Finished Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, a book that had me wondering throughout why Pullman had bothered. Then I read the blurb at the end that explained the book was part of a series of books by well known authors tasked with revisiting familiar myths. I suppose Pullman seemed like the obvious (in which "obvious" is a synonym for "most likely to provoke controversy") choice for a book about the life of Jesus because Pullman is vocally opposed to organized religion. Fair enough, but could he have at least approached the material with somewhat less transparent aims and a less silly premise?
In rewriting the tale of Jesus, he posits a twin brother named Christ. (See, so when people later talk about "Jesus Christ," it's ironic because the religion is really the result of both of them. Get it? There should have been a third brother named "H." . . . ) Jesus gets in trouble a lot as a little kid, and his brother Christ talks him out of these troubles by glibly using his familiarity with scriptures. Later, when Jesus takes up a public ministry, Christ, who has tried to talk his brother into the practicality of forming a "church"—never mind that that's not a Jewish term—is approached by "an angel" who persuades Christ to write down everything his brother says and does. This leads to some discussion about the difference between truth and history—truth winning out, in the eyes of the angel and Christ, who revises some of Jesus' statements to make them fit in better with the narrative he's constructing.
Jesus is still doomed to the cross, but since Christ is his twin brother . . . well, you can see early on where this is going.
Pullman spends a lot of time picking on the idea of "church," of organized religion. It's certainly as easy target (though even Pullman has to admit that the presence of the church in history has been a force for individual good as often as it's a force for institutional evil), and there's even a not-veiled reference to pedophile priests, but it's a clumsy aim for the story, which would have done better to focus on notions of how narratives get constructed from history. Why the twin is of use is questionable, as Pullman could have had any character fill the writer's role. Christ's implication in his brother's downfall (and "resurrection") just feels forced, especially since it's clear the brother doesn't believe what he finds himself saying. Pullman spends a lot of time simply retelling the gospel stories without their miraculous trappings, treating this as a new idea (as if Thomas Jefferson and a host of others didn't do the same thing), and he seems to think he's radically stirring the pot by proposing non-miraculous views of seeming miracles, as if that weren't an old and familiar way (among progressive branches of Christianity) of looking at the Bible. There's a nice scene in the Garden of Gethsemani with Jesus talking to God's silence (a conversation his brother never hears), but even that is hardly new.
In the end, this felt competent but dashed off, an easy buck for Pullman.
In my own work, I'm nearing completion of a readable copy of "Clockworks," which I hope to send to two readers this weekend.