Turning the wine into ditchwater

06 April 2010

A story about stories falls flat, Alexander Lucie-Smith finds


The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
Philip Pullman
Canongate £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

THIS book describes itself as a “retelling” of the story of Jesus and a book about “how stories become stories”.

The plot is as follows: Jesus and Christ are twin brothers. Jesus is a good chap, who has no idea of founding a Church, and who dies on Calvary after realising that God is absent. Christ, his self-effacing twin, follows from a distance, writing things down, and, where he thinks necessary, improving on what Jesus actually says.

At the suggestion of an “angel” or a “stranger” (who may be Paul of Tarsus, but is never named), he betrays Jesus and later, on the Sunday of the resurrection, stands in for his dead brother, whose body has been stolen from the tomb. This impersonation fools everyone, and the rest is history.

This plot combines two differing perspectives. The first is that of Rudolf Bultmann, the theologian who separated the Christ of faith from the Jesus of history and who claimed that we could know nothing or next to nothing about the historical Jesus. The second is that of Dan Brown, with nods towards various apocryphal Gospels, which claims that the real Jesus is not the Jesus of the Christian Church. The style is more Brown than Bultmann.

Most of the book follows the canonical Gospels quite closely, while always taking a reductionist view of Jesus’s miraculous powers of healing. For example: “The man was so strengthened and inspired by the atmosphere Jesus had created that he found himself able to move.” But this reductionism also destroys all grandeur and mystery in the words of Jesus. “Those who are pure in heart and think no evil of others — they will be blessed” is Pullman’s pedestrian rendition of one of the phrases from the Sermon on the Mount. In retelling the story, Pullman invariably kills it, making it flat, banal, and stylistically uninteresting.

The hardy reader who wades through to the end will find some sort of characterisation of Jesus in Gethsemane, but none of it original. As for the great scene of the crucifixion, Pullman ducks the challenge, describing it obliquely, which illustrates the way this book fails to engage with the central historical facts about Jesus. What do atheists think of the Passion? A good question, but one not answered here.

Many novelists, going all the way back to Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur (1880), have written about scriptural subjects with great success, opening up new vistas of understanding for believer and unbeliever alike, as well as writing a rattling good story, elegantly expressed. Pullman adds nothing to this genre. This book is dull, unoriginal, and strangely lacking in wit and life.

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is the author of Narrative Theology and Moral Theology (Ashgate, 2007).

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