The Good Man Jesus & The Scoundrel Christ – Philip Pullman

Happy Easter to one and all of you should you happen to be passing by this post on this Easter Sunday. I don’t know if it’s sacrilegious or timely to be reviewing ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ by Philip Pullman, a book that seems to be causing controversy wherever it goes. Controversial books are always very good for sales and become some of the biggest read books of the year but are they actually any good? Well today’s review of the latest book to cause a super stir comes to you from someone who isn’t the biggest fan of Philip Pullman and who doesn’t really have any religious stance. So you are going to get some very unbiased thoughts, well you always get unbiased thoughts here but you know what I mean.

Can you imagine if Jesus had in fact been born a twin? Well its from this idea that Pullman writes ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ as after Mary’s immaculate conception she gives birth to two boys on Jesus is a healthy strapping baby where as Christ is a bit of a weakling. As the two sons grow up they couldn’t be more different. Christ is the quieter more thoughtful child who looks at everything from all sides and thinks it all through. Jesus is a more boisterous slightly rebellious child who won’t conform to what people want. As the two young men grow up, and discover they have some quite marvellous abilities, one of them becomes famous everywhere he goes (and starts to become a bit of a megalomaniac) whilst the other sits in the background fading into the shadows. That is all I will give you of the story but it leads to a clever twist that becomes the legend people read in the Bible today.

I will admit to having no religious views but I know the idea of the book has caused outrage with those who have. I am sure it won’t make the slightest difference me then saying that it made me much more interested in the stories of the bible than the R.E lessons or never ending assembly sermons did when I was at school. Jesus having a twin makes you see all his actions such as feeding the thousands bread and fish, turning water into wine and healing the sick from an eye witness and one who has a realistic stance on the whole thing and looks at it from more than one certain side.

I thought I would give you a snippet (longer than a quote but smaller than an excerpt) of the style of the book which is told like a wonderful myth with great characters, some suspension of what you believe and a dash of humour and realism.

At that time, Mary was about sixteen years old, and Joseph has never touched her. One night in her bedroom she heard a whisper through her window.
‘Mary, do you know how beautiful you are? You are the most lovely of all women. The Lord must have favoured you especially, to be so sweet and so gracious, to have such eyes and such lips…’
She was confused and said ‘Who are you?’
‘I am an angel,’ said the voice ‘Let me in and I shall tell you a secret only you must know.’
She opened the window and let him in. In order not to frighten her, he had assumed the appearance of a young man, just like one of the young men who spoke to her by the well.
‘What is the secret?’ she said.
‘You are going to conceive a child,’ said the angel.
Mary was bewildered.
‘But my husband is away,’ she said.

It is a modern grounded and often quite funny twisted take on the tale of Jesus, though not really a retelling it in some ways is, and I think in a time where religion seems to be out of fashion I wouldn’t be surprised if it sparks people’s interest. I won’t lie the church comes under some serious criticism in the book especially its morals and what it claims to stand for but I would say people should definitely give this book a try no matter what your views are on religion, God etc. It’s a great tale and a wonderful addition to the Canongate Myths, though not quite my favourite it’s not far off.

So yes the hype is almost worth it with this novel. I do think that some of the hype, apart from the subject of it being about Jesus, is that its Pullman’s latest novel. I am not sure where I stand on Pullman (I loved the Sally Lockhart series but thought His Dark Materials was good until half way through the second book) but I did like the way he wrote this, it resonated with me in some way. So who will and who won’t be reading this, and of course why? What are your thoughts on books that cause a mass of controversy before they are even released?

30 Comments

Filed under Canongate Publishing, Philip Pullman, Review, The Canongate Myths

30 responses to “The Good Man Jesus & The Scoundrel Christ – Philip Pullman

  1. Oh, I’ve just mentioned this book in my own blog, but haven’t read it yet. The Archbish of Caterbury reviewed it (favourably) in the Guardian yesterday

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/apr/03/good-jesus-christ-philip-pullman

    • Thanks for the link Tom, was interesting reading. Am impressed that The Archbishop was so pro this book as I would imagine many in that circle would deem the book quite the opposite.

