“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.”
The first hint of what’s to come in Philip Pullman’s new book – “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” – is plainly stated on the book jacket: “This is a story.”
Perhaps it’s a disclaimer to warn the easily offended Christian community that views Pullman as a modern-day heretic. Perhaps it’s the author’s way of suggesting that while second-rank stories of Jesus have existed since the church’s earliest days, most of them are considered little more than mythic stories.
Perhaps Pullman is offering a backhanded slur about the untouchable four gospels, suggesting through fictional inference that they too are myths as the lines separating historical fact from enhanced truth are murky.
Who can say what Pullman means, but the possibilities are unnerving to most Christians unaccustomed to critical conversations about the Bible.
In the book, Mary gives birth to twin boys: Jesus, the firstborn who’s strong and healthy, and Christ, a nickname given to the child by Mary as the second-born boy, who’s small and sickly. Mary wraps Jesus in a cloth and lays him in a manger while picking up Christ and suckling him out of pity for his weaker condition.
Jesus grows up to be the one people follow, and he is both pious and richly appealing. Christ is more complex. He is calculating and knows there is a need to view faith through a longer, wider lens. Only then might the faith taught by Jesus survive over time rather than disappearing with his anticipated death.
“There is time, and there is what is beyond time.
History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time.”
Together the two boys grow up and live out the gospel stories, each with roles to play in holy history. Jesus lives out a vibrant but innocent life of love marked by his strong ethical teachings that claim God is at work in history’s larger story.
Christ, on the other hand, is content to lurk in the shadows as a watcher, more cautious than his famous twin, obligated to scribe the story so it can be properly nuanced and saved for history. “The stranger,” a shadowy figure that is never clearly identified, solicits Christ, and together they plot a vision of institutional religion outlasting the lived faith of Jesus.
“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.”
Christ operates in the story’s background as the shadowy counterpoint to Jesus’ light and goodness. Christ is a scoundrel for his willingness to reshape the story (the events themselves) in order to secure the martyrdom of Jesus necessary for the story to go on.
Pullman has Christ play other roles in his quest for Jesus to leave a lasting mark.
· He’s the tempter in the desert as Jesus’ brother who tries to overtly manage Jesus from the beginning.
· He’s the older brother in the parable of the Father’s love.
· He’s Judas identifying Jesus to the Romans in the garden.
· Last, he assumes the identity of Jesus in the garden to the women, and later the disciples who in their grief adopt the younger weaker Christ for the elder brother Jesus, whose body is whisked away in the night in order to sustain the myth.
While Christ is not wholly happy about this masquerade, he goes along for the greater good and eventually no acting is necessary as the myth of the resurrection takes over and is sustained by the willing believers.
Is the book satire or blasphemy or simply another thinker’s reflection on the mystery of divinity shared with humanity?
One reviewer called it a modern equivalent to a heretical Gnostic gospel. But since the Gnostic gospels all seem to advocate an objective truth, the reviewer relabeled the book as a postmodern fiction.
Implied is the notion that readers are free to take away from the book any meaning they wish. That certainly has been the tradition over the last century and a half with all the efforts to reclaim the historical Jesus, separating him from the creation of the Christ of Paul and others in the early church. I’ve regarded the book simply as a gospel novel.
Sorting through his own grief and guilt over Jesus’ death, Christ returned to the garden and found himself sitting on a bench with the stranger who denies that he is Satan and instead a co-conspirator for a larger good.
“So will he rise from the dead?” Christ wonders.
“Undoubtedly,” replies the stranger.
“When?” Christ asks.
“Always,” the stranger answers.
From there, Christ realizes the burden of the story has been placed on his own shoulders in order for the believers of the day to press forward to form the church and to learn to live without questioning what it all means.
The search for the historical Jesus has been a century-long effort by New Testament scholars to seek a balance by holding them in tension with one another, even though largely misunderstood by Christian laity.
In the end, Pullman’s Christ betrays his own brother to get him out of the way so Christ can establish Christianity unhindered by what really happened.
“It was a shocking thing to say,” Pullman explained in an interview. “But no one has the right to live without being shocked.”
The book is shocking but also stimulating if one can allow that such conversations have marked Christianity since Jesus of Nazareth gave way to Jesus the Christ.
Keith Herron is senior pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.
Keith Herron is the Bridge Pastor for First Congregational Church of St. Louis. He is the author of “Living a Narrative Life: Essays on the Power of Story,” and served previously as a member of the EthicsDaily.com / Baptist Center for Ethics board of directors.