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on 9 April 2010
I'm disappointed that so many people here have got stuck arguing about whether this is `blasphemous' or not. I'm a Christian and I think this is one of the best books I've read in a very long time. Pullman, whatever his own beliefs, knows his bible (Including the apocrypha) extremely well and has written what I think is an extremely clever story. Many people know how the story ultimately ends; with the death of Jesus on the cross and claims of his resurrection, but along the way Pullman retells some of the most profound stories of our Christian life in an enlightening, and I would even say, a revelatory, way.

The book is a quick read, with short chapters detailing particular bible events. But readers should not think that a quick read makes it a "light" read. There is much to ponder in the writing. The book invokes questions about how history and story are interlinked as well as considering the difficulty of discerning truth from history. That truth can be discovered in story is self evident in the reading of this story.

I don't think this is an anti-Christian book; although it is, very definitely, an anti-church book; but Christianity and the church are two different things. Pullman's description, spoken through the mouth of Jesus in this book, of what the church is and what the church should be, is one of the most finely tuned expose of where we (Christians) have gone wrong.
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on 15 December 2010
Easy to read as well as thought-provoking. Just as 'The Life of Brian' was not an attack on Jesus but a parody of the way some have chosen to follow him, this story likewise gives a positive and realistic view of the man Jesus. Using the fictional alter-ego and twin Christ, Pullman represents his view of where the Christian church has missed the point. The message that Jesus is sharing (such as that of the sermon of the mount) seems accurate and real. The miracles are not so much explained as downplayed by both Jesus and Christ leaving it to the reader to decide whether they were in fact miraculous or just seen that way. The idea that an fully structured global church was a concept from the start (by Christ) and in fact refuted by Jesus (here a slant on the temptation of Jesus after the 40 days is revealing) is putting the cart before the horse perhaps but allows the story to be told during the timeframe of Jesus's life. Just as in the Python movie this story should give pause for thought to Christians and understanding to non-Christians. Following Jesus should be seen as a dignified and noble way of life but doing what a church says blindly without thought should be challenged.
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on 3 December 2010
I've read a number of retellings of the central Christian story recently: C K Stead wrote a fascinating and surprisingly faithful (irony intended) secular retelling from the eyes of Judas Hiscariot; I was fortunate enough to attend a performance of the famous, once-in-a-decade Oberammergau Passion Play in Bavaria, and now I've stumbled over the famously atheist Philip Pullman's take - which involves a fair bit more licence than Stead's but is otherwise of a similar demystifying disposition: rationalising miracles into ordinary materialistic phenomena, and rebasing Jesus from mystic to idealistic, but nonetheless political, historical figure.

Pullman's licence is to pull Jesus Christ apart into two figures: Jesus (an idealist if naive populist) and Christ, his twin, a more introverted, but more intelligent, dark inversion.

Curiously, the Passion Play - which is entirely reverend to orthodox Christian doctrine in a way that Stead's and Pullman's works are not - also de-emphasises the spiritual in favour of the political machinations of the Sanhedrin and the political dimension of Christ's mission. All three, in some way, accordingly miss what's so special and clever about the passion. But we live in rational times - or so we like our chroniclers to tell us.

All three also bring the character of Judas into sharp relief: Stead and Oberammergau by his prominence, Pullman by his notable absence.

The thing is, unless read purely as a pantomime villain, Judas is the not only the central driver of the passion's narrative, but also the most interesting and recognisably human character of the lot: he means well, but is naivety/stupidity/vanity/self importance (delete as applicable) lets him down. His is the character arc which gives us lessons: if this were a Shakespearian Tragedy he would be the lead: a complex, brooding anti-hero in the vein of Macbeth. Jesus, by contrast, is a rather cardboard cut-out good guy not unlike the fated Duncan: At key points in the drama, Christ remains passive and stays pointedly silent. By contrast Judas agonises, soliloquises, and, for better or ill, acts.

While Judas is not represented by name here, his actions are, and it is telling how Pullman has re-designed the whole myth to accommodate them (it would spoil it to say more: you'll have to read the book to see what I mean). Much of Pullman's industry is to illustrate that there is no such thing as truth other than the compelling story contextualised and carved out of events which, in their unfinished natural state, don't have a moral or didactic dimension. Jesus provides the unshaped events, Christ the chronicle. Christ is, by turns, appalled by and drawn to the power he derives from his narrative talent.

