Friday, 1 July 2011

The Jesus story retold

I got around to Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ on the weekend. To repeat what has been said before, this is a creative retelling of the Jesus story. It isn't non-fiction, it isn't a biography, and it makes no pretence to be a work of scholarship. In fact this is Pullman's first book for adults; he has made his name as a children's author.

This didn't stop the morons who shelve items at Borders in Auckland from placing it in the religion section of course.

So, how good - or bad - is it? That is inevitably a matter of personal judgement, but for what it's worth here's my personal take.

It is a beautifully written tale that has a simple, direct style. You can read it in a couple of sittings easily, and if you've ever tackled a modern paraphrase (like the awful Peterson Message) you may even find Pullman a huge improvement in those parts where he follows the tradition.

They said 'Teacher, you're an honest man, we can all see that. No one doubts your sincerity or your impartiality; you show no favours, and you don't try to ingratiate yourself with anyone. So we're sure you'll give us a truthful answer when we ask you: is it lawful to pay taxes?'

They meant lawful according to the law of Moses, and they hoped they would trick him into saying something that would get him into trouble with the Romans.

But he said 'Show me one of those coins you pay taxes with.'

Someone handed him a coin, and he looked at it and said 'There's a picture on here. Whose picture is this? What's the name underneath it?'

'It's Caesar's of course,' they said.

'Well, there's your answer. If this is Caesar's, give it back to him. Give God the things that are God's.'

But of course this isn't a paraphrase, but a more literary enterprise. And Pullman isn't a pious believer but an upfront Atheist. I did find the plot a bit stretched to begin with: Jesus has a twin brother ("Christ") who ultimately brings him down. Then there's the mysterious stranger who uses Christ as his pawn in the subversion of the Kingdom of God message.

But does Pullman pull it off anyway? Yes, I think so.

Of course some Christians (but not all) will be offended. That's predictable. Tough.


  1. Gavin I think of a few reasons why "stories" can be offensive.

    Stories have power. They can transform a persons thinking. There are so many people who take a story and decide that it is a reflection of real life. Unfortunately, real life cannot be edited and rewritten in the same manner as a story:)

    Then too, there is the author's agenda for writing the story.

    I have to admit, I found Pullman's writing to be off putting for those reasons. He isn't someone who writes cozy little entertainments, he writes to put his ideologies into play. Again, nothing wrong with that, but it cannot be these are just stories for entertainment purposes.

    I read the Golden Compass trilogy, and it is extremely well written (except I thought the ending somewhat silly) but it has a message. Religion is evil and ruthless self-determination is good. Humanity is able to save it's own soul, thank you very much.

    Now, having said that, there is the other side. Do I advocate censorship or book burning? Absolutely not.

    It angers me to no end that the people who do such things are lazy. They don't want people to smart or sensible about what they read. They prefer them to remain gullible and then perform information control under the guise of "protecting the innocent."

    As a result we have huge numbers of people that are cult members waiting to happen.

    Information should be free, but we should also be equipped to make our own judgements about it's merit. Not just taking in what we are fed like so much pablum.

    I could go on about everyone of us imbibing from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but I really am too mild mannered to carry on a rant for long:)

  2. And it's available on the kindle. Hooray, modern technology!

    Can't wait to read it. Have to finish Shutter Island first.