WaPo Book Reviewer Cheers Atheist Novelist's Spin on Life of Jesus

May 5th, 2010 5:40 PM

"[F]or all its satanic fanfare and heretical rejiggering, 'The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ' is -- God forbid -- kind of inspiring," Washington Post book reviewer Ron Charles proclaimed in today's review of the latest novel by avowed atheist Philip Pullman.

Charles began by suggesting that Pullman's publication was a veritable act of courage -- "if you fiddle with Jesus, people begin collecting dry sticks" the book review quipped. That may have gotten chuckles in the newsroom, but it's not all that amusing when you consider that it's radical Muslims, not devout Catholics or evangelical Protestants, who have threatened edgy taboo-shattering atheists like the creators of South Park.

Of course, attacking orthodox Christianity is always in season among the secular literary elite as well as their friends in the mainstream media. Charles himself cheered on Pullman's fictional take on Christ by equating it somewhat agreeably with the strain of liberal Christianity that has for centuries attacked such central elements of orthodoxy as Jesus's divinity and virgin birth, his miraculous earthly ministry, and his bodily resurrection from the tomb:

So what does Pullman do with the greatest story ever told? Essentially, he condenses the four Gospels, following the basic outline they provide of Jesus's life. Indeed, some of the text here -- such as his simple, beautifully rendered Sermon on the Mount -- will strike Christians as very familiar. Again and again, he displays a marvelous sense of the elemental power of Jesus's instructions and parables. Even when he transforms the canonical stories to match his atheist perspective, he emphasizes the basic Christian theme of universal love.

To a certain extent, he's dramatizing a view of the Gospels promoted by the Jesus Seminar, a group of liberal theologians and scholars who attracted considerable attention (and controversy) in the 1990s by stripping away what they considered layers of superstition and dogma to reveal "the historical Jesus." For instance, in Pullman's retelling of the story of the loaves and fishes, Jesus doesn't miraculously multiply the available food; instead, he inspires the multitude to overcome their avarice and share what they've squirreled away. In a similar manner, Pullman reworks the parable of the wise and foolish virgins to make it sound, frankly, a whole lot more Christian than the unforgiving parable we find in the Book of Matthew.

Before we throw down the palm leaves, though, let's admit that Pullman also takes some obnoxious liberties with the foundational story of Christian faith and relentlessly flogs the church. Trouble starts right off with the Annunciation, when Mary learns she's going to conceive a child. Like the late feminist scholar Mary Daly, Pullman recasts this moment as a kind of date rape. And it won't come as a revelation to hear that he pours cold water on the Resurrection, too. (But, heck, dozens of vicars in Britain don't believe in that climax either.)

Charles then explains the central conceit of Pullman's novel:

His most radical alteration, though, begins in the Bethlehem manger: His Mary gives birth to twins, Jesus and Christ. A distinction between the human and the divine nature of Jesus is not alien to some branches of Christian thought, but Pullman has imagined something entirely his own: two wholly human boys, bound together in a tragedy of historic proportions. Jesus is a charismatic (not miraculous) teacher, who preaches boundless compassion, lashes out at religious hypocrisy and awaits the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. Meanwhile, his devoted brother, Christ (who isn't really a "scoundrel"), is shy and intellectual, constantly worried about his brother's safety and determined to promote his message.

It's that desire to institutionalize Jesus's word that Pullman sees as the snake in the garden. According to the Gospels, Jesus wrote only once -- in the dust -- but in Pullman's version, Christ is a writer, a careful, thoughtful scribe, who wants "to let the truth irradiate the history." And he repeats that phrase a couple of times in case, having ears, ye hear not. What's more, Christ is periodically encouraged by a mysterious, vaguely satanic stranger who explains that Jesus's statements "need to be edited, the meanings clarified, the complexities unraveled for the simple-of-understanding."

Of course, this is just a clever lame -- I mean, really, an evil twin plot device?! -- novelized way of making the same liberal arguments that enemies of orthodoxy from within the Christian church have been making for years.

The crucified, buried, risen-and-soon-returning Lord Jesus of orthodox confession is eschewed by Pullman in favor of a silly fable about Jesus's brother "Christ" -- which every Sunday school dropout knows is a title, not a proper name -- but somehow Charles predicts that readers of Pullman's novel will come away with a thirst for the Jesus of Scripture.

Yet even in making that argument at the close of his review, Charles worked in a gratuitous swipe at a more biblically faithful treatment of Jesus that hit movie theaters six years ago:

Fortunately, not all of "Good Man Jesus" is consumed with this strident anti-ecclesiastical argument. Pullman is at least as interested in the moral value of the Gospels. Without any of the snuff-film eroticism that enlivened Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ," the action moves toward a conclusion that's inevitable but still startling and moving. Yes, some Christians will be offended by this book -- "No one has the right to spend their life without being offended," Pullman recently told an audience in Oxford -- but any honest reader will find here a brisk and bracing story of profound implications. And it's bound to send some readers back to the Bible, looking more closely at Jesus's words and especially at all those other words crowded around Him.