Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Review: - The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

Back at the beginning of the year, I set myself a challenge to read all of the books in the Canongate Myths series. I have spectacularly failed at this – out of the 12 books in the series, I’ve read a grand total of three. However, I am planning to carry the challenge over into next year I think.

Before I start the review proper, I'd just like to say firstly that I am on a ROLL this week! So far I've posted every day. I'm back, and I love it :-) Secondly, I love that this book has been published both in the black and white covers. It's a great representation of the two separate personalities of Jesus and Christ. I had the white version, but if I'm honest, I probably prefer the black cover. 

I’m really unsure as to how I felt about this book. I’ve given it three stars on Goodreads, and if I’m honest I think that I wanted to like it more than I actually did. A friend of mine got hold of a proof copy for me as she knew I wanted to read it, and I’m glad I did, but it was a very bizarre experience. I was raised and still consider myself to be a Christian, and Philip Pullman obviously and vocally is not, so I was intrigued when I first found out that he had written a book about Jesus.

The basic outline of the book is that Mary and Joseph had, rather than just the traditional one baby, twin boys. Jesus and his brother Christ were both born in the stable, but Jesus was a strong baby and Christ a weak and sickly one. When the shepherds and kings arrived Mary told them that Christ was the messiah, because she thought the attention would do him good. As they grew up, Jesus was always getting into trouble and Christ getting him out of it. Christ had some kind of amazing abilities, such as the ability to turn birds made of mud into real live birds, but Jesus eventually became the more well –liked one. Eventually, Jesus started preaching and gaining disciples. When he went to be baptised by John the Baptist, Christ was there and heard the voice of God. Because of this, an angel visited him and told him to write down everything that Jesus says and does. It follows the general outline of the New Testament, but with some rearrangements....

I will admit to being a little confused by the story. While I liked the basic idea, I wasn’t sure about what Pullman did with it. The character of Jesus is kind of mean, but I think that it’s Pullman’s way of exploring the inconsistencies with some of the things Jesus said and his actions. I found him to be quite a harsh character, and fairly selfish, only caring about the people who were following him, and he was really mean to his brother. Also, the way that it is reinvented casts Christ in the Judas role. Throughout the book there is a discussion between Christ and the angel regarding ‘history’ and ‘truth’. A lot of the things Jesus says and does have been reinterpreted by Christ, into ‘truth’ rather than ‘history’ – i.e what he thinks should have happened as opposed to what did happen -  to make the stories that people know so well from the Bible. In the novel, Christ is basically Jesus’s spin doctor, and at the end of it he is convinced that he needs to betray Jesus in order for bigger things to happen. Ultimately Pullman portrays the resurrection on which millions of people base their faith as a sham, substituting one brother for another following the death of Jesus.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ was very interesting from an objective point of view, and I loved the concept of a novel about religion. It’s a great way to get people talking about religion and their ideas about faith and rationality. I also loved that right across the back of the book, it says in big, gold letters ‘This is a STORY’. It’s always a sensitive subject to write about, especially when you are writing your own version of something which means so much to so many people, but I think personally that it’s important to be able to have the debate. From my own religious perspective, there were a lot of things I disliked about Pullman’s version of the story of Jesus, especially the handling of the resurrection, but I think that it’s important for an author to be able to turn around and go ‘hand on, but what if it happened like this?’. In some ways, everything is just a version of everything else, and everybody has their own ways of dealing with inconsistencies and problems in religion. That’s why it’s called ‘faith’, not logic. I love the power that books have to ask questions about things, and to make you think about them. I read about everything, and I don’t think that religion should be a taboo subject just because so many people believe in it. Surely that’s even more of a reason to talk about it?

Stylistically, the novel was great. As all of the Canongate Myth series are, it was a short book and a very easy read. It was thought –provoking, although not as absorbing as I’d hoped it would be, and there wasn’t a character to love for me (which, as I’ve mentioned in the past, is important). Jesus was mean, Christ was confused, and I’ve still no idea whose side the angel was on. In a lot of ways it felt like a very bitter novel, but definitely an interesting one. I’m a big fan of Philip Pullman, and while I think this is the weakest of his books so far, I wouldn’t let it put me off reading more of his novels in the future.

Anybody else read it? Got any thoughts?


  1. Great review. I've had this on my TBR for ages - it's such an intriguing premise. Must get to it soon!

  2. Thanks for an interesting review. I've always enjoyed Philip Pullman, and I think he promotes the atheist opinion sensitively. I have to admit I wasn't blown away by this. I found the writing tedious when read in long sittings, and beyond the basic themes, found very little else to occupy.

    My review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman