Writer’s Wednesday: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman
I first read this book at the beginning of last year (2011), when I had just left organized religion altogether. I found this book absolutely delightful, but I think (some) Christians might find it offensive. However, I think it’s though-provoking, inspirational and eye-opening.
Christ came a little closer.‘But that’s exactly what we can demonstrate with miracles,’ he said. ‘And the Kingdom is a test for us, I’m sure: we must help to bring it about. Of course, God could lift a finger and it would happen at once. But think how much better it would be if the way were prepared by men like the Baptist, men like you – think of the advantages if there were a body of believers, a structure, an organization already in place. I can see it so clearly, Jesus! I can see the whole world united in this Kingdom of the faithful – think of that! Groups of families worshipping together with a priest in every village and town, an association of local groups under the direction and guidance of a wise elder in the region, the regional leaders all answering to the authority of one supreme director, a kind of regent of God on earth! And there would be councils of learned men to discuss and agree on the details of ritual worship, and even more importantly, to rule on the intricacies of faith, to declare what was to be believed and what was to be shunned. …
‘Sometimes there is a danger that people might misinterpret the words of a popular speaker. The statements need to be edited, the meanings clarified, the complexities unravelled for the simple-of-understanding. …
But there is more, and this is not for everyone to know: in writing about what has gone past, we help to shape what will come. There are dark days approaching, turbulent times; if the way of the Kingdom of God is to be opened, we who know must be prepared to make history the handmaid of posterity and not its governor. What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom than what was. I am sure you understand me?’
There were some sayings, though, that he could neither leave out nor alter, because they caused such a stir among the disciples and among the crowds that came to listen wherever Jesus went. Everyone knew what he had said, and many people talked about his words; it would be noticed if they were not in the record.
‘No,’ said Christ. ‘There are some who live by every rule and cling tightly to their rectitude because they fear being swept away by a tempest of passion, and there are others who cling to the rules because they fear that there is no passion there at all, and that if they let go they would simply remain where they are, foolish and unmoved; and they could bear that least of all. Living a life of iron control lets them pretend to themselves that only by the mightiest of effort of will can they hold great passions at bay. I am one of those. I know it, and I can do nothing about it.’
‘Then think of an orphan child, lost and cold and starving. Think of a sick man, racked with pain and fear. Think of a dying woman terrified by the coming darkness. There will be hands reaching out to comfort them and feed them and warm them, there will be voices of kindness and reassurance, there will be soft beds and sweet hymns and consolation and joy. All those kindly hands and sweet voices will do their work so willingly because they know that one man died and rose again, and that this truth is enough to cancel out all the evil in the world.’‘Even if it never happened.’The angel said nothing.
‘Why do they do that? Who are they?’‘I don’t know who they are. They do it because … I don’t know why they do it. Maybe they’re just good.’‘Don’t be stupid,’ said another voice in the darkness. ‘No one’s good. It’s not natural to be good. THey do it so’s other people will think more highly of them. They wouldn’t do it otherwise.’‘You don’t know nothing,’ said a third voice from under the colonnade. ‘People can earn high opinions in quicker ways than doing good. They do it because they’re frightened.’‘Frightened of what?’ said the second voice.‘Frightened of hell, you blind fool. They think they can buy their way out of it by doing good.’‘Doesn’t matter why they do it,’ said the lame man, ‘as long as they do it. Anyway, some people are just good.’
I can imagine some philosophical smartarse of a priest in years to come pulling the wool over his poor followers’ eyes: “God’s great absence is, of course, the very sign of his presence”, or some such drivel. The people will hear his words, and think how clever he is to say such things, and they’ll try and believe it; and they’ll go home puzzled and hungry, because it makes no sense at all. That priest is worse than the fool in the psalm, who at least is an honest man. When the fool prays to you and gets no answer, he decides that God’s great absence means he’s not bloody well there.
Martha, I’m tormented; everything he says is true, and yet I feel sick when I think of it. The body of the faithful, the church, as he calls it, will do every kind of good, I hope so, I believe so, I must believe so, and yet I fear it’ll do terrible things as well in its zeal and selfrighteousness… Under its authority, Jesus will be distorted and lied about and compromised and betrayed over and over again. A body of the faithful? It was a body of the faithful that decided for a dozen good reasons to hand him over to the Romans. And here am I, my hands red with blood and shame and wet with tears, longing to begin telling the story of Jesus, and not just for the sake of making a record of what happened: I want to play with it; I want to give it a better shape; I want to knot the details together neatly to make patterns and show correspondences, and if they weren’t there in life, I want to put them there in the story, for no other reason than to make a better story. The stranger would have called it letting truth into history. Jesus would have called it lying. He wanted perfection; he asked too much of people… But this is the tragedy: without the story, there will be no church, and without the church, Jesus will be forgotten… Oh, Martha, I don’t know what I should do.’