This brief book is written stylishly and evenly in Pullman's curt and economical prose. He might seem a controversial choice to retell this particular story, yet despite his inventions Philip Pullman generally does not let his atheism get in the way of the thrust of Jesus' central message. Indeed, as a storyteller of the first order, you wonder whether he doesn't see a little of the tragic scoundrel Christ in himself.

If you like this, try C.K. Stead: My Name Was Judas

Olly Buxton
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on 5 June 2010
The writing was very simple, in a brief Hemmingway or Cormack Macarthy style. The book has been padded to appear more substantial but it is a fascinating read for Christisan and non-christians.
When my Vicar said to the congregation after reading the nativity passages that we believe because we have faith i really felt come on, it's the fact that we believe without question that everyone else thinks we are fools.

This book examines an alternative, not as a way of debunking Christs teachings but of examining how man and the Church that followed can examine things how they have a vested interest in adding fat to the thin story and how clearly there appears other motives at hand that turned the teachings of Christ into the church that we know today. In the STORY, Jesus is a good man, who we know christ to be and who in every way should be followed as a teacher and Prophet, but the Christ we have now is divine because he has to be in order for us to continue our belief.

I do not believe in the divinity and i do not go to church anymore. I believe in Jesus, his teachings and the fallability of man.

I was saddened when Jesus was portrayed as a man even though this is what i believe. Because it is like how you confront a bully and make them humble, you are saddened that you have had to break a person and you pity them. But i am lifted by the fact that the teachings alone are truthful, even if they have become distorted with time or by time. Because i like philosophy, i like the power of the human spirit but i also like the power of the church as a collective force for good. When it behaves, as Pullman hypothesises here, as a force of selfinterest, power and politics then i also despair.

And Blasphemy is not when you question the word it is when you curse god. If god, jesus, mohammed wanted us to be blind followers without question you have to question whether you want that type of god.
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on 29 November 2010
I very much enjoyed Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy and his other books aimed at younger readers, and was looking forward to reading this. I wasn't disappointed, though clearly this is a very different proposition.

Most readers will be acquainted with the story of Jesus, or a version of it, though perhaps not many have read the gospels recently themselves. Pullman is clearly very familiar with his source material, and the subtle (and occasionally not-so-subtle) twists he applies to the 'real' stories are delightful and eyebrow-raising in equal measure. It certainly made me want to reach for the nearest Bible and re-read the original.

It's a short read, but there is a lot packed in here - as well as questioning the basis of the religion which has dominated the western world for a couple of millennia, there are discussions about truth and history and the difference between them, and it shows how easily a good person's actions and words can be turned inside out and upside down in the service of greed and power.

I would definitely recommend that you read this book - it won't take you long, but it will probably stay with you a fair bit longer.
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on 24 December 2010
TGMJATSC is essentially a re-telling of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew (there's bit of Luke: no John) i.e. the Jesus story. The miracle of the clay sparrows is also included, showing that Pullman is at least passingly familiar with the apocrypha. The significant point of difference is that Jesus now has a twin brother called `Christ'. The Jesus character is familiar: an itinerant preacher held in suspicion by both the Romans and Jewish elders. Christ is his less-gifted but loving brother who follows Jesus, secretly writing down his teachings so that others may learn about Jesus' ideas. (The lit. theory dorks amongst you might call this an inter-textual narrative: as the story that Christ is writing on his journey is supposedly the exact one you're now reading centuries later).

Poor Christ is soon corrupted by a mysterious stranger (whose identity is never revealed; possible contenders include: the Devil, a Sanhedrin elder, a Roman spy or even an angel) who insists that in order for Jesus' teachings to flourish, Jesus must die. Christ unwittingly fulfils the role of Judas, betraying his brother so that Jesus' word will become immortal. Pullman stringently plays-down the supernatural aspects of the story: and so instead of Jesus rising from the dead, Christ pretends to be his brother risen: creating a doppelganger scenario that explains the resurrection without any supernatural or divine impetus. It's the Jesus story mythologized for a secular audience.

