The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

A friend recently sent me a link to an NPR story featuring Philip Pullman and his latest book, suggesting I weigh in. Since (a) I’ve benignly ignored many similar requests and (b) the subject matter of the book is provocative, at least in a certain respect, I thought I’d take up the task.

Pullman is best known for the His Dark Materials trilogy, the first of which, The Golden Compass, was recently adapted into a big budget film. An avowed atheist, he wrote the series as a kind of response to C. S. Lewis’ popular Chronicles of Narnia, books he disliked for their Christian themes. With his new work, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Pullman has set his sight a bit higher: to the gospels and their place as the foundation of orthodox Christian faith.

Interestingly, Pullman credits the genesis of the book to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, at a joint appearance to discuss His Dark Materials, prodded him to consider where Jesus fit into his views. He apparently resolved to write a book about Jesus on the spot, eventually producing The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

As the title might imply, Pullman’s book focuses on not one, but two central figures: Jesus, a carpenter turned charismatic itinerant preacher, and Christ, Jesus’ twin brother and the chronicler, and occasionally embellisher, of his ministry. The latter encounters “the stranger,” a mysterious figure who encourages Christ in his fables. “If I was pinned to the spot and forced to say what [the stranger] was,” Pullman offers, “I would say he was the spirit of the church.”

Meanwhile, Pullman’s Jesus grows angry with God in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion: “You’re making a liar out of me, you realize that. I don’t want to tell lies. I want to tell the truth. But I tell them you’re a loving father watching over them all and you’re not. You’re blind as well as deaf as far as I can tell.”

Since I haven’t had a chance to read the actual book, any sort of credible book review is beyond my scope, as is a complete apologetic response. Still, a few general comments are in order:

1. I mentioned that The Good Man Jesus is provocative—it’s certain to gain the attention of people from all sides of the debate over the claims of orthodox Christianity. However, I added the qualifier “in a certain respect” quite intentionally. Its core challenge appears to be a mild variation of an old assertion: that the Jesus of history has been obscured by the exaggerations of his followers. On this view, fraud, even if it’s the pious, well-meaning variety, is ultimately behind the accounts of Jesus’ miracles and assertions of deity. This is by no means new. Christians from various disciplines have been cogently answering this challenge for centuries.

2. As an atheist, Pullman is certainly under no obligation to be faithful to the gospel accounts. As a novelist, he’s entitled to take liberties with history. Still, it strains even poetic license to name his fictionalized character “Christ.” Christians have long combined “Christ” with “Jesus” to use as a proper name. From a biblical and historical standpoint, however, the term is originally a title. Specifically, “Christ” is the Greek equivalent to “Messiah.” I don’t mean to be pedantic, but Pullman is thus effectively suggesting a scenario in which a character living in a historical period saturated with religious expectation bears the given name “Messiah.” This is a bit silly, much like it would be to name a child “Christ” today. One hopes Pullman is well aware that his choice of name is historically awkward and simply decided it was necessary to further the novel’s central conceit. If not, a reader might legitimately wonder how knowledgeable Pullman is regarding the gospels and religion he critiques.

3. “This is a story among other stories,” says Pullman about his book, “it doesn’t make any claims to be the truth about anything.” Perhaps not. But the clear implication of his story is that the gospel accounts of Jesus life, death, and resurrection are also merely fiction. Indeed, the NPR article notes that Pullman “hopes his book will send readers back to one of the other versions of this story: the Bible. He believes they might be surprised by some of the inconsistencies they find there.” Here, I might suggest that Pullman be careful of what he wishes for. After all, his readers wouldn’t be the first to traffic in the pages of the Bible, only to come away with a far different impression than his.

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