Monday, April 12, 2010

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is a wonderful, wise and fascinatingly creative book from a writer justly called (by the Archbishop of Canterbury) one of the most important spiritual writers of our time. Reworking the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, Philip Pullman explores, through the characters of Jesus and (Pullman's creation) his Judas-like twin Christ, the tensions between vital prophetic faith and its institutionalised embodiments, between passion and calculation, between history and `Truth'. Pullman's Jesus is a wonderfully alive figure, whose well-known parables and teachings come vividly to life in the author's limpid, spare and direct prose. And there are some wonderful twists on the parables: I loved the notion that the `kingdom of God' is found more in the solidarity between the Wise Girl and her Foolish counterpart together refusing to enter the banquet, than it is inside at the feast. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

As you might expect from Pullman, it's a beautifully-written book, full of (sometimes surprising) echoes of the biblical text. Pullman's plot devices force (but never bully) the reader to engage with `how stories become stories'. I do think there's room for disagreement with his thesis that institutionalisation inevitably and even intentionally corrupts, deceives and `spiritualises' in order to maintain its hold over the faithful: the New Testament seems to see a more organic, chaotic, mysterious transition from Jesus' life and death, via his resurrection, to the first Christian gatherings and onward to the church.

But if his Jesus is, to be sure, far more than the disappointed apocalyptic prophet of 19th century liberal German Protestant theologians, so too his church is a much darker, more corrupt and knowing beast than theirs. His anger towards it, voiced by an increasingly anguished Christ, is correspondingly white hot at times.

Readers of faith would do well to try and measure their institution against the twin poles of Pullman's sparky, disturbing Jesus whose vision `no human being could have borne for long' (225), and the rather tired, cynical, even lying church of his Christ: which one does it resemble more ? Pullman's Christ declares that `his [Jesus'] vision could never come to pass, and the vision that will come to pass is not his' (242). Churches may want to dispute that, but they'd be crazy to ignore the large element of truth The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ  contains.

Can they strip away the dross, and restore to the institution something of the vibrant, energetic passion of Pullman's Jesus, a life so sapped by the supposed demands of institutional existence ? Maybe. They can certainly do a lot worse than let this outstanding book be their provocative and thought-provoking guide to thinking though that awkward, naggingly insistent but vital question. Superb.

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