Book Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Canongate, 2010) is an odd book. How else could it be, when an atheist writer comes to grips with the founding myth of Christianity? Here is a short excerpt to give you some idea of its flavour. The idea for this project apparently came about as the result of a conversation with his good friend, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Philip Pullman tells the story in a deceptively simple way. As you can see from the excerpt, he doesn’t question the Divine antecedents of the whisperer at Mary’s window, merely recording that she lets him in, that “he had assumed the appearance of a young man,” and that “she conceived a child, just as the angel had foretold.” The book has a biblical sensibility, aided and abetted by the clear typography, simple declarative sentences, and short chapters with their titles in red.

That said, Pullman’s authorial voice cannot be silenced, and he often deconstructs the miracles with scientific explanations that tended to pull me out of the narrative.

At the core of the book is the duality of Christ the Spirit, and Jesus the Man. Pullman makes this distinction vivid by having Mary give birth to twin boys. Jesus comes out first, strong, healthy and passionate in his convictions, a whole man who lives in each moment and loves the world. Christ is born next, a sickly intellectual who adores and protects his brother, but always with an eye to social acceptability. It is Christ, not the Devil, who tempts Jesus in the wilderness after his baptism by John.

As Jesus begins to teach, Christ either follows him to write down what he says and does, or enlists one of the disciples to report back to him, all with the sense that it could be so much better communicated if it weren’t quite so literal.

Christ is tempted himself, by a man who can be read as either the Devil, or a Papal time traveler sent back to Palestine to ensure that the records are conducive to the foundation of a Christian church capable of spanning the millennia. This man, whose name we never learn, is concerned with truth as it intersects with history.  Christ’s mission is to record Jesus’ life so that it will live down the centuries:

That is exactly why you are the perfect chronicler of these events, my dear Christ, and why your name will shine in equal splendour with his. You know how to present a story so its true meaning shines out with brilliance and clarity. And when you come to assemble the history of what the world is living through now, you will add to the outward and visible events their inward and spiritual significance; so, for example, when you look down on the story as God looks down on time, you will be able to have Jesus foretell to his disciples, as it were in truth, the events to come of which, in history, he was unaware.

At first all Christ has to do is write and collate reports on his brother’s words and activities, handing them to the stranger when he makes an appearance. But there is worst to come. In Pullman’s story it is Christ, not Judas, who betrays Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. After all, how can he be remembered if he is not martyred? Christ almost rebels at this, but he goes through with it, even accepting payment because a beggar has stolen his purse and he must pay the bill at the inn. To be fair to Christ, he expects that Barabbas will be crucified in Jesus’ place, and is appalled at his brother’s death.

Jesus comes face to face with the unreality of his own beliefs at Gethsemane, the very beliefs that have sustained him throughout his teaching. In Pullman’s retelling there is simply no-one there, despite his prayers for a sign, any sign, to justify his faith. Jesus finally sees through the false dichotomy of body and spirit:

Body and spirit…is there a difference? Where does one end and the other begin? Aren’t they the same thing?

So Jesus goes to his death in silent bitterness. It’s left to Christ to appear on the third day to Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ body having already been stolen, claiming to be the resurrected Jesus. Christ fades out of history and later gets married.

The stranger returns with one last task. He must edit the writings about his brother’s life. Once again, Christ almost rebels, but the writer in him won’t permit this to happen:

There were a hundred details that could add verisimilitude. He knew, with a pang that blended guilt and pleasure, that he had already made some of them up.

This novel is as much about the temptations of story-telling as it is about the veracity of a religious myth. Pullman conflates story-telling and myth-making into one irresistible human activity. This is the most subversive aspect of the novel, undercutting truth with the desire to tell a story. We accept and even require it in a work of secular fiction, but Pullman applies the same impulse to perceived Truth.

No wonder some people were upset.

Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia

When I think of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, I now think of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.  That these two actors have so thoroughly eclipsed their predecessors obviously has a lot to do with the medium of television, but it’s mostly due to Steven Moffat  and Mark Gatiss’s brilliant reinvention of a Holmes and Watson for the 21st century.  They set the tone in the first episode of the first series (2010) with  A Study in Pink, and carried it through to A Scandal in Belgravia.  As with Moffat’s other project, Doctor Who, I have to watch each episode twice to get catch everything the writing and acting has to offer.

In A Scandal in Belgravia, Sherlock meets his match in the supremely intelligent and beautiful dominatrix, Irene Adler, played by Lara Pulver.  Her clients from the upper reaches of the British establishment tell her everything, and she has it all stashed away in her cameraphone, protected by a passcode that takes Sherlock almost the whole episode to discover.

