THE GOOD MAN JESUS AND THE SCOUNDREL CHRIST
By PHILIP PULLMAN
Pages: price: 499
Historically, we live in a time when all the famous churches and cathedrals are being converted into cinema theatres and shopping malls. And a book such as Philip Pullman’s “The Good man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ,” coming from such a culture of shopping mall spirituality offers us no big surprise. There have been many writers in the past that have set stage as precedents for something as strange as this piece of fiction. As a matter of fact, there have been writers that looked at religion very critically such as Bertrand Russel in “Why I am Not a Christian”. If one considers the genre of “the Good man Jesus…” itself, there have been novels like “the gospel according to the son” by Norman Mailer, “Jesus Lived in India” by Holger Kersten , Jose Saramago’s “the gospel according to Christ,” and one can never forget Nikos Kazantzakis’ “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Remember also Osho’s “Come unto me.” Even in India, we had Paul Zachariah’s “the second settlement”, which looked at the birth of Jesus in a manner that we would take up for consideration in just a brief while. However, one only needs to know for now that the genre that Pullman has produced is not new, and gratefully did not produce the hubbub that the “Da Vinci Code” produced. Pullman’s “good man Jesus…” begins as a narrative, “This is the story of Jesus and his brother Christ, of how they were born, of how they lived and of how one of them died.” This narrative combines story-telling with biblical history. This book wants to do precisely that- tell us a story, with characters from the life of Jesus in the Gospels, along with elements of demythologizing, only to recreate a myth for consumption purposes. And this story, as we read on in the book, also brings to the fore a very deep spiritual crisis that the author could have experienced.
One brief look at the route in which the narrative flows would enable us to take our arguments further. Mary is twelve years old in the story when she is introduced, just about to reach puberty. She is also at the temple since she was a baby. That’s when the priests at the temple realize that she would bleed soon. In order to literally dispose of her, she is married off to an old man very much beyond her tender age. And when Mary conceives at a time least expected, Joseph does not want to secretly send her away. And the world of course would speak badly of him if Mary did not really bear a child, calling him incapable of being a ‘man.’ Thus, it occurs to Joseph that it is better to live with somebody else’s child than with the shame of not being able to have one of his own. Mary bears twins. The first son born is called Jesus, born healthy and beautiful to look at. The second son, however, is born very frail, immediately gaining the love of the mother. Mary calls him Christ. Having laid Christ in the manger for warmth, instead of Jesus, the wise men and shepherds mistake Christ to be the saviour of the world. As they grow up Jesus is very playful, well liked by everybody in town, but Christ is weak and remains the favourite, only of Mary. But Christ turns out to be an admirer of Jesus and shows tremendous love and concern towards him, the love that the weak shows towards the strong.
Today, the church continues to talk, preach and believe in the birth of Jesus. The paradox, however, seems to be that in was the Christian civilization that gave birth to modern sciences, questioning everything. The only thing that the church never questions is the authenticity of the narratives of the birth of Jesus as mentioned in the Bible. This is because, when folk narratives are taken as foundations for dogmatic faith, one fails to use the critical faculties that could possibly enrich one’s spirituality. And this element of folk narratives is found in folk traditions at the grass roots. Alan Dundees points this out very strongly in his essay, “The Hero Pattern of the Life of Jesus.” And folk narratives are subject to being retold in varying forms. Christianity resists this retelling very strongly. Even though the church knows that basically the birth of Jesus was biological, it restrains people from speaking in that manner. But among the working classes, it is not difficult for them to conceive of the birth of heroes and their gods as extraordinary. This is because such narratives are entwined with their lives. And they record such narratives fearlessly. And it is not unsafe to say that Pullman makes one such attempt in his book. Even Paul Zachariah, in his “second settlement,” looks at the birth of Jesus as an episode that happened at a brothel, while Herod was killing all the other children. That is because; his story goes in the direction where the only place Mary and her child could find safety was in a brothel. And the soldiers who visit that brothel that night decide not to kill the baby that night because they think that a king can never be born to a prostitute. Such views do not shock feminist theologians like Elizabeth S Fiorenza and Gabrielle Dietrich, as their views surpasses in being radical, when compared to the above mentioned views, by their understanding of Mariology and Jesus.
