Reflections on “The Good Man Jesus, And The Scoundrel Christ”

I was a little skeptical going into The Good Man Jesus And The Scoudrel Christ. I really like Phillip Pullman’s more well known work the “His Dark Materials” trilogy, but I wasn’t exactly sure how his take on Jesus was going to be. Pullman (in case you didn’t know), hates religion. He’s very vocal about his distaste for Christianity in particular, and wrote a trilogy of kids books that are for humanism what “The Chronicles of Narnia” is for Christianity.

“Scoundrel” is Pullman’s revisionist take on the life of Jesus Christ. In the book, Jesus Christ is two people. Jesus is a simple carpenter spreading what he believes is the common-sense truth, and Christ is his power hungry brother who hopes to turn Jesus’ message into a church that will span the globe. It’s not meant to be taken seriously like a Dan Brown story, it is more of a thought experiment to exam both the good and evil in the Christian religion.

It’s a conceit that is admittedly a little cheesy. Sometimes Pullman gets caught up in his story, but the thing about this book is that it completely surprised me. The most beautiful passages, the ones that I have found myself coming back to, are those sermons of Jesus Pullman has re-written in more modern language. One would think, with Pullman’s animosity towards religion, he would neuter or weaken the words of Jesus. But on the contrary, he seems to imbue them with almost more power. Take this passage from the sermon on the mount

You know the commandment against adultery: it says don’t do it. It doesn’t say “You must not commit adultery, but it’s alright to think about it.” It isn’t. Every time you look at woman with lustful thoughts, you’re already committing adultery with her in your heart. Don’t do it. And if your eyes keep look that way, pluck them out.

But Pullman’s Jesus doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to his distaste for religion. He sees it as a mechanism for control, where others take advantage of those under them. These parts actually resonated with me as much as the sermons. Jesus says: “As soon as men who believe they’re doing God’s will get ahold of power…the devil enters them.”My distaste for religion these days really found footing in Pullman’s book.

What this book turns out to be, is on one hand a very tender love-letter to the words and deeds of Jesus, and on the other a scathing dismissal of organized religion. For me, the best part was towards the end, in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus imagines what his ideal vision for his followers would be.

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, but like a tree with its roots deep in the soil, that shelters every kind of bird and beast and gives blossom in the spring and shade in the hot sun and fruit in the season, and in time gives up its good sound wood for the carpenter; but that sheds many thousands of seeds so that new trees can grow up in its place. Does the tree say to the sparrow “Get out, you don’t belong here?” Does the tree say to the hungry man “This fruit is not for you?” Does the tree test the loyalty of the beasts before it allows them into the shade?

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