The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman – a review

I’m a big fan of Pullman. I loved the His Dark Materials series, so much so that I found it hard to talk about without getting very excited and jumbling all my words for a year or two after I finished the third book. Pretty sure I’ve written about Pullman here before… oh well, I’m too lazy to find the post and link to it. The long and the short of it is that his less than exalted view of religion finds a very receptive audience in me, so it was with great pleasure that I added his new book (let’s just call it GMJ for the sake of brevity) to my library queue.

The book is a retelling of the story of Jesus Christ, however, with the revision that Jesus and Christ were two different people – twin brothers with decidedly different approaches to the question of what is Good. I found the title to be a bit of a misnomer; I didn’t think Christ was depicted as a scoundrel at all, just someone with good intentions and poor judgement. I wondered as I read GMJ whether Pullman had come up with the title of the book first, then wrote it, realized it didn’t quite match his original vision, but didn’t want to part with such a juicy title. I don’t know that this is so, but I imagine that it might be. Regardless, both Jesus and Christ were surprisingly nuanced and, I thought, sympathetic.
One of my favourite quotes from the book, from the chapter “Jesus In The Garden Of Gesthemene,” page 197: “As soon as men who believe they’re doing God’s will get hold of power, whether it’s in a household or a village or in Jerusalem or in Rome itself, the devil enters into them.” Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely; what power is greater than believing you’re doing the work of God? Doing good in the world requires humility, and is not reconcilable with ostentation or pride.
Apart from the splitting of Jesus into two people, I don’t know how consistent GMJ is with the gospels. I wasn’t raised with any sort of religion, and for better or for worse, most of my knowledge of Jesus comes from pop culture depictions. In fact, if my best friend in high school hadn’t convinced the bus driver on the way back from our senior class trip to play the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack, thus piquing my interest, I don’t know if I’d know much of anything about Jesus. Ha! Take that, religious right! Most of my knowledge of Christianity comes from show tunes, that ever present staple of gay culture.
Overall, I give the book a thumb’s up; it’s not as scandalous as the title suggests, and I think Pullman does a good job of retelling the story and calling into question the more dubious aspects of Christianity (abuse of power, treating followers as sheep, &c.) while keeping the core values of the protagonist(s) intact. But if you really want to have your mind blown by Pullman’s philosophy on religion, do yourself a favour and read the His Dark Materials trilogy.

Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don’t Like Religion (Or Atheism) by Frank Schaeffer – a review

I read this book because my friend Lorna interviewed the author for Chronogram, and he seemed to have interesting insights about the considerable overlap between evangelical religion and what he refers to as the “new atheism” – Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. Unfortunately, although Schaeffer’s ideas are interesting and found a receptive audience in me, he is not a very strong writer. It was a bit of a struggle to get through the book. I do have to give the author credit for penning one very good chapter; he wrote about a mason he knew when he was growing up in Switzerland, someone who almost never spoke but focused intently on his job and always produced superlative work. The only time the author saw this master craftsman rise to anger was when his mother tried to rush him in a job, and he replied, “Non, il faut faire ├ža comme il faut” – “No, this must be done the way it must be done.” This story is compelling to me because this is the way I always hope to work, no matter what the task, and on those rare occasions when I rise to this level of ability, it is sheer bliss to do whatever it is that I am doing. I understand why Schaeffer included the description of this man in his book; work, when done this way, is a form of prayer or meditation. It gives one the experience of connection (or “communion,” if you like) regardless of one’s beliefs or lack thereof.

Schaeffer’s main thesis is that both evangelicals and the “new atheists” are insufferably obsessed with their own rightness, and more importantly, everyone else’s wrongness; thus do they miss the point entirely – that mystery is the fundamental condition of existence. I agree with him, and he supports his thesis well enough, but he does so in the first hundred pages of a 230 page book. The rest is repetitive and/or tangential, much to the detriment of the book. Also, Schaeffer’s anger, though understandable, does not serve him well here.

Jesus Camp

A few nights ago, I watched the most terrifying horror movie ever made. It’s a documentary called Jesus Camp. I felt so bad for the kids in that movie. Their parents, their pastors, their entire culture tells them that the physical world is rife with sin, that physical pleasure is evil. The scene in which the ten year old girl says that dancing for the holy spirit is okay, but dancing for “the flesh” is wrong, is horrifying. How are these kids going to deal with puberty in a few years? Their bodies are going to be giving them signals that their indoctrinated minds refuse to accept, and no one around them is going to have any sympathy. Something’s going to have to give. You can’t internalize that much hatred and fear without doing some serious damage.

I am a big fan of Philip Pullman’s books. Jesus Camp helped me to understand why Evangelical Christians are so afraid of him; his philosophy is completely antithetical to theirs. This is how I summarized Pullman’s message in a recent email: “What the books argue in favour of is existence itself – the here and now. The beauty and the wonder of that which is right in front of us, and within us. The books are distinctly against relying on a superhuman power (whether a god or an unaccountable organization) to dictate morality.” No wonder there was a call to boycott the Golden Compass movie (which stunk out loud, incidentally, but the books are great). Hell, most of the kids in Jesus Camp weren’t even allowed to watch or read Harry Potter, and that’s practically a paean to Christian values.

I try not to get too obsessed with other people’s beliefs. I don’t burden people with my belief system unless they ask, and I expect the same courtesy from them. Worship whatever you want to, just leave me the hell out of it. But when you’re fucking up your kids with your idiotic and dangerous beliefs? That’s not acceptable.

Totally unrelated: my yoga teacher training program runs through June, and I’ve been thinking that as a reward to myself for finishing the program (assuming I finish the program), it’d be nice to go to Prince Edward Island for a week or two, rent a bicycle, and ride from one end of the island to the other. I’ve never been there before, and I’d like to cross it off the list of provinces I have yet to visit. I don’t know if I’m in good enough shape to do that much riding, and I’ve been having knee issues lately, so those are issues I’ll have to address before I decide whether to go. I have this vision in my head of PEI the way it must have been a hundred years ago, when L. M. Montgomery was writing. I know it’s certainly not the same now, but maybe I could still get a sense of the history of the place.

Finally, a wonderful, wonderful passage from Barry Lopez’s new book: “Whatever their styles and emphases, many American poets and novelists have recognized that something emotive abides in the land, and that it can be recognized and evoked even if it cannot be thoroughly plumbed. It is inaccessible to the analytic researcher, invisible to the ironist. To hear the unembodied call of a place, that numinous voice, one has to wait for it to speak through the harmony of its features – the soughing of the wind across it, its upward reach against a clear night sky, its fragrance after a rain. One must wait for the moment when the thing – the hill, the tarn, the lunette, the kiss tank, the caliche flat, the bajada – ceases to be a thing and becomes something that knows we are there.” Those last few words especially are haunting to me. I’ve never read anything else quite so well written about what it feels like and what it means to find oneself merging with a landscape; for the land to become not just something out there, but something to which one is intimately, vitally connected. No longer other. Kindred. Family. I have that sense here, in the Hudson Valley; I have had it in south eastern Ontario as well, where I spent healthy chunks of my youth. I did NOT have it when I lived in Maryland for a few years, and that is a large part of why I never liked it there.

(Note: I pieced together much of this entry from recent emails, which may explain its slightly disjointed character. Guess if I posted more frequently I wouldn’t feel as obligated to cram so much in to a single post.)