Friday, July 09, 2010

Philip Pullman, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, 2010.

Pullman’s book is a fascinating retelling of the gospels. He uses a twist so widely-reported (and so nearly explicit in the title) that I’ll not attempt circumlocutions here as I try to blog about this book: Mary had twins, Jesus and Christ. Pullman tells the story with the former as a devout and wise teacher, frustrated by his inability to hear God’s voice; and with the latter as a manipulative editor who fakes the post-resurrection appearances to reveal what he hopes an institutional Church will be able to use as it grows and leads. The story is well-told and compelling, even as it will leave most readers who have a commitment to the Jesus of the gospels discomfited to varying degrees. I want to note in this blog entry two facets of the book which I find particularly interesting: the style of the telling, and the argument Pullman makes about God in general, Jesus in particular, and the Church which he feels should be damned.

Pullman tells his story in short sentences as part of many short chapters. Stylistically, it reminded me of nothing so much as the gospel of Mark. There’s a distinct lack of the kind of descriptions present in most novels. As just one example, Joseph proclaims himself an old man when told to marry Mary–but we have no description of him, nor of the kind of flower that issues from his rod as a sign when Zacharias is trying to decide who should become Mary’s husband. There are also marked gaps in the story-telling: as Pullman relates the Annunciation, Mary allows an angel who “had assumed the appearance of a young man” in through her window. After his explanation that God wants Mary to have a child, there’s a glaring omission as the next paragraph simply relates that “And that very night she conceived a child, just as the angel foretold.” Implicit or at least strongly possible is the idea of a physical role for the angel; yet I find interesting what Pullman is willing to hint at when later in the story he explicitly changes famous sayings and stories about Jesus—or has a character change them. Is this early non-change-but-hint an attempt to keep the religious reader unoffended for a bit longer? Is the desire not to drastically alter key moments with vivid associations? Or is it to keep some element of mystery present about the possibility of God acting? While the book’s sentences are crisp and active, impelling the story along with enough speed that the book may be easily read at a single sitting (again, like the Gospel of Mark), some of the alterations to the canonical stories are made more or less obvious by the adopted style that’s more like that of a gospel than that of The Golden Compass.

I need to be perfectly clear when I speak about the argument Pullman advances in the book about God, Jesus, and Church. I am a priest, and my signed a solemn declaration at both my ordinations “that I do believe the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.” I don’t mention that statement to excuse my issues with Pullman, or to explain them away, but to make clear that I come to an interesting book which I did enjoy with biases that show forth in what I am about to write.

I think that what I read in this book may justifiably be called an argument that Pullman advances in the book precisely because it is so continuous with what the reader encounters in the His Dark Materials cycle, and in Pullman’s varied public statements and interviews. And yet I find it less persuasive here because it seems too convenient, too easy: anything Pullman wants to explain away can be the editing or revising work of the scoundrel Christ rather than the good man Jesus. Moreover, a substantial chunk of what Pullman argues is fallacious even if continuous with widespread understanding. Enough generalities; some particulars. The character of Christ invents a dove and a voice saying “This is my beloved son” at Jesus’ baptism (compare Mt 3.13-17; Mk 1.9-11; Lk 3.21-22; Jn 1.29-34—I’m not going to give passages from all four for the rest of these examples, but just the one which I think Pullman is drawing from most heavily); Christ is the devil who tempts Jesus after his forty days in the wilderness—and, notably, changes the final temptation about temporal power to speak of a Church much like that of history as a means of control/help (Mt 4.1—11); Christ records the sharing of food as a miracle, the feeding of multitudes (John 6.1-5); Christ invents Peter’s assertion that Jesus is the Messiah, and that Peter has the keys of heaven (Mt 16.13-20); Christ invents the distinction between Mary and Martha’s roles (Lk 10.38-42); Christ plays the role of Judas from the gospels (Lk 22.47-53); and on, and on, and on, through the post-resurrection appearances (esp. Lk 24.1-12 and 24.13-35). This device of twins is a way of explaining away the miraculous, of keeping the anti-establishment teacher of Jesus as an honest man with no interest in Church—and clearly not as someone who would rise from the dead. As scribe and as actor, the character of Christ is a redactor who brings Church and faith in Jesus into being—and hence is the scoundrel of the title. It’s a device that explains away differences between the four gospels found in the New Testament, and which attempts to explain away an idea of a truth that is revealed rather than invented. In short, my problem with the argument is literary: it’s just too easy a solution, one that allows Pullman to craft a Jesus as an earthly teacher who’s politically naïve but essentially admirable who is then used by malevolent and/or self-interested others to their own ends of control. Pullman’s Jesus is a tool of hegemony, and it’s a much weaker story as he tells it than as I read in (especially) the canonical gospels and in other retellings.

My other issue is theological rather than literary. Pullman’s idea of prayer is speech; his idea of prayer answered is God’s voice speaking clearly to an individual. This vision of prayer is made explicit in his retelling of Jesus praying in the garden before the crucifixion. It’s a popular notion and shared widely—but it misses the essential point that prayer is the offering of self to God and opening of self to grace. It’s especially odd to me that he works from this mode as he quotes psalms: to have been immersed in the psalms and not have some sense of what prayer is smacks either of inattention or simple pushing of agenda. And so the whole overwrought chapter is a continuation of the argument I describe in the paragraph of above, of Jesus not wanting church to become and existing as hegemonic tool. I felt more discomfort after this chapter than after any other, for while the church on earth through history has certainly been that at times, Pullman is ignoring the idea that the Church may exist more broadly than that as well—and that it may well also be ideal that we strive for, as well as constantly falling short in its erring human existence.

Two long paragraphs of discontent might suggest that I disliked the book, despite my earlier assertion. I did enjoy it; I was challenged by it; I’m glad I read it. I’d certainly recommend it to others. If nothing else, it will ask the reader to return to Pullman’s sources and engage the Jesus one meets in those four remarkable sets of stories –each one of which is just as ideological and bound on conversion to a set of conclusions as is Pullman’s new book. Rowan Williams suggests a theme that he reads in the book that “the price you pay for transmitting a spiritual vision” can be very high in institutional terms, and that Christianity has paid too high a price. (On Start the Week, 5 April 2010)—and that he disagrees. I do too, but Pullman’s book is compelling nevertheless.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

A very good review of the book by Diarmaid MacCulloch is well worth reading, if interested in Pullman's book.