Saturday, May 29, 2010

Pullman's latest; etc.

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.


Calvin said...

I enjoyed, very much, Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy, although the last one got heavy-handed. I was pretty sure I was going to skip this one, however, and this only bolsters my resolve.

When some friends recommend books such as Dawkins various attacks, I usually respond: is it at least as insightful and thoughtful as Life of Brian in its critique of religion? The question first throw them off, and then, usually, they reluctantly respond "No."

You've probably also read Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, which for my money is a much more creative and entertaining alt-Jesus story (and which also contains a very Biblical theme: compassion coming not from the anointed but from the flawed and imperfect).

William Preston said...

The Life of Brian test of irreligiousness! Perfect!

Most everybody seems to have had that response to His Dark Materials (so I ended up not reading the trilogy), and I agree that Dawkins and others fail to raise issues pertintent to modern believers or doubters. It's like they're unfamiliar with biblical criticism and theology of the last nearly 200 years. Jim Crace has a work of fiction featuring Jesus in the desert; it's also disappointing, as his Jesus is a stand-in for non-Jesus issues Crace wants to deal with while simultaneously allowing him to dismiss the man.

My Dostoevsky prof said once that Fyodor could produce better arguments against religion than all the atheists--as he proved in The Brothers Karamazov.

I'm unfamiliar with the Bulgakov; thanks for the recommendation.

Good to hear from you!

Calvin said...

The Master and Margarita is one of the great classics of Russian magical realism. I've heard it described as being irreligious, and I can understand where people might pick up that misconception. But Bulgakov is much more interested in shooting at the corruption, both material and intellectual, of the early Soviet Union. The hero of the novel is Satan, but Satan has come to 1920s Moscow to shake the inhabitants out of their cozy, self-congratulatory materialism and self-delusion. This is not Milton's proud, noble Lucifer; this is closer to the Adversary found in Job, who sneers at humans foibles and tests human worthiness, punishing the petty and the greedy. The titular Master is the author of an alt-Jesus story, who nevertheless has been thrown in an insane asylum for not being atheistic enough. In many ways the novel anticipates the folly of using an alt-Jesus to air your grievances; but I'll leave you to discover those.

Bulgakov wrote other satires of the regime, including Heart of a Dog: in an experimental procedure, the testicles and other glands of a dead criminal are surgically implanted in a dog, who eventually becomes the perfect Party apparatchik (with the unfortunately tendency to chase after cats). Despite this, apparently Stalin held him in some grudging respect and allowed him to emigrate to Paris.

William Preston said...

I've placed the book on hold at my library. It'll join the stack soon enough.

I (re)enjoyed a lot of Russian lit this past year, since I taught an independent study for a student interested in reading Russian short fiction.

Luke said...

I just started reading The Master and Margarita myself. Some synchronicity going on here..

William Preston said...

I noticed yesterday that it had come up on the "What do I read now?" thread.

I'm building up a large stack, however. If the first few pages don't grab me, then: "Next!"

Peter said...

Great mini-review of Pullman. I'd love to see your take on the "new atheists" -- Dawkins, Hitchens, etc. -- in long essay. (Maybe for the Catholic Sun! Just joking.) Oh, on The Master and Margarita: Mick Jagger was a fan. "Sympathy for the Devil" bears its influence:
P. Duffy

William Preston said...

And Mick was at the World Cup US/Ghana match today! It's all coming together . . .

I haven't read the books by the "new atheists," but I've read their summary essays and various reviews that have shown up and heard the NPR interviews. If they had something fresh to say, I might be interested.

Maybe you should write a book about them, eh?

Good to see you here, old friend.