About a few months my public library started a new program called “Lucky Day !” in which the library prominently displays a dozen or so in demand titles for people to easily find and check out. To help keep things equitable, patrons are limited to just two such items at any time and unlike other library materials these special books cannot be renewed. To me this looks like a great way to not just promote reading but to make it easier for individuals to access popular and quality titles. Thanks to this program I was recently introduced to Deborah Blum’s terrific book The Poisoner’s Handbook. The latest book I’ve discovered thanks to this helpful promotional program is Philip Pullman’s 2010 novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. After burning through it in only a few days I’m very pleased to say that just like with The Poisoner’s Handbook, I’m quite indebted to my public library for giving me the opportunity to read a terrific book. I thoroughly enjoyed Pullman’s novel.
Pullman, the author the popular His Dark Materials trilogy as well as a prominent atheist, has taken the traditional story of Jesus and turned it on its head. Just as Nikos Kazantzakis did with his classic novel The Last Temptation of Christ, and writer/director Denys Arcand did with his 1989 French-Canadian film Jesus of Montreal, Pullman retells the biblical story of Jesus in a more materialist and less supernatural light. In addressing the paradoxical nature of Christ’s human and divine beings, Pullman literally splits Jesus Christ into two separate characters by having a pair of fraternal twins born to a young Mary. Christ, spiritually minded, scholarly and obedient contrasts heavily with his rough and tumble, earthy and somewhat rebellious brother Jesus. After the brothers are baptised by John the Baptist, Jesus soon embarks on his ministry of proclaiming love, righteousness and the coming of the Kingdom of God while his brother Christ is content to just hang in the background and record his brother’s words and deeds. Of course, eventually this grabs the attention of not only the religious authorities but more importantly that of a shadowy and mysterious stranger who secretly approaches Christ and with smooth and skillful manipulation enlists his help to turn brother’s ministry from a local Jewish renewal movement into the birth of an entirely new faith based on previously non-existent supernatural overtones that will produce an all-consuming and dominant religion we know today as Christianity.
Not surprisingly, coming from an atheist like Pullman the story is devoid of a loving God or any theistic elements. But, despite what many religious conservatives would deem its somewhat blasphemous tone, I could nevertheless detect an almost spiritual quality judging by the novel’s subtext regarding truth and human dignity. Whatever issues people might have of his religious opinions, his writing is excellent; once I started his book I could barely put it down. To me it’s a terrific novel and one of the best books I’ve read this year. I highly recommend it.