Pullman’s narrative then continues at break neck-speed with Jesus getting lost at the Jerusalem temple, meeting with John the Baptist, temptation in the wilderness. This is followed by the descriptions of the different ways marked out for Jesus and Christ. Christ is portrayed as the villain, as do requires all other hero narratives. However, the villain turns out to be the saviour of Jesus, every time he gets into trouble. Then a “stranger” is introduced in the story as someone who has regular talks with Christ. Christ is ordered to quietly follow Jesus wherever he goes, in order to record all the teachings and the events surrounding Jesus. Even when Christ gets caught once by the followers of Jesus, being suspected of spying for the Roman Empire, Christ escapes unscathed. However, he begins to follow Jesus very cautiously after that. Christ even appoints one of Jesus’ own disciples to keep him updated on events and teachings that Christ himself might have missed out on. The stranger is impressed with Christ’s connection with Jesus’ disciple. And when questioned about how Christ managed to establish this connection, Christ replies casually that he asked the disciple for details because he was recording the history of the “kingdom of God” that Jesus was trying to establish. “It is to this casual reply that the stranger assures Christ that “In helping me, you are helping to write that history. But there is more, and this is not for everyone to know: in writing about what is past, we help to shape what is to come. There are dark days approaching, turbulent times; if the way to the kingdom of God is to be opened, we who know must be prepared to make history the handmaid of posterity and not its governor. What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom than what was…… There is time and there is what is beyond time. History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history. You are the word of God.” The stage for the establishment of creation of an institution is set, and events that are necessary for that purpose.
What Pullman has managed to do with his story telling is to subvert the very basis of the Christian faith that Jesus is the saviour for all ages, by encasing the life of Jesus merely within his birth and death. This, precisely, is what the New Testament scholars find so disconcerting. Further, Pullman has brought down the status of God to the character of ‘stranger” downplaying the omnipotence of such a God. With God now having become the “stranger” what Pullman has shown is that God is what everyone can encounter in their daily existence. For those traversing the path of subverting the Hindu Vedas and Scriptures that show their gods and goddesses as primarily unapproachable is now over-turned, and to them Pullman’s reduction of God to a “stranger” comes as no big surprise.
Pullman’s narrative then flows with Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees, Peter’s confession of Jesus as the messiah, entry into the Jerusalem temple, followed by the over-turning of tables of money changers at the temple.
The last part of the novel is the most important part. Jesus is about to be murdered. Christ gets to know about it. The stranger meets Christ to unfold the plans for what should follow the murder of Jesus and the part that Christ would have to play in the killing. And the stranger seduces Christ into this plan with the aim of establishing what in future would be called the church. Jesus who foresees what is about to unfold is confounded with great sorrow and departs to the garden of Gethsemane, where he prays a prayer that is worth mentioning here in full detail:
“And the Kingdom…
Have been deluding myself? What have I been doing, telling them that it’s going to come, that there are people alive now who will see the coming of God’s kingdom? I can see us waiting. Was my brother right when he talked of this great organization, this church of his that was going to serve as a vehicle for the kingdom on earth? No, he was wrong, he was wrong. My whole heart and mind has revolted against that. They still do.
“Because I can see just what would happen if that kind of thing came about. The devil would rub his hands with glee. As soon as men who believe they’re doing God’s will get hold of power, whether it’s in a household or a village or in Jerusalem or in Rome itself, the devil enters into them. It isn’t long before they start drawing up lists of punishments for all kinds of innocent activities, sentencing people to be flogged or stoned in the name of God for wearing this or eating that or believing the other. And the privileged ones will build great palaces and temples to strut around in, and levy taxes on the poor to pay for their luxuries; and they’ll start keeping the very scriptures secret, saying there are some truths too holy to be revealed to the ordinary people, so that only the priest’s interpretation will be allowed, and they’ll torture and kill anyone who wants to make the word of God clear and plain to all; and with every day that passes they’ll become more and more fearful, because the more power they have the less they’ll trust anyone, so they’ll have spies and betrayals and denunciations and secret tribunals, and put the poor harmless heretics they flush out to horrible public deaths, to terrify the rest into obedience.
“And from time to time, to distract the people from their miseries and fire them with anger against someone else, the governors of this church will declare that such and such a nation or such and such a people is evil and ought to be destroyed, and they’ll gather great armies and set off to kill and burn and rape and plunder, and they’ll raise their standard over the smoking ruins of what was once a fair and prosperous land and declare that God’s kingdom is so much the larger and more magnificent as a result.