The real controversy lies behind Christ's motivations: the `mysterious stranger' convinces Christ that everyday folk are too stupid to make moral decisions or to be their own masters: only an all-powerful church can be responsible. So, if anything, TGMJATSC is a dig at the precepts of organised religion, rather than the spiritual nature of religion itself. A firm criticism of the church as establishment is about as contentious as this book gets. Aside from a re-imagining of some of Jesus' miracles, Pullman makes no attempt to destroy the foundations of religion with scientific determinism; which is refreshing, coming as this book does from a writer famous for his atheism.

Jesus' message of love and humility remains completely intact, and Pullman's own telling of the Sermon on the Mount is especially striking for its faithfulness to the original. Jesus is sacrosanct, it's the church that Pullman attacks: "Under its authority, Jesus will be distorted and lied about and compromised and betrayed over and over again".

The prose is charmingly understated; monosyllabic words and single-clause sentences are the name of the game (think: Good News Bible rather than King James). And the majority of the characters perform their roles adequately, if without any real charisma or depth. Doubting Thomas is doubtful because the Bible says he is; similarly John the Baptist baptises and Mary Magdalene is maudlin (that was a little etymology joke for you linguists). In fact, in terms of the Pullman-to-Bible ratio, I'd say about 90% of TGMJATSC is just a straight-faced and unembellished paraphrasing of the gospels. This is a shame, because the book is most interesting when Pullman deviates from his sources.

The changes that he does make to the Bible account for such a tiny percentage of the book that most of the novel feels underdeveloped. The unidentified stranger who corrupts Christ does so with some baffling and unexplored theology, which is so brief and poorly articulated that I didn't really understand what Pullman was getting at, despite taking pains to re-read the passage multiple times: "He is the history and you are the truth, but you will have to be wiser. You will have to step outside time, and see the necessity for things that those within time find distressing."

Equally as frustrating is the fact that Pullman takes great pains to humanise the figure of Jesus; but only at the very end of the novel. On the eve of his execution, Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane. At this juncture, the writer takes a dramatic schism from his sources, and gives Jesus a ten-page soliloquy in which he questions the nature of God, sacrifice and belief. It's beautifully written and thoughtful, filled with poignant self-doubt and, in context, is deeply moving:

"No answer, naturally. Listen to that silence. Not a breath of wind; little insects in the grasses, a dog barking on some farm beyond the hills, an owl in the valley; and the infinite silence under it all. You're not in the sounds are you? If I thought you were, I could love you with all my heart. But you're in the silence. You say nothing.

If I thought you were listening, I'd pray for this above all: that any church set up in your name should remain poor, powerless and modest."

It's the best (and longest) scene in the novel; but the only one in which the writing really comes alive and gets to grips with the issues at hand. If the whole text were as probing or as full of ideas as the final act, then TGMJATSC would be something special. But most of this book is nothing more than a paraphrasing of the gospels, injected with the occasional original short scene or comment.

Unfortunately, 'The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ' never manages to transcend the novelty of its premise. The basic idea that Jesus had a twin brother is the most interesting thing about the book: but it isn't developed to its full potential. On the rare occasion that Jesus and his brother interact, the tension rises and my interest piqued. But these scenes are few and far between. The book was also over-hyped to a preposterous degree: and that the media misrepresented the novel as being a religion hating atheists rant didn't help matters either. I don't think I've ever accused a novel of being too short before; but Pullman should have given these ideas room to breathe and develop; when Pullman hits his stride things get really good; I just wish there was...more.
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on 16 August 2010
I have just finished this book and have to say that by the end I quite enjoyed it! When I started I have to admit I was very disappointed, it read very much like a book for children, being very simply written, but I suppose the fact that Philip Pullman has written a lot for children and young adults I shouln't be too surprised!!
The Story is about the theory that Jesus and Christ were twins, with Jesus being the GOOD one whilst Christ is a bit more 'realistic' in his views.
It takes you through most of the well known stories told in the bible about healing, changing water into wine and the money changing in the temples etc.. with a sight twist! Christ is the one noting down all that Jesus says and does, without his knowledge and it is Christ that eventually betrays Jesus to the Romans.
I am not a religious person myself, but found the story very clever, although it did take me until over halfway to appreciate it as just that, a story. Just as believable as the original surely, as it is a story too!
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on 2 April 2010
A beautifully written retelling of the story of Jesus Christ. This is an easily read book where the words flow to cover the pages and keep you engrossed. I found the passages on the sermon on the mount and the agonising in the garden of Gethsemane strangely moving. There is no doubt that this book will cause great offense to some people and others will regard it as irrelevant but I think we need authors like Mr Pullman who make you think. Maybe we need to step out of our comfort zone and take a long hard look at the story of Jesus and the subsequent history of the organised church.

