Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Good Man Pullman

Jesus's last name was not Christ.
You would not have found in zero-century Nazareth a mailbox labelled Joseph and Mary Christ.
The word "Christ" is a title [meaning "Messiah"] once attributed to a man by the name of Jesus.
And the story of his life and death and re-life is, arguably, the most influential story ever told. Above all though, it is important to understand that it is a STORY.
As subject to interpretation and well…. subjectivity as is the appellation "Christ" itself! Philip Pullman's latest foray into fundamentalist-infested waters is entitled The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.
He nabs you by the gasp-valve with the opening sentence -- This is the story of Jesus and his brother Christ, of how they were born, of how they lived and of how one of them died.
That's right folks, Mary gives birth to twins one Christmas morning. Go figure.

The first lad is healthy and robust [this is Jesus] and the other is weak and sickly [Christ].
When the shepherds arrive [<-- we've all seen the Hallmark images] it is this second child that is discovered in the feeding trough, all swaddled up according to prophecy. Trust Pullman to thrust such a whimsical stick into the spokes of a bike that's been riding quite well for two millennia!
But there is a point. There is method in this madness.

As the boys mature, Jesus becomes the well-spoken preacher/teacher you would expect him to be. Crowds gather to hear his oratory. Multitudes are healed and fed, albeit due to "miracles" that have more earthly origins than in the biblical account.
And Christ becomes Jesus's greatest follower. This younger brother shadows Jesus's every movement -- becoming a hidden documentarist. Realizing that what is happening could have potential importance beyond the temporal, he gives himself fully to this role of clandestine amanuensis.
Then he meets a Stranger [angel -- demon? Only Dan Brown knows for sure]… who not only confirms Christ's "passion" [if you will], but enlightens him as to the true nature of his mission.
In what for me is one of the key passages in the book, the Stranger says, "There is time, and there is what is beyond time. History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history. You are the word of God."
The reader [of Pullman's book] begins to unravel the importance of understanding the difference between what happened
and what has been written about what has or has not happened.
What an immense gulf exists between these two things. By way of analogy [or maybe comparison is a better word]… think of the amount of legend [myth?] that might accrue between an "event" like the parting of the Red Sea, when one realizes that the account one is reading was written five centuries after the event it describes. [Which, by the way, is the case, with the Exodus account.] So subjective. The waters parting.
Yes, amen. How wonderful, even!
As in, great story for the Jews -- yes. NOT so good for Egyptians though! Never mind the less culpable horses!

A similar scenario is possible with the Gospels, which we know were written several decades after the events they describe. And [not to get too theological here] but when one compares the first written Gospel [Mark] with the last one [John] a definite progression is apparent. We see a relatively undeveloped Christology in Mark and arrive at the opening of John, which declares [talk about your gasp-valve first sentences] that Jesus is all of a sudden GOD!
Was existent, equal with the Creator, even before being earthly born!
Mark somehow missed this passing tidbit of trivia.
And prior to any of the Gospels being written, we have the books of Paul. It is no longer even debated by anyone worth their matzoh-balls that the writings of Paul influenced what is found in the Gospels.
And the reverse evidence of story-doctoring can be seen. For instance, Paul never ever mentions the "virgin" aspect of the birth of Jesus, yet the Gospels [written later]… do.
If this were an actual event, would Paul not have written of it, having preceded them? Would he have left such a barn-burner story for the Gospel writers to scoop?
would have been more on the ball!

Back to this Pullman book -- it is a work of genius. Because in a non-offensive way [at least I think it is subtle and respectful] he is able to effectively emphasize that what we have in the Gospels is a subjective RENDERING of events that have very little need to be literalized in order to be significant.
As the back of this book's dust jacket says, THIS IS a STORY.

<-- It is one of the few books I can say has a more important backside than frontside!
I love how the author puts it: ''The story I tell comes out of the tension within the dual nature of Jesus Christ, but what I do with it is my responsibility alone. Parts of it read like a novel, parts like a history, and parts like a fairy tale; I wanted it to be like that because it is, among other things, a story about how stories become stories.''
How stories become stories.
Here is the thing to take away from this book….
No matter what it is you believe about the man Jesus, you need to understand that what was said of him subsequent to his untimely demise was:
a) written by a fallible human being.
b) written commensurate with all of the inaccuracies and embellishments prone to the above-mentioned species of vertebrate.
c) written decades after the very events and/or non-events they describe.
d) edited and redacted by even MORE infallible human beings…. because as time marches on there is only one thing that grows in direct proportion to distance, and that is the increasingly invalid reasons to be infallible.

None of what we read in the "sacred" text of either Old or New Testaments was written while watching videotaped evidence of a previous day's occurrences.
No need to pick only on Christianity.
The same thing applies to all religions based on myth.
That is why the Canongate series has thrown the net far beyond Christianity.
But here in The Good Man Pullman it has caught a big fish, with a bright flashy coin in its mouth.
Then --> GET IT!
Or… vice versa.



Beth said...

Wonderful review of what seems to be a fascinating book.
And I love your own “teachings” – as well as your numerous humorous asides. (They cracked me up.)
Did you (have you) ever considered being a teacher?

Stefanie said...

I really want to read this book. I just heard about it for the first time last week and then when I noticed in your sidebar that you were reading it I have been looking forward to your thoughts on it ever since. So thanks for such an interesting post. I am now looking forward to reading the book even more than I was before.

Isabella K said...

I am so looking forward to reading this!!!

Erin in Boston said...

Yeah, I never quite bought the whole "inspired by God" thing. I mean how did the writers know at the time that these were the words of God and not their own thoughts, to edit or change as they wished? Did God mentally head slap them to get their attention and say "Listen up and write this down!"

Melwyk said...

This is the first review of this book I've read that made me think "I have GOT to go and get this one, now". Thanks again!

John Self said...

Great to read your enthusiastic review of this book. I have a copy but it's been languishing way down the TBR pile, so I think I will move it up to the top in light of your comments!