“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about”
– The Birth of Jesus: Matthew, 1:18-25
Phillip Pullman’s contribution ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ to the Canongate Myth Series depicts the pivotal events of the life of Jesus, in which the metaphor of Jesus being both a man and a ‘messiah’ is manifested literally. We are presented with twin brothers; Jesus the popular, righteous man in contrast to Christ, the shrewd, rational and altogether anonymous figure. Through Pullman’s easy narrative, the focal events in Jesus’ life are reworked in a ‘parable’ style, the birth of the twins, their childhood and one brother’s growing fame and his ultimate death. The author himself emphasises that although the novel is about both brothers, “the death of the other [brother] is not part of the story.”
Throughout the novel, Jesus is initially shown as the ‘good’ brother, and certainly the more popular one, so appropriately, it is he who becomes renown as the coming ‘saviour’. Meanwhile Christ leads an opposite life; he is consistently seen as weak by others, and becomes eventually forgotten by his contemporaries. Ironically, it is Christ who is shown as the as ‘logical’ and rational one, while Jesus’ passion appears to undermine his arguments. This functions to shape not only their identities, but also other’s (and especially the reader’s) perceptions of the brothers. While Jesus appeals to the human nature of others in this time, Christ interprets this as needing to be harnessed by a man-made institution (i.e. The Church) in order to flourish and survive.
And so themes of rationalisation and logic continues throughout the whole novel, with the character of Christ being used as a receptacle to subtly undermine the ‘miracle’s of Jesus. Landmark events such as the bread and fish sermon, Jesus walking on water and even his parables are revealed to be just exaggeration and romanticized by spectator gossip. Throughout, we see Christ recording Jesus’ sermons, in which only he knows the ‘truth’ and yet distorts it to fit a greater purpose – just like the author
“And he is the history and you are the truth”.
This manipulation by different people, even as precise detail as to Jesus’ name and his ongoing thoughts leaves the readers feeling as if they are being told what to believe, they are being told a recorded ‘truth’. We are left with a cynical, bitter aftertaste by the end of the book, in which we question this whole concept of ‘Truth’.
It is an interesting idea that although Jesus is the ‘good’ man, Christ is more human because of his flaws and his aspirations to be better. The theme of identity is consistently examined; created and recreated throughout the novel by different character’s beliefs and perceptions.
Only by becoming an icon, and even taking on another person’s identity, does Christ feel that he is finally ‘cleansed’ of his sins. Similarly following this progress is the unknown stranger who also hides in the background of the scenes. At first suggesting a more celestial presence, even the identity of the ‘angel’ and his motives are questioned, eventually becoming tantamount to the disillusion and falseness which becomes akin to the gaudy trappings of a merchant.
Another facet in the novel is understanding not only Jesus’ contempt for his brother, but the general representation of family. The idea of bonds and relationships are not shown in a strong light, leading us especially to questions why Jesus rejects them. It is interesting that the only ‘family’ he does not reject is his ‘father’ (or God), whom he hears nothing from, which serves to test his belief. Another significant point is that it is Jesus’s brother who gives him the ultimate fame and allows a lasting message to come about.
Generally this novel seems to look at how belief is treated – by the crowds, the two brothers and even us as the readers. There appears to an emphasis on the real rather than the spiritual, such as the ‘miracles’ of Jesus and the silence from God. We are left questioning whether Pullman uses this story as a platform to display his beliefs of atheism; certainly there are strong hints of this scepticism in Pullman’s other novels, primarily like the ‘His Dark Materials‘ trilogy. Yet this is not to say that the entire novel is so pessimistic as to follow the seeming bias of Christ and his cold, hard practicality; he too questions his own sins and flaws, aspiring to be ‘purer’ and more selfless like his brother. Despite acting as a Judas figure in the novel, there are some very real questions of Jesus and his origins, as well as the idea of belief. We may be, on the surface, urged to “compromise and succeed a little” rather than “aim for purity and fail altogether”, yet in the end it is us, as readers, who decide on whether to follow this view of ‘enlightenment’ or draw our own conclusions as to the potentials of humankind.
Phillip Pullman, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Canon: Edinburgh 2010) pp. 244, £14.99