebody with a pretty limited Sunday School grasp of the Biblical stories, plus whatever you pick up in English Lit class along the way. I wasn’t offended by it in a religious sense, but I really thought it smacked of a kind of adolescent storytelling – ‘Wouldn’t it blow everybody’s minds if Jesus wasn’t one person….BUT TWO?!’. There used to be an old drunk guy who would regularly get on my bus and tell everybody ‘IF YOU SPELL LIVED BACKWARDS, YOU GET DEVIL’ and then stare at you like he’d proved an infallible conspiracy about the universe. I mean, he wasn’t wrong, but he definitely wasn’t as clever as he thought, either, smelling of Special Brew on the 143. And I feel like he and Philip Pullman have been to one too many Tennants-flavoured theology seminars.
The novel is written in a pared down style which I guess is supposed to be redolent of Biblical writing, although why people insist on suggesting that people 2,000 years ago all narrated their own inner monologues in this sparse way I have no idea. Christ is the black sheep of the family, intelligent, sensitive to moral ambiguity, and distinctly non-miraculous whereas Jesus is all impassioned earnestness and miracles. Christ becomes Jesus’s history writer, and inevitably starts to edit some of the occurrences for the sake of posterity, neatly bringing in a debate about the difference between History and Truth (and often helpfully telling you that’s what it’s doing at the same time. Just so, y’know, you don’t miss the significance). The man who encourages Christ in his endeavours is a shadowy figure (SIGNIFICANCE KLAXON: maybe he’s the devil) who seems to be preparing the way for the church (SIGNIFICANCE KLAXON: maybe the church is bad) – an institution that Jesus himself is against (SIGNIFICANCE KLAXON: doesn’t that just blow your mind, man?). We all know how the story is going to end, and surprise surprise, Judas and Christ are in cahoots, only it’s Christ that gets the 30 pieces of silver (SIGNIFICANCE KLAXON: exhausted).
It isn’t a bad book, not by a long shot, and for fans of Pullman it’s another bit of writing to gobble up by him. But where His Dark Materials offered some really challenging ideas with a bit of Milton thrown in, I found this to be a bit facile in comparison, and without the gimmick of the religious retelling, not a very compelling novel in its own right. I kept thinking about one of my favourite novels, The Master and Margarita, which contains a retelling of Jesus’ story through the eyes of Pontius Pilate in a much more nuanced, interesting, beautiful way. This just didn’t compete.