What Pullman has done is to take the Gospel accounts of Jesus and weave them into a story that runs along the lines of the Gospel narratives, but with one radical innovation. (The book is the latest in a series of retellings of myths, published by Canongate.) He splits the character of Jesus of Nazareth into twin brothers, one named Jesus, the other Christ. Jesus is the lusty healthy baby, born at ease with his physical person; Christ is the sickly child whom his mother favours, and it is he who is found lying in the feeding trough by shepherds and then by the astrologers from the East who have come bearing gifts to the promised “Messiah”.
From here on, the life of Jesus as we have known it is described in prose that skilfully recapitulates the simplicity of the original material, with each twin acting out different parts. Christ, the weaker twin, is the goody-goody who sucks up to his elders by studying holy texts and astounds them with his precocious rabbinical wisdom. Jesus, on the other hand, is the one who learns carpentry from his father and is favoured by the other children. As they reach manhood, their characters polarise: Christ becomes cautious, fanciful and partial to metaphysics, while Jesus is passionate, antinomian and enamoured of the world’s realities.
As the story further unfolds, we witness Christ playing the traditional parts of, first, Satan in the wilderness, when he urges Jesus to provide miracles to help persuade his followers of the imminence of the coming “Kingdom of God” and, finally, the Judas figure who betrays his brother with a fatal kiss. This last is due to the machinations of the sinister “stranger”, also described as an “angel”, who is inserted into the story as the demonic principle behind the distortion of Jesus’s teachings and the founding of the Christian Church.
Advance publicity has suggested that this figure represents St Paul, since he is also the inspiration for Christ’s “documentation” of his brother’s doings. But he strikes me as more like the spirit of reification and desire for control that dogs all well-intended movements, secular and religious alike. He bears a strong resemblance to the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and this encounter, where Christ, who has come again, is banished from Earth by the Inquisitor who decrees that Jesus’s morality is too hard for humankind to bear, has clearly influenced Pullman’s thinking.
The chief heresy in Pullman’s narrative, so far as Christian belief is concerned, is that here Jesus really does die and his resurrection is a publicity stunt organised by the “stranger”, with Christ playing the part of his allegedly risen brother and attracting the limelight his adoring mother has raised him to crave. The other major departure is the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. Where the canonical Jesus despairs of his Father’s love and begs that his bitter fate be taken from him, in Pullman’s version it is not so much God who abandons Jesus as Jesus abandoning God. “From time to time we’ll remember you, like a grandfather who was loved once, but who has died, and we’ll tell stories about you.”
The story of Jesus of Nazareth is a rattling good one. Besides forming the backbone of the Christian Church, it has informed much of the world’s finest art, inspiring numberless artists, writers and musicians – and Pullman is no exception. In dividing the character of Jesus into oppositional strands, he is doing no more than giving imaginative form to something that has been widely recognised: the dismaying disparity between the recorded teachings of Jesus and the practices of some of his so-called followers. Whether in its most grotesque forms – “holy” wars, physical torture and execution – or its relatively mild modern form of vilification of those who dispute its claims, the ideology of the Christian Church has too often woefully countermanded the injunction of its principal inspiration: to love thy neighbour as thyself.
If I have a reservation with what Pullman has done, it is that at times he falls into the ideological trap himself. Naming one twin Christ (from the Greek, Kristos, anointed one, which in turn is the translation of the Hebrew Mashiach, or Messiah) illustrates a point but somewhat undermines the character’s fictional autonomy. Both Jesus and Christ give voice to ideologies – Jesus when he renounces his God in favour of a kind of humanist pantheism and Christ when he persuades himself of the need for a benevolently controlling Church (there are echoes of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as well as Dostoevsky). The original story, whatever abuse has been made of it, avoids ideology. It stands alone as a telling and generative myth. Much of Pullman’s enterprise is to explain how this might have evolved into an instrument of oppression, through a mixture of fact, justification and wishful thinking. But this, in a way, is to dance to his opponents’ tune.
Pullman is a supreme storyteller who knows better than anyone that a myth needs no justification. Myths give us the facts. They are not the “facts” of testable evidence but of a different order of reality. This distinction is one that it seems very hard for the modern mind to grasp. The ancients had no problem with it. History, science, philosophy and ethics were all conveyed through stories. The opening of St John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the word”, can be translated as, “In the beginning was the story”.
This is not to diminish or trivialise the significance or truth of that story. Indeed, that is done by insisting on it as historical fact which must be supported to the death, or to others’ deaths, or descried as childish and banal. The story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, for example, is not a historical account but an imaginative rendering of an existential condition which we all recognise: the feeling that we have in some sense lost an initial innocence and security to which we can never return. Only fundamentalists believe in a literal paradise; but most of us respond to the image, or the drama, and the image and the drama have their own reality.
The truths which myth deals in are more like the fundamental data of human consciousness; we have always played with them in an attempt to adumbrate life’s ambiguities and discover meaning. Freud grasped this when he formulated the Oedipus complex from the story of Oedipus, who kills his father and marries his mother, but Freud could not resist bending the myth to suit his own theoretical ends.
This is, in a sense, what Pullman is saying. Myths can be traduced by being treated as if they belong to the world of evidence, and they can also be exploited for fundamentalist purposes. One myth that Pullman invokes is the Sacrifice of Isaac where, in obedience to God, Abraham agrees to take the life of his own son. He is saved from the dreadful prospect by an angel who instructs him to sacrifice instead a ram caught in a thicket. This inscrutable story may well have been an ingredient of Hebrew morality teaching – God moves in a mysterious way but trust Him – but it is wickedly deployed by the “stranger” when he encourages Christ to betray his brother. “Where was the ram?” Christ fearfully asks when his brother dies on the cross in agony.
Myths are also evolutionary survivors. If they are real – and those that survive are – they evade conscription and cannot be damaged by interpretations, however controversial.
I cannot imagine the ironical Jesus taking umbrage at anything in this account of His life. Pullman has done the story a service by reminding us of its extraordinary power to provoke and disturb.
by Philip Pullman
245pp, Canongate, £14.99
* Salley Vickers’s ‘Where Three Roads Meet’, a retelling of the Oedipus myth, is published by Canongate at £7.99. Her latest novel, ‘Dancing Backwards’, is published by Fourth Estate at £7.99
Sunday, 12 September 2010
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman: review - Telegraph