This duel of minds and sexual attraction (“Brain is the new sexy”) is the core that runs through A Scandal in Belgravia, relegating the serious business of why these secrets are so important to the subplots that weave around it.  Irene’s first meeting with Sherlock, when she walks into the room naked, was stunning.  It set the agenda for her plan to seduce him into complicity, something she seems to have accomplished until he confesses to feeling her pulse at that opportune and tender moment.  So deducing that she was in fact aroused, and extrapolating from it the passcode for the cameraphone.  What else but SHER?

But Sherlock is also smitten enough to rescue Irene from terrorists about to cut off her head.  “The Woman.  The Woman” says it all.

There is so much to enjoy.  A jumbo jet filled with dead people, so terrorists don’t realize that their plot to blow it up has been discovered, is wonderfully Gothic.  The kicking the CIA agents get is thoroughly satisfying – couldn’t happen to more deserving characters.  I particularly like the way their leader falls out of a window several times after brutally interrogating Mrs Hudson.  And it’s heartwarming to see how Sherlock reacts to her being in danger.  He’s a good boy, and he protects the people who care for him, despite his offhand manner.

That said, he’s also cruel in his honesty.  Poor Molly is humiliated at the Christmas party when she turns up dressed to seduce, armed with the knowledge that she’ll have Sherlock to herself when everyone leaves.  Sherlock’s dissection of her behaviour, and discovery that the present was meant for him, is painful to watch.  His apology is even more surprising.

Then there’s the assumption that Sherlock and John are a couple.  Even Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) accepts that John is now part of the family and can be trusted with emotional secrets.  Irene thinks they are, and so does John’s date at the Christmas party when he stays behind to keep an eye on Sherlock after Irene’s purported death.  At Mycroft’s insistence, no less.  Only John is convinced he’s not gay, and they’re not a couple.  Yet there’s a whisper of jealousy in the way he asks Sherlock if he’ll see Irene again, when she’s revealed as still alive.

John’s blog is a great joke, and making it the reason for Sherlock’s runaway success as a consulting detective is inspired.  Leading as it does to them fleeing the paparazzi in a hasty disguise, which of course means Sherlock grabbing a deerstalker.  What else would he wear?

Terrific stuff.  Can’t wait to see what Mark Gatiss makes of the Hound of the Baskervilles next week.  Robert Downey, Jr. can take his action/adventure, CGI-enhanced Hollywood Sherlock and stick it where the sun don’t shine.

Save Our Libraries

Campbeltown Library - the gray bit on the ground floor

Oscar Wilde famously said that a cynic “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  It’s also been said of Americans, but we won’t go there today.  Except in the sense that the Coalition of the Unspeakable in pursuit of the Indefensible has adopted Republican slash and burn economic strategies.  Specifically, their attack on funding for public libraries and the latest plan for closures.

Philip Pullman

Arise, a knight in shining armour, to put into words what so many us can only express in spluttering rage.  Philip Pullman’s speech in defence of Oxfordshire’s 43 public libraries, almost half of which are earmarked for closure, is an inspiring and humane polemic.  According to this article in the Guardian, it’s gone viral.  A great pity there’s no video of the speech.  But the full text is available at these 2 websites – False Economy and Our Kingdom – both of which are campaigning against Coalition policies.

Public Libraries News has a complete list of the proposed cuts.  In Argyll, where I live, there are plans to close the Tarbert, Rosneath and Cardross libraries as well as a mobile library in the Oban area.  My local library in Campbeltown is safe, probably because our small town of 5,000 people is still the biggest urban centre in the Kintyre peninsular and the furthest away from any other.  Four hour’s drive to Glasgow.  And possibly because a few years ago the Scottish Executive splashed out – literally – on a swimming pool/fitness centre/cafe in which the library gets one small corner.  It’s called the Aqualibrium.

Public libraries have been a part of my life since I was old enough to read, and I suspect that’s true for a great many other people.  They provide a pleasant, spacious, stress-free public environment where you can read, play and work.  A place where the imagination is nurtured and dreams can take root.  It’s about far more than the books – print or digital – and the computers.  A public library is a social space created with the idea that everyone matters.

The Coalition don’t believe that everyone matters.  That is patently obvious from the way their policies punish the disadvantaged and reward the wealthy.  So I’m glad we have people like Philip Pullman to speak on our behalf.  But it also takes grassroots opposition.

While there’s no video for Pullman’s speech about the library cuts, here he is giving the keynote speech at the Convention on Modern Liberty on 28 February, 2009.  He’s talking about political virtues, which are surely the bedrock for any kind of liberty, from the freedom to visit a library to matters of life and death.