Marks out of 10 - Little short of a miracle

30th April 2010 at 01:00

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Philip Pullman

Canongate Books, #163;14.99

A crowd has gathered on the shores of the Sea of Galilee to hear Jesus speak. As evening draws in, disciples suggest that he might want to send the people away, so they can find food.

"They don't need to go away," he responds. Then he takes the five loaves and two fishes the disciples have brought with them and holds them up to the crowd. "See how I share this food out?" he says. "You do the same. There will be enough for everyone."

Around him, people empty their pockets and knapsacks. Between them, it turns out, they have enough food to ensure that no one goes hungry. Standing in the crowd, a man with a tablet and a stylus records this as a miracle.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman is full of such miracles. There are the sick, who feel uplifted by Jesus' presence, and declare themselves cured. There is the steward who, shamed into honesty by Jesus' words, suddenly discovers additional vats of wine. And, finally, there are the late-night graverobbers, leaving behind only a rolled-back stone and an empty tomb.

The book begins with the story of Mary, a child bride who receives a late-night visit from an admirer. Her husband is away, but the young man announces that it is the will of God that she conceive a child that night.

Nine months later, she gives birth to twins: a hearty child called Jesus and a weak, sickly baby she nicknames Christ, meaning "messiah", after an angel prophesises that this will be his role in life.

Jesus is a robust boy, with little regard for rules; Christ clings to his mother's skirts and is thoughtful and well-read. "The children of the town preferred Jesus," Pullman comments.

Jesus grows up to be an itinerant preacher, convinced that the Kingdom of God is nigh. He would never phrase it that way, however: Pullman's prose is stark and spare, and his characters' dialogue deliberately colloquial. "So here you are then: the poor will be blessed," Jesus announces during the Sermon on the Mount.

Pullman has been criticised for taking the poetry out of the Gospels. But Jesus addressed his followers in Aramaic, the vernacular of the time: immediacy and accessibility are a large part of any charismatic preacher's appeal. And, in both cases, the simplicity of delivery is deceptive: it hides complex ideas.

While Jesus continues to preach, Christ is visited by a nameless stranger, who asks him to keep a record of Jesus' deeds. For Christ, who understands that organised religion requires handy miracles, this is the perfect task.

And so he follows Jesus, tablet and stylus in hand, noting everything he sees. His role is not to record history, though; it is to record "truth". "Of writing of things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history," the stranger tells Christ. "You are the word of God."

Where Jesus' teachings are too abstruse, or lacking in necessary miraculousness, Christ makes subtle amendments: not-quite gospel truths are followed by the observation that "Christ ... resolved to improve the story later".

Ultimately, both brothers have crises of faith. Jesus' monologue of doubt, delivered in the garden at Gethsemane, provides one of the most beautiful sections of the book. "I'm part of the world, and I love every grain of sand and blade of grass and drop of blood in it," he declares. "These things are enough to gladden the heart."

The Pullman non-credo of atheism will already be familiar to readers of His Dark Materials. The scene in The Amber Spyglass in which the trapped souls of the dead dissolve into nature is more striking, more elaborately rendered. But Jesus' struggle is no less powerful for its simplicity: Pullman has a gift for creating scenes that make the reader want to put down the book and say "wow".

Christ's crisis, meanwhile, comes more gradually. He begins to realise the danger of organised religion. "Jesus will be distorted and lied about and compromised," he agonises. "But this is the tragedy: without the story, there will be no church, and without the church, Jesus will be forgotten."

Any account of Jesus' life is, inevitably, episodic: there is little scope here for Pullman's extraordinary gift for narrative. But this is a book that remains in the mind days after the final page has been turned. Its Gospel sources require revisiting; its ideas require processing and reflection. The greatest story ever told has come alive anew.

The verdict: 1010.

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