“But any priest who wants to indulge his secret appetites, his greed, his lust, his cruelty, will find himself like a wolf in a field of lambs where the shepherd is bound and gagged and blinded. No one will even think of questioning the rightness of what this holy man does in private; his little victims will cry to heaven for pity, and their tears will wet his hands, and he’ll wipe them on his robes and press them together piously and cast his eyes upwards and the people will say what a fine thing it is to have a holy man as a priest, how well he takes care of his children…
“And where will you (God) be? Will you look down and strike these blaspheming serpents with a thunderbolt? Will you strike the governors off their thrones and smash their palaces to rubble?
“To ask the question and wait for the answer is to know that there will be no answer.
“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 marbled 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 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?” (Pages 196-200)
After this ordeal, Jesus is arrested, given a quick trial and killed. Then Christ is made to stand at the entrance of the tomb by the stranger in order to give the resurrection effect.
Later, Christ feels guilty for his brother’s murder, decides to live a quite life in obscurity, marries a woman called Martha and lives in another town. The story ends with the “stranger” visiting Christ at his house to assure him that all that happened, happened for good.
Today, there seems to be a tremendous confusion in the church and its hierarchies as to, from which angle could one critically analyse the church’s belief in the “kingdom of God.” Even if such a situation did not prevail, there are very few personalities within the church to critically analyze the church dogmas. What Pullman’s book does is to essentially give stimulation to re-evaluate our church structures and the authorities. Such stimulus comes from Jesus’ lament over what is to come in the form of the church, many years after his death, in his prayer. His prayer exposes the tendency towards the danger of converting God into private property. That was essentially the state in which Buddhism was found in 200 C.E. In places like Sarnath and Gaya, proponents of Buddhism had begun to be engaged in exercising enormous amount of authority. Such atrocities lasted till the time of the Gupta Dynasty. In Jesus’ prayer, he already foresees such atrocities being committed in the name of God, by the church. Times have passed, but the prayer of Jesus found in Pullman’s book remains relevant up to this very minute. Today, news magazines like India Today and Tehelka compete with one another to expose the number of criminal cases held against religious and political leaders, who own property of, only God knows, how many billions. Such cases of fraud were openly exhibited when the Tsunami funds misappropriation was exposed. Just as M.K Azhagiri’s fraudulent means to win his elections came too light, so is the state of Bishops and Moderator elections in our church today. When Christians were burnt at Kandhamal, Christians from south India who contributed generously towards their cause did not raise their voices against the Anti-Conversion Bill. No Bishops or Pastors were arrested. Since the last 50 years, no church leader has fought for Political Reservation in Government Sectors for dalit Christians. All that the church has done so far is to increase the number of Church attendance, considering it as church-growth. And also it considers charity or dharma only as the supreme value of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ prayer in Pullman’s book is the hardest beating, on the church’s disgusting, self-righteous piety. And the theologies of the church also have changed to suit such needs. And whatever the Christians wanted to leave behind in the Hindu hierarchical faith, instead, brought all the evils from there into the Christian faith, including caste. Christians have only changed the name of their God, but have in common with Hindu identity, all the evils such as patriarchy, caste, divisions and untouchability. Christianity in India is in reality Semi-Hinduism. That is because they are unable to leave behind what they brought into Christianity from Hinduism.
I wish to place before church leaders and theologians, who are serious about social change, what could be learnt from Philip Pullman’s “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.”
1) The book offers the opportunity to read such books and to bring to the fore the debates that arise out of it. This requires, first of all, open-mindedness, and the courage not to easily dismiss such books as mere entertainment tools. At the same time, the churches and seminaries should allow theologians the freedom to write and explore from the perspectives of the working people.
2) The book has the power to once again let go of what we hold on to too dearly, especially beliefs that we learnt long ago and that which we cherish too much to let go of. Much of the Christian fundamentalists and Zionists have some preconceived ideas about what they think is the ultimate truth. This book breaks such truths and turns them fallible.
3) The book especially points out to what Alan Dundees also refers to, that whichever hero or gods we talk about, can only be accepted as religion, only as long as they fulfil the deep-seated spiritual longings for concrete liberation of the common people.
Philip Pullman is not a religious revolutionary. Nor is there any need for him to weep and wail and undertake a rescue mission for radical rejuvenation of religious identity. The underlying truth is that the book he has written is essentially for consumption purposes, affordable only to those that fly planes, or for those that can afford the money for such entertainment. Now the question is, should we or should we not encourage such a book? Remember, it contains ideas for social change. If this book should not be encouraged, what would you do with books written by theologians who use ideas of social change as capital, for their own profits? That’s the question… without end