Saturday, 3 April 2010

The Goodman Philip and the Scoundrel Pullman?

Philip Pullman’s Godman Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is no crude atheist rant, but a perceptive and thoughtful storyteller’s retelling of the Gospels.

It rests on a single artful high concept — that Jesus, like Sherlock Holmes, had a smarter brother. Christ, for it is he, was a kind of shadow side to the authentic Jesus — ISTJ in contrast to the author’s hero Jesus, who is a lovable mop-haired ENFP.

This book is not, in any sense, history. It assumes quaint 19th century demythologising, like Rénan and Co — ‘When the crowd realised how wise Jesus was they all got out the sandwiches they’d forgotten they’d brought, and shared them’ = ‘the feeding of the 5,000.’ No it doesn’t. Therefore this book is historically, er, light as air, but a fascinating contemporary myth about Jesus, a genre that has been spun around him ever since those primitive gnostic infancy miracle stories right up to Kazantzakis Last Temptation.

You have to remember when watching the Life of Brian that actually there wasn’t a man called Brian born in the next stable. Therefore you have to remember this book is storytelling for its own sake, not history. Pullman draws a rigid distinction between history and truth — “Jesus” embodies one, and “Christ” the other, and never the twain shall meet.

The author is a vivid and thoughftul narrative artist, and his accounts of gospel parables, sometimes brought to life as incidents served up with a twist of lemon, deserve serious attention from anyone trying to write a mystery play for today. His lines are models of conciseness, clarity and power. Pullman’s way of framing the perennial “why did Judas do it?” question is especially suggestive. Occasionally he penetrates the heart of the teaching in a really direct way, as when Jesus says:
Marriage is a serious business. So is hell. And that’s where you’ll go if you think that as long as you avoid the big sins, you can get away with the little ones
I hope it won’t spoil the plot for readers to give away its second great twist, a creative touch that is implicit but unmistakeable — ISTJ “Christ” turns out, in fact, to be Judas. Judas/Jesus: what the hell’s the difference? Like Iran and Iraq. However, this Judas is no simple baddie, but a complicated, high-minded and conflicted pragmatist:
‘I love my brother. He has a great task, and I wish I could serve him better than I do. If I sound downcast, it’s perhaps because I’m conscious of the depth of my faiure to be like him.’
‘Do you want to be like him?’
‘More than anything. He does things out of passion, and I do them out of calculation. I can see further than he can; I can see the consequences of things he doesn’t think twice about. But he acts with the whole of himself at every moment, and I’m always holding something back out of caution, or prudence, or because I want to watch and record rather than participate.’
‘If you let go of your caution, you might get carried away by your passion as he is.’
‘No,’ said Christ. ‘There are some who live by every rule and cling tightly to their rectitude because they fear being swept away by a tempest of passion, and there are others who cling to the rules because they fear that there is no passion there at all, and that if they let go they would simply remain where they are, foolish and unmoved; and they could bear that least of all. Living a life of iron control lets them pretend to themselves that only by the mightiest effort of will can they hold great passions at bay. I am one of those. I know it, and I can do nothing about it.’
‘It’s something to know it at least.’
As s/he reads this book and reflects, any good Christian should ask, “Is it I, Lord?” Pullman’s great Bogeyman is his auld enemy — “the Magisterium,” understood as a body of power and control. For the Scoundrel Christ, such an organisation is a cultural necessity without which Jesus’ simple message would be dead in the water. Indeed one can capture the thought by a variant of Winston Churchill’s quip about democracy being an awful form of government, but the alternatives being even worse. ENFP Jesus, the good man, does see the need for something, though. In a garden soliloquy he says:
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 it should weild 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 not be 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 to the carpenter, but that sheds many thousands of seeds so that 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, “That fruit is not for you?” Does the tree test the loyalty of the beasts before it allows them into the shade?’
Amen! This is, culturally, a rather “C of E” style of ecclesology; The Church is anything but perfect, but always in need of necessary reformation. This comes from its interaction with the society it serves, not some infallible magisterium. Its teaching is found to be authoritative insofar as it is authentic and recognizably transmits the story and values of Jesus as fully as possible. The Church is authentic insofar as it allows its every activity to be judged by the Carpenter of Nazareth. Infallibilism, along with other fundamentalisms, neutralizes this discipline to vanishing point, weakens accountability, and thus becomes compelling but dangerous fantasy — a mere playing at Church-by-numbers.

Such a church’s greatest weakness, its provisionality and porous boundaries, are, in fact its greatest strengths. It does not claim always to have been right, but the fact that it is as possible, after two thousand years of this process of transmission, to weed out the golden thread of good news from its accompanying circumstatial dross in such a way that sincere personal response is possible, says something for the activity of the Holy Spirit within it.

