Thursday, 23 June 2011

Neither sacred or profane?

Having covered a bit of gender politics with the feminism, I decided to add some more potential controversy to my holiday reading with Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. The only other Pullman I'd read was his Northern Lights Trilogy, which was enjoyable and different but which I haven't wanted to re-read. I've never quite managed to put my finger on why... Suggestions welcome!

So, the premise of the book is that Jesus had a twin, Christ. Jesus is a 'good' man and a preacher but doesn't do any miracles - it's all chinese whispers and spin - whilst his brother Christ documents his life and adds retrospectively insightful details to make Jesus seem more historically significant and powerful, with the intent of using the documents to found the church. 

It's an interesting concept, especially with the obvious explanation of the resurrection that comes hand in hand with a world in which Jesus was an identical twin. Pullman's writing style is consistent with his earlier works, whilst also being evocative of the popular translations of the New Testament many people would be familiar with. 

But I was left unsure of the point of the book. It's short, there's no additional characterisation or historical detail, so it didn't really work for me purely as a novel. But it's too long to just be playing with ideas. It felt, to me, like a vehicle for Pullman to share his theories about religion, the church, truth and history. These are very interesting, and I think I'd agree with a lot of them, but putting them in the mouths, or heads, of these rather unreliable and faintly-sketched characters didn't really do them justice. I have a lot of opinions about religion (sometimes too many, poor Nick tells me after listening to a lengthy rant) but this book didn't leave me feeling angry, inspired or... well... anything.

Having created his twin-Jesus, Pullman was free to add or subtract whatever details he wanted in the world of his novel. But I felt this world wasn't consistent. Mary's conception is strongly hinted to be only-too human and not at all miraculous, but then angels do appear to the shepherds to tell them to go hunt out the baby. As a child, Christ (rather than Jesus) performs miracles, but the biblical miracles of the adult Jesus are all placebo or gossip. Here, the resurrection is obviously explained, but then Christ is visited throughout the novel by a mysterious stranger who 'guides' him and who seems to be some sort of dark angel. This was God, but this wasn't, apparently arbitrarily.

I found it surprising that the book was so keen to prove that Jesus wasn't the son of God in some places, but then to raise the question of spiritual or supernatural powers in others. Even Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemene, is left questioning the existence of God, and instead finding solace in the beauty of the 'real' world as opposed to the spiritual one.

In some ways, I suppose this is consistent with Pullman's views on spirituality. In Northern Lights, God is real but aged and senile and organised religion is a tool misused for corruption, control and personal gain. It's therefore not surprising that the basic principles of the Good Man Jesus are sound and... well... good, whilst the desire to create the organised religion (which Pullman so dislikes) that motivates Scoundrel Christ is negative and misled by the shadowy angel/demon figure.

Obviously, neither an unreliable narrative or leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions are bad things. Stories have their own meaning, without everything having to be spelt out. Perhaps Pullman was trying to create a modern-day parable? But so much of this story already exists - with so much baggage from years of interpretation and retelling - that this needed to be either dramatically new and different or cleverly interwoven and insightful to stand on its own. And I'm not sure it accomplishes either. 

Pullman's speaking at the London Literature Festival at the end of the month. I'm interested to see if hearing him discuss it changes how I feel about the book.

The Times and  Guardian reviews, for anyone interested in what cleverer people thought!

I don't have any more reading pictures, so this is the roses in my garden in advance of a garden-themed post coming soon. Including a sunflower update!

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