  2. Why would anyone want to turn wine into water unless they were tee-totallers? Far less impressive than the way the story actually goes.

    I was a fan of His Dark Materials and I do want to read this but I’m not chomping at the bit to do so… I think I want the hype to die down some first.

    • Oh how you do like to point out my little mistakes and errors Claire, its edited now. I did say I don’t know much about Jesus and I always get confused with the wine issue partly because of the blood of Christ becoming wine at communion and also because wine being a drug always seemed a weird choice for Jesus to turn water, which is themost pure drink, into it.

      Loved the Northern Lights, thought rest was just of HDM went into silliness and tried to do too much too quick. Gran read them all and cried at the end, she does always add ‘but I was stuck in Thailand and the hotel had nothing else…’ to that tale when she tells it though.

      • Apologies if it came across as correcting you, Simon. As a Catholic whose religious education often felt like indoctrination, I am well aware of the wedding at Cana and forget that the biblical “myths” are often silly and confusing to others.

      • Confusing, yes for those who might not follow that particular religion but never silly.

        I think religion is fascinating and all of them are complex (and therefore confusing) to those who don’t study one, or any, of them but I am very open to them all and have many friends who study several different religions.

        I would never call anyones religion/beliefs silly though, that would be offensive so I do hope this post didnt come across like that.

  3. I was lucky enough to win a copy of this last week, so am hoping to read it soon. I loved all of His Dark Materials so am hoping I will really enjoy this book.

  4. I’m the opposite of you here, in that I loved His Dark Materials and couldn’t get into the Sally Lockhart books. I don’t know if this one is even out in the U.S. yet, but I’ve no real desire to read it. Not really.

    I am sure it will cause a stir, rather it will be used to cause one. I may end up reading it just to see for myself.

    • I think in part it was written to cause a slight stir, and the release week seems quite timely in that sense. Mind you having said that the Archbishop liked it and all the snapping between churches this weekend in the UK and Ireland has sort of stolen any thunder/controversy this book might have had.

      I wonder if the timing of reading the second of His Dark Materials was the issue and why I didnt connect with it, I do think its normally me as opposed to the book on the whole. Maybe one day I might give them a whirl again.

  5. I’m glad to see your perspective on this, Simon, as a non-Pullman fan and someone without a stake in the religious controversy.

    The HDM books also fell apart for me about midway through the second book. But, to be honest, I can never tell whether that’s because I got frustrated with the ideas or whether the books lost steam, so it’s nice to see that someone who wasn’t upset by the story also found the storytelling weakened as it went along.

    I can’t quite decide if I want to read this. As a theology student, I often get asked about books that are generating controversy, and I like to have firsthand knowledge. And I do like reading things that provoke thought, but I find Pullman less appealing when he’s focusing on ideas rather than telling a story. So it’s a maybe for me.

    • Hopefully I looked at it from both a mix of laymans terms and have come to it from an unbiased perspective but seeing the Archbishops review has really pleased me.

      I think with HDM it was a mix of things, too many dimensions too many characters and the charm of the first one didnt seem to be there for me anymore.

      I would say give this book a whirl, I would give it eight out of ten.

  6. I would consider myself a staunch Catholic, but I am not so uptight that I wouldn’t give something like this a try at least. I would be a little nervous…it sounds edgy, but I like a little controversy!

    • I have told The Converted One to read this as I want to see the catholic reaction in the flesh… shall report back. It’s an interesting take that I think will interest people who aren’t religious to find out more. (I nearly put to find out what the devil its all about but thought that was a touch wrong!)

  7. gaskella

    Apart from HDM, and one of the younger children’s books, I haven’t read any other Pullman. Like Teresa, I enjoyed HDM less as the trilogy went on … The first one was pure adventure, the second one lost much of that spirit, and the third was much more difficult.

    What I loved about TGMJatSC was the simplicity and the anticipation of ‘how is he going to handle that’. But also I couldn’t stop thinking about the book and the story, so for that reason I loved it.

