Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Gospel According to Phil


You know, Jesus is a pretty strange guy. I mean, a lot of mythological figures can be strange, but it's usually something overt and basic, like having a dog's head or throwing lightning bolts from the sky. Once you can wrap you're head around one or two contradictions the Gods just like you and I. But then there's Jesus. Ignoring all the supernatural water-into-wine stuff, this is a Jew who was killed by the Jews as a collective mass. He said "love thy neighbor" but his followers were responsible for the crusades. Not to mention this is a guy who exorcised one Gadarene Demoniac or two Gadarene Demoniacs depending on who you talk to.

Fortunately Philip Pullman is here to set matters straight. In his latest book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, he presents a retelling of the gospel, and provides the only rational explanation for all this silliness. Jesus and Christ were two different people! Furthermore they were identical twins!

For some clarification, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ was written as part of the Canongate Myth Series. This is a series of novels by different authors that about assorted ancient myths. Most of these are about things like Greek, Egyptian and Norse myths, and other beliefs that are no longer practiced by modern religion. However two of the entries, this and Lion's Honey by David Grossman, deal with modern religion as folklore.

Philip Pullman is best known as the author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, which was at least partly intended as an atheist response to the Chronicles of Narnia. So it's understandable he would take a similar approach in the Canongate Myth Series.

In other senses, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is very different from His Dark Materials. For one, it's really short. It forgoes immersive world-building in favor of a more fairy-tale-style storytelling. Also, while the fantasy in His Dark Materials obeys an internal logic in such a way that it almost comes off as science fiction, the fantasy in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is unabashedly fantasy. Given the source material, this is understandable.

The book posits Mary having twins, named Jesus and Christ. Jesus, the aforementioned "good man", takes on the role of the perfect hippy guy, who gives weird parables and doesn't care much for the Romans and never sins. Christ, the aforementioned "scoundrel" is the guy who writes the gospels, altering it to please the soon-to-be-established church, who wants to punish sinners while sinning himself.

I should point out that the book isn't entirely taking a "Jesus good Christ bad" position. Jesus is the character who insists that people take things on faith, while Christ wants to draw attention to all the water-into-wine stuff as proof of Jesus's divinity. And Christ doesn't do his acts out of evil, so much as compromise and human imperfection.

During the middle of the book, Christ even comes off as the more sympathetic character. For instance, during Jesus's speech on the mount, when he's explaining the need for silent prayer, he temporarily turns into a Nazarene Carlos Mencia, saying things like "and have you ever heard the Gentiles pray? On and on, yakkety yak, blah blah blah, as if the very sound of their voices were music in the ears of God. Don't be like them. There's no need to tell God what you're asking for; he knows already." (Don't worry, the rest of the book isn't like that).

During this section, it almost makes it seem like the old, warn-out equation of religion with fanaticism and reason with moderation and compromise that a lot of atheists like to make, myself excluded. But nearer the end of the book, it becomes clearer that the Jesus and Christ characters are two sides of the same coin. And ultimately Christ does some pretty nasty things and starts to regret his acts.

One of my favorite parts of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is also one of the most cringe-inducingly awful parts of the Book of John, namely the stuff with pilate. In Pullman's version, Pilate was dead-set on having Jesus crucified, but there was this pesky custom the Romans had of freeing one prisoner on Passover, determined by popular opinion. To make sure this didn't happen to Jesus, Pilate sent agents provocateurs into the crowd to make sure they chose the murderer Barabbas instead. And Christ, in order to establish a powerful church with Roman, backing, conveniently ignored the agents provocateurs part in writing things down.

This is great for several reasons. First of all, it's a clever twist on all that anti-Semitic "The Jews killed Jesus" nonsense. Also, it rectifies the hardest instance in the Jesus myth for one to willingly suspend disbelief. The supernatural stuff is all par for the course in religious stuff. There's mistaken historical stuff: (seriously, you're supposed to go to your ancestors' birthplace for the census? Man, the 2010 census-takers must be searching all over Kälviä for me!). That doesn't make much sense, but can be explained away by saying primitive people had strange customs, even if they didn't really have those customs. But in the whole Pilate stuff, the characters motivations made no sense whatsoever, until now.

And there's another thing. In explaining his decision to separate Jesus and Christ, Pullman said we wanted to write "a story about how stories become stories". A lot of the contradictions in the Bible come from the mere fact that it's a religious text. But a lot of them also arise from the fact that the Bible was written by different people with different agendas. The Pilate scene in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ best captures this.

For more on the different competing forces involved in writing the bible, one should check out Karl Kautsky's 1908 book Foundations of Christianity. In the time in which Jesus allegedly lived (fun fact: Jesus never existed), the Nazarene sect of Judaism was, for all practical purposes, a real-life version of the People's Front of Judea from The Life of Brian. So in those days, you get all of the class warfare going on, and all the stuff about sharing your wealth.

But, while the early Nazarenes shared the goods they owned they didn't share in the means of production, operating like a hippie co-op rather than an all-out commune. As such they were dependent on recruiting wealthy people to survive, and ultimately became dependent on them. Thus the early gospels say "blessed are the poor" while the later gospels say "blessed are the poor in spirit". Also, the wealthy people tended to be Romans, so you go from books like Matthew, that slavishly repeat all those long lists of "begats" in order to show how Jewish they were, to books like John that blame the Jews for the death of Jesus and absolve the Romans.

And that's how you end up with a religion so full of contradictions that it can include among its practitioners Adolph Hitler and Martin Luther King.

Given the fairy-tale-like structure of the books, and probably given Pullman's own views, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, doesn't get to the same level of detail as Kautsky's book. Pullman's conclusion is a bit vaguer, focusing on how we shouldn't look to the divine for moral guidance. But he gets far more good points in there than most retellings of the gospel. And he still tells a good story, marking quite an improvement over the original.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, good info and references! May I humbly suggest Sonic Youth's "Schizophrenia" as a companion to Pullman's book... ;)

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