I was so excited when I read that Philip Pullman was coming out with The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Even though I’m not a die-hard fan of the His Dark Materials trilogy, I found them thought-provoking and very well written. They contained substance and an edginess that is hard to come by in children’s literature and earned Pullman my respect. As a result, I entered into his new book for adults with high hopes, knowing little about the premise other than its being the Christ story told as if there had been two children born to Mary that night: Jesus and Christ.
Much to my surprise, I came away from GMJ disappointed and wondering why Pullman had bothered writing it at all. It was so uninspired, so lacking in passion. It felt as if I were reading the Cliff Notes of the Gospels with a superfluous character thrown in the text, rather like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies but without the entertainment value. My best guess is that Philip Pullman wanted to demystify the figure of Jesus by showing how his loving presence alone gave people courage to find the strength to stand or would encourage them to share their food as he did, making human goodness the true miracle at work. Yet this not-all-together original notion is written in so casual and indifferent a manner that the end result is blase at best. Pullman’s criticism of formalizing this goodness into an organized religion–the vision of Christ–is similarly uninspired and undermined by using an ethereal “Stranger” to guide Christ in his endeavors to establish a church. Why bother going to the trouble of removing the mysticism traditionally surrounding Jesus if it is just being transferred to the figure of Christ? I continually found myself asking, What is the point?!, and expecting the answer to appear on the next page, or the next. But then I ran out of pages.
In my experience, novels that take on the saga of Jesus Christ are bursting with things to say and at the very least carry a message of lighten up, think for yourself, and love others regardless of how this story came about. Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal and Good Omens by Terry Prachett and Neil Gaiman rank among my favorite books with their irreverent humor and unconventional explanations of biblical history. How then can a man such as Philip Pullman, who caused such a religious stir with his previous works, fall so flat in this instance? At best, GMJ was a half-hearted overview of how myths are created and the role/distortion of truth within them, but his lackadaisical approach did nothing to provoke thought. Pullman didn’t seem to go to much trouble when writing this book; I wouldn’t trouble yourself to read it.