    • I think thats the way I went with HDM only to the point I actually stopped. I was enthralled and totally lost in The Northern Lights and thought it was brilliant, from there Lyra’s adventures just lost me.

      I too liked the simplicity of TGMJatBMC (blimey) and I did have the same ‘ooh but how will that work out’ moments. It was an 8/10 for me. 10/10’s are hard to come by.

  8. The second book Dark Materials book has to be persevered through to get back to the wonderful stuff i the third book I think (apart from those elephants on wheels, distracting). I’m looking forward to this, but have heard none of the controversy, or seen it advertised anywhere apart from the blogs. Weird because it has such a deliberately provocative title.

    I’m very interested in Pullman’s take on the figure of Jesus because he’s a big Bible scholar, despite being an atheist (did you catch his Waterstone’s table list last year? It was very high minded non-fiction, but then there were also excellent novels 🙂 . I expect this to have all sorts of links to biblical history and the possibility that Christ as the son of God is a man made conflation of the real life Jesus.

    I think you might like his other young adult series, which follows characters who live on a kibutzh and was written around the same time as the Sally Lockhart series.

    • Hahahaha Paul Magrs and I were joking about those elephants with wheels the other day. It almost tempted me to try and read them again just for that but I was told they were silly rather than entertaining or wonderfully bizarre and so I thought ‘no too many other wonderful books to read’.

  9. I don’t know, with this one I find myself shying away. I think it’s partly because to me the premise feels potentially somewhat… gimmicky, I suppose. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t be any good. I mean, I like things that push boundaries and get you thinking, but sometimes with books where so much of the discussion is focused on the particular premise rather than on the structure, or characters, or writing, etc., I feel a little cautious.

    So with things like this I may well still read them, but I totally hang back, wait until everybody else has read it first such that it barely even seems controversial any more, and the quirky plot detail has ceased to be rammed down my throat, and then I feel as though I can gauge better whether I really want to read it or not…

    Which is all very rambly and may not make sense, but that’s pretty much the score!

    • I think this is one that alot of people will either read pretty much instantly because they love the controversy, love Philip Pullman or in my case love the ‘myths’ series or people will hold off and wait until the fuss dies down. I think if I hadnt have been sent a copy I would have helpd off reading it, but am glad now that one arrived as I suprised myself with how much I liked it.

      • I have really liked the Canongate Myths books that I’ve read so far – which isn’t really that many, and I’d like it to be more. I’m probably more likely to read Dream Angus next, though, which looks really interesting.

      • I think my next one might be the Atwood to be honest!

  10. Funnily enough I have absolutely no interest in reading this, probably because (1) Phillip Pullman doesn’t interest me and (2) I’m not interested in Christianity at all. It was good to read your review though, if only to see what all the fuss is about. I liked that you came at it with absolutely no axe to grind; I fear many other reviewers may not be so objective.

    • Thank you for those kind words Kim that means a lot. I think many people will by this for the controversy, but at least unlike some books that tried to court controversy from the church, readers will get a well written tale if they do.

  11. I think this book sounds fascinating. I wanted to hear PP talking about it at the Oxford Lit Fest last weekend but visitors turned up so I couldn’t make it. I am a huge fan of PP and loved all of HDM, so i agree that perhaps you should have another go, Simon. As for the religious controversy — well, I am very open-minded, and Rowan Williams’ review seems to make a lot of sense. Thanks so much for the interesting review, Simon.

    • Thanks Harriet, I think it would be interesting to hear Pullman talk about this book more actually. I am not sure I would run out to see him but I am not a huge fan of his. Maybe HDM warrant a second viewing, we will see.

  12. This book sounds kind of interesting, but I can’t say I want to run out and read it. Good review though!

    • I wouldnt have rushed out to read it, in fact the religious context might have put me offand made me run away lol, if it hadnt been for getting a sneak advance. I am blinking glad I did though.

  13. Pingback: Books that have come my way « su[shu]

  14. Pingback: My BookClub Reviews » Blog Archive » The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

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