Organized religion and Pullman's Scoundrel Christ

In Philip Pullman's iconoclastic book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, every word is important

Among all living British authors, Philip Pullman is perhaps the one I admire the most. Reviewing his incomparable His Dark Materials trilogy for Outlook in 2001, I had written that it was “quite simply one of the greatest literary feats of the 20th century", and I stand by those words.

He followed up his monumental trilogy with The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which would be considered by many readers to be the most blasphemous book of fiction they have ever read.

In Good Man Jesus, Pullman, a confirmed atheist—in his trilogy, God is a senile geriatric, being carried around by naked sexless angels—posits a radical theory, that Jesus Christ was not one person. That night in Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to twins, one called Jesus and the other Christ.

They are very different people. Jesus becomes a preacher. Christ, who loves his brother deeply, wants his legacy to endure. The only way that can be done, he tells Jesus: 

“Think of the body of the believers, a structure, an organisation already in place... Groups of families worshipping together with a priest in every village and town, an association of local groups under the advice and guidance of a wise elder of the region, the regional leaders all reporting to the authority of one supreme authority, a kind of regent of God on earth!... And I can see the good rewarded and the wicked punished. I can see missionaries going out bearing the word of God to the darkest and most ignorant lands, and bringing every living man and woman and child into the family of God—yes, Gentiles as well as Jews. I can see all doubts vanquished, I can see all dissent swept away." 

Jesus rejects the idea, for he is a humble man who has no desire for immortality.

A stranger (a representative of God or Satan?) visits Christ. “Without miracles, without a church, without a scripture, the power of (Jesus’s) words and deeds will be like water poured into the sand," he tells Christ. “It dampens the sand for a moment, and then the sun comes and dries it, and after a minute there’s no sign that it’s ever been there… In another generation the name of Jesus will mean nothing, and neither will the name Christ. How many healers and exorcists and preachers are there walking the roads of Palestine? Dozens and dozens. Everyone will be forgotten, and so will Jesus. Unless…"

“Perfection does not belong here; we can only have an image of perfection," he goes on. “Jesus, in his purity, is asking too much of people. We know they are not perfect, as he wishes them to be; we have to adjust ourselves to what they are…Human life is difficult; there are profundities and compromises and mysteries that look to the innocent eye like betrayal. Let the wise men of the church bear those burdens, because there are plenty of other burdens for the faithful to carry."

Pullman’s accounts of the Sermon on the Mount, and his encounters with Mary of Magdala and the 5,000 hungry men are marvels of reportage, never deviating from the broad truth according to the gospels, but maintaining that it was only common sense and love, no miracles. Yet, the crowds are enthralled, stories are born and retold and spread widely, just as the stranger wants, and he has bigger plans for Jesus, who is, of course, following the diktats of his own heart and nothing else.

Jesus’s tortured soliloquy at the garden at Gethsamene is much discussed (and disputed), and Pullman pulls off his most spellbinding passage from here: “Is that what you’re saying to me? That when I hear the wind, I hear your voice? When I look at the stars, I see your writing, or in the bark of a tree, or the ripples on the sand at the edge of the water? Lovely things, yes, all of them, no doubt about that, but why did you make them so hard to read? Who can translate them for us?... God, is there any difference between saying that you are and saying that you are not at all? I can imagine some philosophical smartarse of a priest in years to come pulling the wool over his poor followers’ eyes: ‘God’s great absence is of course the very sign of His presence,’ or some such drivel… 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 wield 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."

In Pullman’s world, God and Satan are indistinguishable: they may be just one entity, and his novel carefully defies quick and easy delineations between good and evil as preached by organized religion. 

God/Satan needs a martyr, he needs miracles. The miracles are manufactured through the rumour mill. Jesus goes to the cross. And the stranger visits Christ again.

“As Christ sat and watched the stranger eating his bread and pouring himself more wine, he couldn’t help thinking of the story of Jesus, and how he could improve it. For example, there could be some miraculous sign to welcome the birth; a star, an angel… If Jesus had known about his execution in advance, and told his disciples that it was going to come about, and gone to meet it willingly, it would give the crucifixion a far more resonant meaning, and open depths of mystery for wise men to explore and ponder and explain in the times to come. And the birth, again: if the child born in the stable had been not just a human child, but the very incarnation of God himself, how much more memorable and moving the story would be! And how much more profound the death that crowned it!"

Christ starts developing that story, which Jesus would never have approved of. And organized religion as we know it is born.

I have quoted so much from the book because in this slim volume, every word is important. It is a book that cannot be speed-read or skimmed through. It will stay in the reader’s mind long after she has finished it, and it will either liberate or trouble or infuriate her. This is a unique iconoclastic book that one cannot be indifferent to.

For what Pullman’s grand tragedy tells us is that the world hasn’t changed much in the last two millennia. 

Sandipan Deb is the editorial director of swarajyamag.com

The Bookmark is a series on ‘interesting’ books—intelligent and thought-provoking, but also enjoyable. 

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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