Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

My rating: 2/5

Here’s the story: Mary has twins — Jesus, a religious weirdo, and Christ, the politician. Encouraged by a mysterious stranger, Christ makes plans to turn Jesus’ provincial message in to a world religion.

I sort of wanted to like this book, if only so I could resist the holy religious outrage which often accompanies anything written by the pop atheists nowadays. Religions would most of the time be better off confronting the abuses of faith that are pilloried by people such as Pullman, rather than pretending they don’t exist.

Of course, this assumes that said pillories have merit. Alas for Angry Atheism, Pullman’s retelling of the Jesus story lacks the bite necessary to be taken seriously as a grown up indictment of Christianity, although I’m sure some less discerning readers will salivate over the audacity of suggesting Jesus was not the Son of God. Lo! The Prophet Pullman!

But no, in Good Man, Christ’s visions of a powerful (abusive) Church are a clumsy caricature, and his twin, the “good man” Jesus, is a pastiche of hippy love and post-modern doubt. It’s even theologically naive: in a radio interview, Pullman wished us to believe that Christ’s divinity was some late concoction, forged perhaps by St. Paul, whereas the “true” Jesus can be found in Mark. This forgets, of course, that the Pauline epistles predate Mark by some way.

The book is not without some merit. Pullman has ably captured the bare style of mythic narrative — you could almost imagine the story being found among some gnostic gospels — and pulls you speedily along towards the tragic denouement. No prizes for guessing which son of Mary lives.


My review of The Golden Compass.


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  1. I’ve heard some of the buzz surrounding this book and was happy to see a review here. Thanks for the detached and balanced review, RJH, especially since you sort of wanted to like the book.

    P.S. I love to see reviews at BCC. A great feature. Thanks.

  2. I heard Pullman in an interview on NPR this last week, talking about the book. I respect art that challenges our thinking, but Pullman comes off as someone better ignored than directly engaged. I find him typical of a large class of writers that forget they are telling a story, because they have “Something More Important” to say. As a result, they often can’t stop from clubbing you over the head with the Important Meaning, and forget that usually the best fiction with the most impact comes from writers that let the story tell itself, and trust in the story that they are telling.

    Too bad we also see this in some LDS fiction, as well. Thanks for the review; I’ll likely just skip reading this now.

  3. CS Eric says:


    That is exactly my problem with Pullmlan, too. He has all the makings of a good writer, but he often seems more interested in making a point than in telling his stories.

    Thanks, Ronan, for the review.

  4. He writes excellent stories when he isn’t trying to make a particular point. Also when he is (His Dark Materials is, at least, 2 & 1/2 good books).

  5. I echo what comments 2, 3, and 4 have said (though I’d change John C’s “2 & 1/2” to “1 & 1/2”), about the mission getting in the way of the excellent storytelling. I have tired enough of it from Pullman that I’m unlikely to give this one a fair chance unless I find a free copy somewhere.

  6. I read it. I found both the Jesus and Christ characters more nuanced then you describe. The mysterious stranger reminded me of a similar character in Card’s Alvin Maker series. I wouldn’t characterize the book as a indictment of Christianity. I’d call it a historical-metaphorical recasting of Gospel narratives. It was definitely spare, as you say. He’s got some material from the “Infancy Gospel of James” in there which leads me to believe it is better researched than it appears. As far as I can tell, if it is theologically naive, it is so only as informed by recent Jesus scholarship. The premise of twin sons seems to be Pullman’s driving narrative innovation. In sum, I’d give it a more positive review than you did, but I think I’d wait for a library or a used copy, rather than springing for a new hardcover, if I had it do over.

  7. Norbert says:

    Thanks for the review. BBC’s Start the Week had an interview with Pullman and the Archbishop of Canterbury for Easter week:
    I was planning to do a post about it, but, well, you know…

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