Philip Pullman describes his recent book about Jesus as a ‘story’ but Mark Stevens argues that even when judged
as story not theology, it still fails to be plausible
esus promised the Kingdom of God and what we got was the Catholic Church.’ So runs the
rather jokey summary of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century biblical scholarship. And I suppose it is true: that all the questers for the ‘Historical Jesus’, from Renan to Crossan, though they may have differed about much else, have been agreed that Jesus did not envisage the foundation of a Church. Enlightenment hatred of the institution, together with a preconceived and somewhat Romantic notion of what John Dominic Crossan calls ‘the life of a Mediterranean Jewish peasant’, ruled out the possibility.
Now comes Philip Pullman (a cracking good story-teller) with his own version of the old refrain. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ has a fundamentalist-teasing title, and an intriguingly new storyline. Rowan Williams, apparently, was partly instrumental in its writing. An admirer of Pullman’s series His Dark Materials, he challenged him to do with Jesus what he had done with God. So we had better take The Good Man Jesus with appropriate seriousness! And I do.
Reviewers in the quality dailies (including – how did you guess? – our own favourite episcopal unbeliever, Dick Holloway) have tended to focus on Pullman’s theology. That I think is rather unkind, and in any case misses the point. ‘This is a Story’ shouts the slogan on the back cover; and it is as a story that it must be judged.
The plot can be quickly summarized. After the usual biblical and apocryphal preliminaries Mary gives birth in the stable to twins: a bouncing boy whom she calls Jesus and a weakling whom she nicknames ‘Christ’. She does so because the traditional visitors (shepherds and magi) insist that the sickly child in the manger, and not the robust child in her arms, is the Messiah they have come to seek. It is a classic case of mistaken identity; or is it?
The two boys grow up, Jesus as a popular village ruffian, Christ as a mother’s boy – the one daring, unconventional, outgoing; the other introspective, obedient, stay-at-home. As it turns out, the prognostications of the shepherds and astrologers were wrong. It is Jesus who takes on the Messianic role and Christ who follows him at a distance, the devoted chronicler of his every word and action. But, at length, into Christ’s life comes a mysterious stranger, who commends his diligence and asks to see the record he is making. ‘Jesus is only a man, but you are the word of God’. It is all a question, he says, of Truth and History. ‘What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom than what was. I am sure you understand me.’
Remorseful but purposeful
Christ knows nothing of the stranger’s origin or purpose, but he is slowly drawn into a cunning scheme which results in his selling his brother to the Jewish authorities, and betraying him in the Garden with a kiss. He is remorseful but now purposeful; in another garden he assumes the identity of a supposedly risen Jesus, and in a series of appearances persuades the disciples that a miracle has taken place. Christ has, in his own (or the stranger’s?) way, vindicated his brother and initiated the history of Christianity, the Church of the ages, which bestows on them both, as ‘Jesus-Christ’, the immortality the stranger promised.
Pullman’s narrative has some delicious moments. My favourite is Christ’s reaction to the parable of the prodigal son, which is far too close to the Nazareth home for comfort! And there is a purple passage by the pool of Bethesda, which has an important role in the final denouement. But is this, in the end, a good story? Is it emotionally persuasive, with that rounded inevitability that good stories must have?
I hardly think so. The extended prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane (which the gospel writers wisely give us in terse summary) is here the lengthy expostulationofafirst-centuryRichard Dawkins. It is neither psychologically nor historically plausible. How could a man whose promise is the immanence of the Kingdom of God, and who is going to almost certain death for its proclamation, be entertaining the carefully orchestrated doubts of an intellectual couch-potato? Despair, yes; fear, yes. But the author of those pithy parables of the Kingdom could not begin to express himself at such exhaustive length.
A shadowy conspirator
And then there is the philosophizing about Truth and History. In the end, we are led to suppose that Christ does not really understand: he is, in part at least, an actor in innocence and in ignorance. And who is the Stranger? Some of the critics, to show off their right-on theological credentials, have supposed him to be St Paul (who, as everybody who is anybody now knows, was responsible for burying the vibrant message of the historical Jesus and inventing the repressive doctrines of the Church).
But the Stranger is not Paul, nor any historical person. He is that most useful of characters, a narrative convention. He exists to push on a plot which would be threadbare and incredible without him. He is the necessary string which ties together the gospel story, when its essential meaning and purpose has been excised from it. But, paradoxically, he vindicates the integrity of the evangelists: if you cannot believe (as they clearly did) that Jesus intended a Church, you need a shadowy conspirator to sew the whole thing together. ND