The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

14 April, 2010

When I first heard of the premise of Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the book and start reading. I’m not religious but due to my schooling I’m probably better versed in Christianity than Buddhism and have always had an interest in biblical stories. I’ve also been meaning to read some of the Canongate Myth Series, especially since Jeannette Winterson is a contributor amongst other interesting authors, but I’ve been a lazy girl and haven’t managed it yet. I thought at one point Donna Tartt was going to contribute (what a coup!) but it seems it’s not meant to be. However, they’ve made up by recruiting Natsuo Kirino and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with.

In The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Pullman has written about the life of Jesus, a Jesus more like that portrayed in the dead sea scrolls rather than the Bible. This has always been a contentious point amongst scholars, believers and non-believers, and Pullman has come up with an alternative explanation about this dichotomy in Jesus’ portrayal even within the Bible and in history. What a revolutionary notion. I would never in a million years have come up with the idea of Jesus Christ split and doubled.

In Pullman’s retelling, Mary gives birth not only to Jesus but his twin brother Christ. It is Christ who sees how things are, Christ who is fêted for being special. But it is Jesus who goes around preaching, making waves, getting into trouble and Christ is left to pick up the pieces. His disciples and followers see something special in Jesus. Yet Jesus cannot hear God, he doesn’t even know if he still cares. Christ is also wracked by doubts, yet his vision is clearer and he begins to take down and write about Jesus’ ministry for posterity, changing things slightly here and polishing rough edges there, on the urgings of a stranger whose identity remains a mystery.

Pullman has written a controversial but surprisingly honest book. He makes you think about what is good and bad about institutionalised religion and about the dangerous control and power it wields. The messages about helping people, love, compassion and charity, I think, are present in all religions. But the negative aspects are there too. And Pullman’s prose is spare and powerful as he hammers his message in with every word. He is a masterful storyteller, and although I finished the book with more questions than when I began, he left me pondering the crucial role that stories play in religion. As Pullman doesn’t believe in the supernatural, he cleverly gives a rational explanation for the divine. This also made the story more human to me. I now want to go back and read the Bible again, just to see how his retelling differs. And of course to revisit the His Dark Materials trilogy.

I did not feel, reading it, that this book was in any way disrespectful. It is written simply but is a very serious book. However, I do think this book is something Christians may find difficult to read because it questions their fundamental creed. And it poses some interesting questions about institutionalised religion generally and not just about Jesus’ sayings. And with anything, it’s important to question, right?

A few days ago I went to see Pullman talk at the Southbank (my favourite literary venue in London). It was a packed audience and the discussion was excellent. It was interesting to know that Pullman compared the Church to the Communist theocracy in the USSR (his words) where the people were controlled by an entity that could not be questioned and one that has been transformed beyond recognition. Someone in the audience asked whether he was going to write a book about The Good Man Marx and the Scoundrel Stalin! All in all a thoughful event and a brilliant retelling.

Here is an enlightening article that Pullman has written for The Telegraph. And you may also want to check out Nymeth’s eloquent post here .

I read this as part of the Once Upon A Time IV Challenge.

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13 Responses to “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman”

  1. Iris Says:

    I’ve read the review of Nymeth, but yours is well written too! Both of your reviews make me want to read this book so much. I can’t wait to have it in my hands and read it.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      Thank you Iris! It really is a thought-provoking read. I so want to go and start His Dark Materials again but I have a TBR queue to get through!

      • Iris Says:

        I’m ashamed to say that I have never read the His Dark Materials trilogy. I’ve been meaning to buy & read it for forever, but somehow something always gets in the way and I end up forgetting about it.

        • chasing bawa Says:

          I read them years ago and somehow missed all the controversial religious subtexts… they just didn’t jump out at me. So that’s why I want to go and read them again. Plus it helped that I loved the story. I have lists of books that I have been meaning to get for years, and even after I get them it takes me a couple of years to actually read them.

  2. Val Says:

    Very interesting review that makes me want to read the book! thanks for the link to the article too :0)


  3. This one is definitely on my TBR list, so it’s interesting to hear your response. And I would love to re-read His Dark Materials as well; I was aware of the subtext but was waaaay too concerned with what was happening (such gripping reads) to properly appreciate it.

  4. Aarti Says:

    Great review! I still don’t know if this book is for me to read, but I LOVE that books like this are written, even if I don’t read them. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I like that there can be discussion about this sort of thing.

  5. Nymeth Says:

    The fact that the book took its subject matter so seriously also made me think it wasn’t disrespectful – but of course, I’d understand if a Christian felt differently.

    And lol, I’d so read The Good Man Marx and the Scoundrel Stalin 😀

    Thank you for including my link, and thank you also for the Telegraph article, which I hadn’t seen.

  6. Gavin Says:

    Another great review. I am full of excitment and anticipation, waiting for this one to be released in the US.

  7. chasing bawa Says:

    Val: It’s a really well-written and well-thought out article, isn’t it? I hope you enjoyed it.

    Buried in Print: Same here, I missed everything else except for the story 🙂

    Aarti: It’s great to read about and listen to the discussion this book provokes. What I liked about it was that although it’s about Jesus, it’s also about institutionalised religion, the power of stories and what is contructed as truth vs. history.

    Nymeth: I would so love to read the the Marx book too if he ever writes it! I feel the Telegraph article provides a deeper look into Pullman’s motives and views regarding this book and made me understand the book a little more.

    Gavin: If you get a chance to see Pullman give a talk, go! The discussion alone is worth it.

  8. Colleen Says:

    I only allowed myself to glance at your post, sideways as it were, because I’m waiting for this to come to me via the library. I will come read the whole post later!


  9. […] Reviews: Chasing Bawa, Ela’s Book Blog, Page247, Stuff As Dreams Are Made On, Things Mean a Lot Have you reviewed […]


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