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Tom Chaney: Galilean Twins

Of Writers and Their Books No. 267, First published on 29 August 2010. Galilean Twins, a review on the book by Phillip Pullman, which Tom says essentially retells the four gospels in a way both refreshing and startling.

Read the next earlier Tom Chaney column: On To Oregon

By Tom Chaney

A week or so ago I stumbled upon an interesting sounding book which turns out to be a part of a British series which bears further reading. The publisher is Canongate and each of its myth series presents a reimagining of a classic story by a popular author.

Margaret Atwood retells the tale of Penelope and Michael Faber does the same for Prometheus. With those stories readers may be sort of amused, but when Philip Pullman fiddles with Jesus folks start gathering dry sticks.

The book is "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ," [Canongate, 2010]. 'Tis thought provoking to say the least.

Pullman is apt to be a bit shrill in his public statements on religion. What better way to sell books than to select a "vocal atheist and best-selling British fantasy writer to retell the story of the Gospels" as critic Ron Charles observes.

Pullman, whom I have not read further but want to, essentially retells the four gospels in a way both refreshing and startling.

He begins with the premise that Mary gave birth to twins in that stable. When the shepherds and wise men arrive they acknowledge the younger Christ as the object of worship, but it is firstborn Jesus who proceeds to teaching and preaching.

Soon Christ becomes the chronicler of the events of the life of Jesus, a chronicler advised by a stranger who visits from time to time. Obviously the stranger is a divine emissary sent to keep matters on track.

It is Christ who tempts his brother in the wilderness; who betrays him in the garden and who is horrified when the promised miracles don't intervene to stop the crucifixion.

Christ is witness when brother Jesus' body is spirited away from the tomb.

And it is Christ who is celebrated as the risen Jesus and who sees to the establishment of Christianity and a church to carry on the teachings of Jesus.

Now, Pullman is not the first to attempt to demythologize the gospel. As one critic observed, even the apostle Paul remarked that "the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." More than two centuries ago Thomas Jefferson called the miracles and spontaneous healings "superstitions" and "fabrications" added by those who had "an interest in sophisticating and perverting the simple doctrines taught by engrafting on them the mysticisms of a Grecian sophist, frittering them into subtleties and obscuring them with jargon."

Two beautiful revisions in the traditional story come to mind.

The retelling of the sermon on the mount is downright moving.

And when the multitudes are fed the feast is spread not so much by divine prestidigitation as by Jesus teaching a lesson on sharing when he asks those in the crowd who have food to share it with others.

Pullman's little book is a pleasant read - a good way of rethinking the familiar elements of our own essential myths.
Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2015-08-16 09:28:20
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