As far as I know there are no contemporary accounts of the life of Christ existing in their original form and this book points out the problems with recording accurately events and words spoken. The recorder will be seriously tempted to insert words, invent words and tell of events in such a way as to enhance the beliefs and opinions of the recorder! From then on it is a vast game of Chinese whispers!

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who is willing to keep an open mind and be provoked to think!
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on 4 May 2010
I feel a bit of a fraud writing a review on a book that re-tells stories (albeit different versions) from the Bible. Most of the reviews I have read were written by people who know (or claim to) their Bible. I do not.

Having said this, you do not need to be a biblical student to recognise the salient points Mr Pullman has picked out - the Sermon on the Mount, for example. A lot of reviews detailed Mr Pullmans story - some almost re-wrote it. I don't feel thats what a review should be about and I won't do it here. What I will say is it is simply written and is thought provoking. It asks questions about how we treat others, who really has the right to judge others, and.....dare I say?......questions the church and its motivations.

It was inevitable a section of the community was going to crawl out of the woodwork screaming blasphemy. Perhaps these people don't like some of the questions Mr Pullman subtley poses. In the words of the author, it is a story. Which makes it no different from the Bible then.

Any book that gets such a varied response, people thinking and discussing ideas surely has to have a thumbs up.
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Mary gives birth to two sons, not one. She names the first one Jesus and the second Christ. Jesus is a headstrong, selfish boy who grows up to become a bit of a loudmouth with some narrow views but who nonetheless is a charismatic person and becomes loved by all. Christ is quiet and bookish, considerate, and is happy to remain in the background unnoticed. When Jesus begins preaching he begins writing it all down. Thus a religion is born and becomes the most famous story of all.

Pullman is an atheist (like me) and who better to tackle this epic story than him (and at Easter too)? "His Dark Materials" is currently banned in many southern states in America and no doubt this is destined to follow suit.

He happily tears down Mary, the most prayed to figure in Christianity, and portrays her as a bit simple. When Joseph is away she hears a man's voice whispering to let him into her house. She says that she must remain pure and virginal. The man, hearing this, changes his tack. But he is an angel, he says, sent by, er, God! Mary lets him in and so she becomes pregnant. Still a virgin, she claims, as the man was an angel!

This sets the tone for the rest of the book. You see no miracles, only normal events that become distorted through peoples' retelling until it seems like Jesus is performing miracles. Pullman shows how stories become stories. For example, the feeding of the 5000: Jesus takes some bread and fish and holds them up. He tells everyone to take out what food each has and share it out among themselves. Thus they are fed. No magic, just sharing.

For all its pokes at Christianity, Pullman does see the benefits of the religion, that it has the potential for good but also for bad. In the most poignant chapter entitled "Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane", Jesus says "Lord, if I thought you were listening, I'd pray for this above all: that any church set up in your name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest. That it should wield no authority except that of love. That it should never cast anyone out. That it should own no property and make no laws. That it should not condemn, but only forgive." (p.199).

The irony is that it takes an atheist to remind Christians of their core beliefs while today's Christians engage in shockingly evil acts. The Pope and his priesthood are a group of child molestors while the Christian Right in America are suppressing civil rights for gay people. While I am an atheist, if the church did have the qualities that Pullman writes about in the above passage, I would be a Christian too. But as Pullman has Christ point out, people are people.

Theology aside, is it a good read? Definitely. It's well written, highly creative, and brimming with ideas for the open minded. While Pullman puts forward ideas and engages in debate, lets see what the reaction is from the devout flock. And if someone becomes really offended, read the back cover: "This is a STORY".

And a damned good one at that. Highly recommended.
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