The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

I’m just finishing up reading Philip Pullman’s fantasy on the historical Jesus. There’s some interesting stuff there, but currently I’m massively underwhelmed. I’m hoping he pulls it round in the ending though, so I won’t pass full judgement yet. This quote did jump out today, and I thought I’d share it with you.

The quote comes from Jesus, praying to God in Gethsemane. He realises that if Christ gets his way, a church will be founded, and that church will be a terrible thing. He prays:

Lord, if I thought you were listening, I’d pray for this above all: that any church set up in your name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest. That is should wield no authority except that of love. That it should never cast anyone out. That it should own no property and make no laws. That it should not condemn, but only forgive. That it should be not like a palace with marble walls and polished floors, and guards standing at the door, but like a tree with its roots deep in the soil, that shelters every kind of bird and beast and gives blossom in the spring and shade in the hot sun and fruit in the season, and in time, gives up its good sound wood for the carpenter; but that sheds many thousands of seeds so that the new trees can grow in its place. Does the tree say to the sparrow, “Get out, you don’t belong here?” Does the tree say to the hungry man, “This fruit is not for you?” Does the tree test the loyalty of the beasts before it allows them into the shade?

Amen, Jesus.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

  1. John Clavin

    I have always felt that Christianity could be redesigned from the ground up. (With the help of atheists and agnostics.)
    Philip Pullman, with his new book and the quote that you have cited, is a step in the right direction.

  2. I actually really enjoyed this book. Pullman has a sparseness and economy about his writing that I find works really well. I posted my own review of it here: http://answersingenes.blogspot.com/2010/05/review-philip-pullman-good-man-jesus.html
    Of course the Jesus/Christ splitting business means that we are definitely not in historical territory, but it’s fun to see where you can take the story with some very minimal tweaks.

  3. Ian

    Okay I’ve finished the book now.

    @john – I wonder though. It is in the nature of groups of people to want power, and with power comes the need to exercise that power in order to increase it. And that way leads to pogroms and crusades and inquisitions. I don’t think it is a fault of the starting point – Jesus hardly advocates for power.

    @shane – really? Wow. I just didn’t like it much at all. I didn’t get what he was trying to do. At some points it seemed like he was going for a naturalistic Jesus (feeding of the 5000, say), then at others (the infancy gospel material) he seemed to be narrating de-facto miracles. The angel/stranger was mysterious, but never resolved (okay – I get that was the ‘point’, but hardly an impressive one). The departures from the gospel record were arbitrary, and most of the book contained fairly mechanical retellings of gospel stories that I’ve seen done better before. I wanted to like the book, I really did. But it left me totally cold. The central idea – of taking the historical Jesus / Christ of faith dichotomoy that is used in teaching the historical Jesus, and turning it into twins – was interesting. The central shtick of having a twin brother be the post-resurrection appearances was fun. But it felt like a good short-story padded into a short novel to me.

  4. Hi Ian,
    OK, looks like we differ on this, but hey that’s OK 🙂 The infancy departures from naturalism worked for me – I viewed the angel in the role of myth working backwards in time, and the various elements of the “Jesus” that we conceive of now as being an amalgam, neither wholly Jesus nor wholly Christ. Actually, having written that it looks like a bit of post-modern gobbledegook…
    Funny, but while I really liked the ending of “Northern Lights”, my wife *really* didn’t get the same vibe. I don’t think it was because of any extra aesthetic that I was able to plug into that she wasn’t – just a matter of different taste, I suppose.
    I do think there are materials in the gospels that would be suitable as a base for one or more novels, but it would be sad if that were to result in a “me-too” rush like we saw with the Da Vinci Code.

    I’m currently reading “The Amber Spyglass”; the three books in the “His Dark Materials” series seem quite different in many ways, and it’s sometimes a bit tricky remembering which universe you’re in…

  5. Ian

    I agree with you on the ending of Northern Lights. Maybe it was the subject matter I couldn’t get past.

    Novelization of the gospel has a long tradition, rather fallen out of favor recently.

    I thought the first two Dark Materials were enjoyable, but I think the whole Death of God thing just got klunky. Pullman clearly had something to say and kindof crowbarred it in. Whereas I though the Magisterium in the first book was reasonably light-touch.

    One of the problems with Good Man Jesus, was that Pullman never gave himself the space to paint the scenes. They were almost as sparse as the gospel accounts (clearly deliberate, I think, but not the best choice). Lyra’s oxford was so evocative, that it is a shame he didn’t do the same. The Pool of Bethesda scene was the only one I could really feel.

  6. I’ve only read the HDM trilogy, but I think I’d agree with you about Pullman’s writings. It was almost a shame that he felt it so necessary to wrangle the story back to his own commentary on the Christianity of our world. He did such a good job of creating a fascinating world apart from ours!

    I sometimes wonder if an “even-newer” testament is kind of getting written for Christians right now anyway. Fundies and the like seem to be the loudest still, but a lot of progressives are not afraid to do some editing and revising. And heck, we have the pope on record saying there might actually be situations where using a condom would be a morally good choice!

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