So there is much moving material for reflection in this book. Of course history and truth do in the end, relate to ach other. The fact is and was only ever, in fact, one Jesus. The power, richness and complexity of the gospel narrative is such that that pretty much all the dark materials for this book, the ISTJ and the ENFP, could both be quarried sincerely from the same New Testament.

A book with this provocative a title will annoy all sorts of people. Some good and faithful Christians will, like Peter in the garden, draw their weapons to defend the Master. I would bid them put up their swords and reflect: ‘How is your Texas Evangelical Hardball Jesus, “good news” to any but yourself? Specifically what good news does he offer infidels heretics and sinners? And if your Jesus fails to be good news at that point, however internally coherent and compelling your vision may be, it falls short.’

Theologically speaking, this book will especially irritate those whose Jesus is somehow more than fully human for various reasons — Nestorians, Sabellians, and Monophysites — to use geeky terms. It will also annoy Docetists, that is people who absolutize an ideal Christ at the expense of the historical Jesus. It will not appeal to Pelagians, for whom “faith” is actually the only work that matters. It must also mildly annoy historians because it is so shamelessly unhistorical, not only in its central conceit, but also in its willingness to sunder history radically from truth.

This is, however, a thoughtful storyteller’s second take on the gospel story he would have liked. “Going through the gospels carefully and filleting out the bits that work for me” is, indeed, a discipline that could make any discple more self-aware, as long as we don't kid ourselves that just because it we did the filleting, the result is somehow the whole truth.

All reprocessings of the Gospels stand in the same relation to the originals from which they are drawn as a hamburger to a Cow. You have to kill the original to be able to enjoy the derivatve. However this book is one of those high-class hamburgers you buy in sharp City eateries, not a Big Mac. I was glad to have read it.


Ann said...

Thanks for the review - have been thinking about reading this book. I loved These Dark Materials trilogy, especially Pullman's ideas of afterlife.
A couple of questions - Don't you have hard-ball evangelicals in the UK? or is it easier to lampoon Texans?
Is your use of Myers-Briggs terminology in the book or is that your shorthand for the review?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, Ann — I think the book is well worth reading, and would love to know what you make of it. The honest answet to your Texan question is “only very, very few really, in the way they do there.” The Myers-Briggs terminology is mine not Philip Pullman's. I hope I’ve got the characterisations right...

G said...

sounds like a reworking of 'Brothers' by Chayym Zeldis. Ah well... nothing new under the sun.

Acetate Monkey said...

Wow you read fast. Wasn't it just out this week? I was wondering if you'd write a comment on it when I stumbled upon it's intended release on Pullman's site the other week. Sounds like an interesting read (as I thought it would be). Thanks for your review. Now off to wiki more things from your post.(Starting to feel less well read than I thought)...

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

G — thanks for raising the tone of the review above ’Sherlock Holmes' smarter brother.’You're right about the basic idea, except Zeldis' figure, shaped by the Antisemitism he suffered as a boy, is more hard-edged and nasty.

A/M it arrive on my Kindle on Friday morning, I think. Philip Pullman's a fascinating man with challenging insights for believers and nonbelievers alike; though it does help with this one to remember the brief to which he was writing for the Ashgate series, which was to take a myth and play with it, rather than produce anything historical.

Sally said...

Thanks for the review, this is now on my must read list.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Some people will just abominate Philip Pullman and all his works, no doubt, but take away the spit-personality assumption and I think this challenging read can help us to a more humble and realistic view of what we should be about as disciples of Jesus Christ.

G said...

totally agree - I loved the dark materials, and I think people see Pullman and instantly think 'dawkins'. What is interesting is that pullman does not denigrate spirituality (he has the i-ching, and the afterlife after all!), just a straw man version of Christianity. Mind you, it is possible to see why he might come up with that if only a cursory glance is given to OT vs NT God.

philgroom said...

Thank you: a helpful — and hopeful — review.

Deliberate typo in the opening sentence, "Godman Jesus"? Or Freudian slip?

Philip Ritchie said...

Hadn't commented earlier because I wanted to read the book first. It was an enjoyable read but I think in the end I found myself being more critical of the book than I'd intended. The reason is that Pullman's almost complete demythologisation of Jesus removes something of the tension from the story. At no stage do I have the impression that Jesus could have done the things that Christ wants him to do. This undermines the sense of real temptation which I found so powerful in Kazantzakis's Last Temptation.

Perhaps I'm being unfair and looking for something from the book that isn't meant to be there, but the narrative does suggest that Christ wants Jesus to be something that he can't actually be, rather than something he choses not to be.

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