The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
By Philip Pullman
Canongate, 256 pages, $24
Teenage sex will save the world—teenage sex, in all its precocious power, in all its precious emotion, in all its self-confirming belief that, because something is felt so deeply, it must be a deeply meaningful thing. If that seems a somewhat prurient thought for a middle-aged author, it is nonetheless the final revelation of the His Dark Materials trilogy, the set of children’s books written by Philip Pullman between 1995 and 2000.
And the primary threat from which these teenagers will save us? Organized religion, as it turns out: the great, power-hungry, fascistical force that wants to strip the joy and wondrous anarchic energy from sex. Every time a pair of children sneak off for a bundling, they are engaged in an act of protest—fornicating truth to power.
There is much more to the His Dark Materials books, of course, and through the course of them—The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass—Pullman proves himself a fantasist of considerable talent and wide-ranging invention. But this is what it all comes down to, in the great denouement of the story; this is how it cashes out, as Pullman set himself to become the anti–C.S. Lewis, to undo Christianity for the young, and to refute what he called, in Lewis’ Narnia books, “one of the most vile moments in the whole of children’s literature.”
Then, in 2004, Pullman ran across the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who observed that Pullman’s children’s books may be a reasonable attack on religious abuses, but they lacked any sense of Jesus. The gentle attention flattered the fantasist, who, in response, has now published his answer: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ—an adult novel that begins, “This is the story of Jesus and his brother Christ, of how they were born, of how they lived and of how one of them died.”
Ah, me. In Pullman’s novelistic version, a naive young woman named Mary delivers two boys. The first of the twins turns out to be Jesus, a wise preacher of moral truths who comes to realize the lack of God from those truths only on his way to crucifixion. The other twin is Christ, a darker, smarter boy who grows up to become the founder of the Church based on his brother and who negotiates power with the Romans and the priests. He is also his brother’s Judas—Christ betraying Jesus to get him out of the way so Christ can go on to establish Christianity.
“It was a shocking thing to say, and I knew it was a shocking thing to say,” Pullman announced to an interviewer. “But no one has the right to live without being shocked.” This prompted the Australian critic Joseph Parker to note, “You may wonder if Pullman would be so confident had he written a subversive fantasy about the Prophet Mohammed,” there being fame and panel discussions with the archbishop of Canterbury, not beheadings, awaiting those who attack Christianity.
But that is, perhaps, not the best way to look at Pullman, for this is, after all, pretty tired, old stuff—very tired, and very old. Over the last century and a half, the impulse has often found root in the gardens of critical history, sifting through the gospel stories with the promise of identifying the “real Jesus,” as distinct from the figure so thoroughly embedded in the Church’s account. In 1892 the Lutheran theologian Martin Kähler gave this project its most influential expression, distinguishing between the “Christ of faith”—the figure found in the Church’s belief in his saving death and resurrection—and the “Jesus of history.” The idea is to come up with a critical principle that allows a scholar to determine when the New Testament authors are reading later theological formulations back into the remembered stories of Jesus’ life and ministry. And the purpose is to allow the modern commentator to filter out the dogmatic content of Scripture.
The problem is that we tend not so much to discover the historical Jesus as to create a blank spot on which to project our spiritual fantasies, as Albert Schweitzer recognized when he surveyed the nineteenth century’s efforts to get back to the “real Jesus” in his famous 1906 book The Quest for the Historical Jesus. The historical Jesus turns out to be whatever the questing historian wants to find: a moral teacher or revolutionary prophet or kind preacher of love (see, for example, Marcus Borg’s picture of Jesus as a 1960s anti-establishment activist).
Critical scholars often explain the overlay of Christological affirmations in the gospel by recourse to a theory that, to a great extent, St. Paul theologized Jesus, and, under his influence, there emerged the doctrinally rigid faith of the Church. F.C. Bauer, for example, speculated in the nineteenth century that Paul was in conflict with the disciples. Nietzsche and others latched onto the idea, boldly declaring that Paul had “invented Christianity” and thereby betrayed the real Jesus.
In fact, in the Jesus-against-Christianity game, it’s usually the inauthentic Paul who gets played off against the authentic Jesus. You can see it from Ernest Renan’s nineteenth-century “The writings of Paul have been a danger and a hidden rock, the causes of the principal defects of Christian theology,” to George Bernard Shaw’s “No sooner had Jesus knocked over the dragon of superstition than Paul boldly set it on its legs again in the name of Jesus,” to the Episcopal Bishop John S. Spong’s “Paul’s words are not the Words of God. They are the words of Paul—a vast difference.”
There is, of course, an intrinsically antidogmatic and anti-ecclesial undercurrent to all these readings of the Bible. D.F. Strauss set aside the miraculous and supernatural dimensions of the New Testament in The Life of Jesus to achieve the effect, and Reimarus, whose On the Intention of Jesus and His Teaching was published posthumously in 1778, expressed a historical skepticism about the reliability of the gospels that was shocking in its day.
The key here is that phrase in its day. The frisson of blasphemy has grown too thin in all this stuff; it’s worn down to nothing. Nothing, except the author’s self-congratulation at his own bravery—a feature with which Philip Pullman’s comments about his novel abound. The slow, patient work of scholars has undone this goofy storyline so many times, and still it comes creeping back every twenty years or so. Pullman’s Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ mostly proves that no idea dies, no matter how soundly defeated. Perhaps we need a revival of Philip Larkin’s savage cynicism—a resetting of his poetry for our own strange days:
Man hands on nuttiness to man.
It deepens like a library shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t write any books
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.