Rewriting Myth: Pullman takes a crack at the Bible

By Rebekah Fitzsimmons

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman is a part of the Canongate Myth series, or a collection of short novels retelling classical myths with a modern spin.  According to The Myths website: “The Myths is a long-term global publishing project where some of the world’s most respected authors re-tell myths in a manner of their own choosing.”  For this series, Margaret Atwood wrote The Penelopiad from the perspective of Penelope and her 12 maids, who Odysseus curiously hangs when he returns home.  Jeanette Winterson has rewritten the myth of Atlas, titled Weight, and Michael Faber has a more modern take on the Prometheus myth in The Fire Gospel.  All of these authors have approached the classical myths with their own set of beliefs, interests, writing style and personal views.  While this series is not explicitly intended for children or young adults, Pullman is probably best known for his YA series His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and the Amber Spyglass).  The casual reader could be forgiven for looking at this short novel with large print, short chapters and straightforward narrative style and thinking that it fits right in with the rest of Pullman’s work.

It is no secret that Philip Pullman is an atheist and no friend of the organized church, especially the Catholic Church.  His Dark Materials, itself a retelling and retake on Paradise Lost, is extremely critical of the role of the Church in any given universe.  In his trilogy the Church/the Magesterium challenges and censors scientists, enforcing its version of truth no matter what the evidence shows.  The church also tortures children in an attempt to eliminate “original sin” and ensure a lack of curiosity, sexuality or resistance to church teachings through a non-scientific process that could render an entire population of people more docile and controllable.

With the controversy surrounding Pullman’s YA trilogy and the film adaptation of the first book, The Golden Compass, it seems almost cheeky for Pullman to publish a book with the title The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.  Those Catholics and devout Christians encouraged a boycott of The Golden Compass film because of its subtle references to the corrupt power of the organized church are sure not to miss the bait here.  In addition, the very concept that the Biblical story about Jesus’ birth, life, teachings, death and resurrection is a myth and one that could stand a modern, interpretive rewriting is sure to strike some people as a blatant attempt at blasphemous rabble-rousing, or as Pullman spoiling for a fight.  However, perhaps it is because this novel and the Myths series is not as popular as His Dark Materials, or because it is written for a more adult audience that this particular book has not received as much (negative/critical) attention from those who find it scandalous.  Perhaps it is the “literary fiction” marketing label has saved Pullman from a storm of criticism that a “bestsller” or “YA” label would have brought forth. 

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ centers around one major change to the Biblical version of events: Pullman writes that when Mary gave birth in a stable in Bethlehem, she gave birth to twin boys, instead of just one son.  Mary named the stronger, healthier boy Jesus and the smaller, sicker baby Christ.  When the shepherds arrive to worship the baby announced by the angels, they discover Christ in the manger and Jesus suckling at Mary’s breast.   Since the angels told them the blessed baby was the one wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a food trough, they decide to worship Christ (who is, by the way, Mary’s favorite. Joseph favors Jesus.)  Likewise, the Wise Men arrive and make a similar determination.  As the two boys grow up, Christ is the clever, well-read child, while Jesus is often getting into mischief, running away and getting left behind in the temple, and it is up to Christ to reason and impress the grown-ups to help his brother avoid punishment.  According to Pullman’s version of events, the parable about the prodigal son is based on Jesus, Joseph and the frustrated Christ, who doesn’t understand why his father throws Jesus a welcome-home party, when Christ has been home, behaving and helping out around the house all along.

Pullman’s rewriting of this Christian myth dwells on the difference between history and “truth.”  When Jesus is baptized by John, it is Christ who sees a descending dove and believes it to be a sign from God.  When Jesus begins to preach, inspired by the arrest of John the Baptist, Christ wants to help him, but is shy and does not like being put into the center of attention.  So he begins to write down the things that his brother says.  Christ is encouraged by a stranger, who Christ believes to be an angel sent from God, to record Jesus’ teachings faithfully, but also encourages him to punch up the boring parts and make helpful edits that make the stories more colorful.

Christ and the stranger discuss the teachings of Jesus and the importance of saving those teachings for posterity.  It is the stranger who introduces the concept of “the Word of God” into the discussion, saying that Jesus might be the preacher and teacher, but it is Christ’s job to translate his sermons and parables into a greater truth that people will remember, pass on and follow for generations to come.  Fiction, it seems, can be more powerful than the non-fiction version of the events as they happened, and Christ begins to believe that as long as his writings capture the meaning of Jesus’ sermons, what is the harm in tightening up the story, introducing some foreshadowing or narrative framing.  In this way, Christ believes he is writing the “truth” or word of God as the stranger has encouraged him to do. Readers may see these edits or alterations as lies, as selfish adaptations of the truth, or as the very process of myth making that Pullman is dissecting here.

Both Christ and this stranger believe that the Kingdom of God is coming, as Jesus teaches, but that it might be farther away than Jesus believes.  Despite Jesus’ disapproval, Christ believes that a structure, a bureaucracy of teachers, learned men and experts will be needed to maintain his brother’s message and to settle disputes of daily life as they relate to Jesus’ teachings.  It is the stranger who supplies the word “church” for this organization that Christ believes is essential, and it is Christ who begins to subtly alter the lessons that Jesus gives, removing the controversial or unpopular responses and building in the framework for a church organization that he believes must follow.  This is Pullman that readers of His Dark Materials will recognize, criticizing the false and unnecessary intervention of organized religion into the very serious matters of faith, belief and morality.

As the story of Jesus comes to a close, church-goers are the most likely to be offended by Pullman’s adaptation of the resurrection story.  The stranger leads Christ into the role of betrayer, telling him he must act as Abraham to Jesus’ Isaac.  Christ believes that he must accept this role, but that at the last minute his brother will be saved.  However, his brother is crucified, died and is buried.  When it comes time for his resurrection, it is the stranger (looking less and less angelic by the page) who tells Christ that the only way for Jesus’ teachings to be accepted and passed down is for Jesus to rise from the dead and fulfill the prophecies that Christ has added to the written versions of his teachings.  However, since Jesus will not actually rise from the dead, it is up to Christ to play the part of Jesus, appear to his more gullible (and hard-of-seeing) disciples and reassure them that he has come back from the dead and will shortly ascend into heaven.  Thus, the myth of the resurrection, according to Pullman, is based on Jesus’ twin brother standing in for him, mostly out of guilt for betraying his brother and out of a sense of responsibility to ensure his brother’s legacy.

Like the rest of the books in the Myths series, this is a fairly quick and easy to read book, but one that you can continue to think about for a long time after.  Despite its controversial topic, the story is well-rendered, carefully paced and beautifully focused on what it means to be a maker of myth and the ways in which the story that we are trying to tell or pass on can sometimes get away from us and take on a life of its own.

Rebekah Fitzsimmons is a graduate student at UF and will be teaching a special topics course on YA dystopian lit in the fall. 

Categories: Critical Conversations, Reviews

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