A sweet little note from my alma mater.
Philip Pullman’s provocatively titled The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is but one member of a collection of books known as The Myths Series. According to the blurb at the back of the book, this compilation “brings together some of the world’s finest writers, each of whom has retold a myth in a contemporary and memorable way.” Pullman is the author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, which includes Northern Lights, also known as The Golden Compass or the atheist rebuttal to The Chronicles of Narnia. I’m not sure whether this qualifies him as a card-carrying member of the World’s Finest Writers Club; but if The New York Times can laud John Grisham as “about as good a storyteller as we’ve got in the United States these days,” I suppose it is only fair for Pullman to have his moment in the sun too.
Of course, he earns his adulation a bit differently than the author of legal thrillers. Where Grisham imbues his characters with deeply held notions, often religiously invoked, of justice and individual responsibility, Pullman veers instead towards iconoclasm, tolerating Jesus the human while lamenting the Christianity he spawned. If you’re looking for groundbreaking material, you’ve come to the wrong place; this idea has been raised countless times before, not least of all in the thought-provoking (if a bit repetitive) biography Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road, by the estimable clergyman Paul-Gordon Chandler.
It is admittedly a bit rarer to find this emotional juxtaposition expressed in such unabashedly heretical terms. Jesus and Christ as twin brothers? In Pullman’s deftly weaved universe, the former was a natural-born rebel from childhood, “getting into mischief, stealing fruit, shouting out rude names and running away, picking fights, throwing stones, daubing mud on house walls, [and] catching sparrows;” Christ, meanwhile, “clung to his mother’s skirts and spent hours in reading and prayer.”
As he approaches adulthood, Pullman’s Jesus gradually takes the comforting form familiar to Sunday school conceptualizations. However, Christ, who — at the urging of a mysterious Greek stranger — takes on the thankless role of Jesus’ stenographer, soon finds some aspects of Christ’s teachings troubling and others pedestrian. To remedy the first ailment, Christ resorts to historical revisionism, heeding the Orwellian words of his Greek mentor: “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.”
The second problem was a bit thornier. Recognizing the value of organization, Christ attempts to persuade his brother to embrace something resembling a formal movement. Jesus rebuffs him, however, preferring his spontaneous charisma to what he perceives as the stolidity of an intellectual bureaucracy. Fortuitously, the approval of Christ’s enigmatic tutor allows for a bit of creative license. Thus, when Jesus scolds Peter for his belief in him as the Messiah, Christ writes instead that “Jesus had praised [Peter] for seeing something that only his Father in heaven could have revealed, and that he had gone on to make a pun on Peter’s name, saying that he was the rock on which Jesus would build his church.” (The Catholic Church should be duly horrified.)
As Christopher Hitchens notes in his review in The New York Times, Pullman is attempting to make explicit the divorce of Christianity from its roots. But the end result reads a bit like tracing the cause of a marital infidelity back to the couple’s lack of a Foreman grill. Christ, at times, substitutes for the devil, a journalist, and, weirdly, Judas Iscariot; in none of these roles does he truly take on any symbolic meaning. Philip Pullman has found and refashioned his myth of choice, with the primary corollary of further clouding Christ’s position within an already complex historical tradition.
As someone quite familiar with American evangelical culture — encompassing a smattering of endearing qualities and a host of ugly ones — I had already formed some preconceived notions before embarking on my latest read, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. The book chronicles the journey of Kevin Roose, the youthful author and aspiring guerrilla journalist, as he transitions into a semester at Liberty University, the late Reverend Jerry Falwell’s brainchild and a “conservative Christian utopia,” from an undergraduate program at Brown University (“a notch or two above Sodom and Gomorrah”). Warily, I predicted that Roose’s reflections would fit neatly into one of two know-thy-enemy categories. Either he would feign empathy with his new classmates and faculty while cloaking all observations in a thinly veiled stream of sarcasm and condescension, or he would overly humanize them, anthropologist-style, like one might see in a probing wildebeest documentary on the Discovery Channel. Even the cover art and various other promotional photographs — the author in a Liberty University t-shirt with Falwell’s books scattered around, sitting alone in a large grassy area directly in front of a spotless white church, etc. — hinted strongly at satire.
In the end — spoiler alert — neither prediction was entirely accurate. Roose’s memoir lacked a fatal flaw; perhaps his greatest sin was engaging in a bit of self-indulgent melodrama, but — and unlike the denizens of Sodom and Gomorrah — his iniquities are easily forgivable. In fact, if Roose weren’t so unnervingly honest in his evaluations of both the school and his own shifting perspectives, his brief jabs of alarmism could easily come off as irony. True, he has a slightly grating tendency to close chapters with sentences like “All semester, I’ve been worried about getting in over my head at Liberty, but what if it’s too late?” And true, it is these passages that ring the least authentically — a lifelong secular student from an Ivy League school stands on the precipice of conversion while studying at the epicenter of American religious anti-intellectualism? — but it seems that Roose nevertheless wrote them out of a sincere desire to express his rapidly expanding gray areas.
On the other hand, the author’s continuing revulsion with the institutionalized homophobia that he finds at Liberty provides a periodic gut check, both for himself and his readers, against growing too comfortable with the notion of right-wing fundamentalism as warm and fuzzy. This book is thus potent because it illustrates the fragile disconnect between abstract disgust and visceral, well, something approaching fraternité. No, it is not a call to ecumenism. It is also not primarily a repudiation of some of the more disturbing facets of the evangelical lifestyle or, more specifically, of Falwell’s most appalling public statements. What this book undoubtedly is, however, is a gentle nudge away from demonization and towards, if not empathy, at least toleration. And although conservative Christian readers may be unlikely to agree, Roose’s message applies to their anachronistic edicts on the “outside world” as much as it does to the ill-informed heathens who mock them.