Hope is a long leash
drawn in slowly.
Wendy Cope, After Prague
I came to The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ well disposed to Philip Pullman, and I left with my illusions intact. Pullman tackles the central conundrum of the Christianity: how did the oh-so-radical Jesus leave the oh-so-conservative church as his sole legacy? Pullman’s answer: He didn’t. It was all the fault of his bookish younger brother. Jesus was the radical political rhetorician, Christ was the gullible historian. His point, historically speaking, is this: The son of god and the word of god were different creatures, and the latter was the more corruptible.
As the impostor-angel tells Christ:
We who know must be prepared to make history the handmaiden of posterity and not its governor. What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom [of God: everyone seems certain it’s around the corner, in keeping with other accounts of the period] than what was…. When you look down upon the story as God looks down on time, you will be able to have Jesus foretell to his disciples, as it were in truth, the events to come of which, in history, he was unaware.
If I had a kid (Christ forfend, and Jesus save her) this would be the book I introduce Christianity to her with. All the biblical highlights exist, subtly and seamlessly twisted into new meaning. He envisions a world in which the miraculous and the mundane aren’t distinct; where myth and miracle are reinforcing, and a miracle is only as good as its chronicler. When they discover that they can (sort of) pull them off, the question of miracles begins an intense debate between the brothers. Jesus is of the opinion that ‘conjuring tricks’ can be of no service to spreading God’s message or love. Christ sees in them instrumental value, arguing that people need “signs and wonders”, and, conversely, that miracles are a good way to collect what we would call social capital.
This conversation leads into Christ’s proposed church:
I can see the laws an the proclamations issuing from the centre to the furtherest edges of the world. I can see the good rewarded and the wicked punished. I can see the missionaries going out bearing the word of God to the darkest and the most ignorant lands, and bringing every loving man and woman and child to the great family of God- gentiles as well as Jews. I can see all doubt vanquished, I can see all dissent swept away, I can see the shining faces of the faithful gazing up in adoration on every side.
Jesus is skeptical, as anyone would be after that little soliloquy:
Do you think your mighty organisation would even recognise the Kingdom if it arrived? Fool! The Kingdom of God would arrive at these magnificent palaces and courts like a poor traveller with dust at its feet. The guards would spot him at once, ask for his papers, beat him, throw him out into the street.…
And, later, he remains a prophet, if not quite in the mold Christ intends:
And from time to time, to distract the people from their miseries and fire them with anger against someone else, the governors of this church will declare that such-and-such a nation and such-and-such people is evil and ought to be destroyed, and they’ll gather great armies and set off to kill and burn and loot and rape and plunder, and they’ll raise their standard over the smoking ruins of what was once a fair and prosperous land and declare that God’s kingdom is so much the larger and more magnificent as a result.
A prophet who damns neoplatonism, no less:
I’m not one of those logic-choppers, these fastidious philosophers with their scented Greek rubbish about a pure world of spiritual forms where everything is perfect and which is the only place where the real truth is, unlike this filthy real world which is corrupt and gross and full of untruth and imperfection.
As surely as he systematically destroys the holy cows of christian faith, Pullman is charitable to everyone traditionally considered “evil” in that scripture (save Pontius Pilate, who is perhaps irredeemable): Judas is Christ’s informant, but only because he thinks recording his master’s speeches is worthy work; Nicodemus sees to the crucified body’s internment when none of the apostles can be bothered; even the Sanhedrin who betray Jesus are simply civic authorities caught between Jesus’s radicalism and his popularity.
All through, perhaps paradoxically, I felt far greater affinity to Christ than to Jesus. His motives and jealousy are relatable; his credulity is explained by the great desire I share for a clean-cut world that matches neat legal definitions and well-plotted stories. He is the insecure introvert obsessed of his stylus, who “clings to rules because he fears there is no passion there at all”, the brother who is not bursting with hope for humanity. This could be me, circa whatever BC.
A List for Today
Ten Interesting Facts about Reformation Popes.
- The first Medici pope- Leo X- incensed Martin Luther by his ‘indulgences’.
- The second Medici pope- Clement VII- incensed Henry VIII by his intransigence when it came to the question of divorce.
- He was killed by a “death-cap mushroom”. Post-burial, his body was exhumed, stripped of all valuables, and dragged across Rome.
- Clement’s successor- Paul III, was a Roman mobster who spent his papacy securing fortunes for his children.
- He authorised slavery in the papal states: he issued the famous Bull which legalised the slave trade and repealed the ancient Roman law which provided slaves some right to sue for their freedom.
- His successor, the allegedly gay Julius III, devoted his career to pushing through the Tridentine formulae, which were to change the face of Catholicism indelibly.
- With Marcellus II, the next pope, died the last hope of a truly reformed Catholic church. The accession of the hardline Bishop Carafa as Paul IV saw the imposition of the Spanish inquisition on the papal states, the creation of the jewish ghetto in Rome, and the stamping out of the mystical Spirituali. This was a pope who turned on his own folk, persecuting Reginald Pole (who oversaw the Marian reconstruction in England) and cutting off Michelangelo’s pension.
- Pius IV, next in line, was yet another Medici, but not consequential enough to be called a “Medici pope”. His successor Pius V nailed in Mary Stewart’s coffin by excommunicating Elizabeth I.
- Gregory XIII, post Pius, instituted the Gregorian calendar and sealed in the Tridentine counter-reformation. Popes named Gregory have proved good for the church- it was one so called who instituted “Christendom” in the 12th century by seizing upon a chaotic political situation, and it was “Gregory the Great” back in the 6th century that united a schismatic church under the banner of strict trinitarianism.
- There have been no popes named after any of the apostles, though there have been no dearth of Pauls. Odd, innit, in a religion with such a complex relationship to its conversos? (In this context, I mean catholicism when I say religion. Protestantism, evangelical from the get-go, has reconciled such stress with less dithering).