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Review: The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

If you want to get someone's attention, religion is a good place to start. Ask Sinead O'Connor. Philip Pullman is already a popular poster boy for Christian fundamentalists thanks to his fantastic trilogy His Dark Materials, a reworking of John Milton's Paradise Lost (hint: God doesn't come off the winner in this version).

It's not your average children's book, but, religious subversion aside, it's easy to see why it is so popular, combining as it does a heroic young boy-and-girl duo, pet demons (which are actually souls), witches, fighting bears, alternate universes and astrophysics.

Pullman has dedicated the best part of the last decade to this story, between the trilogy and two other companion books and he is currently working on yet another, The Book Of Dust. But one story has been engaging enough to tear him away from this work -- that of Jesus Christ.

Cue more controversy.

The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ is part of publisher Canongate's myths series, which sees authors take well-known stories and retell them. While Margaret Atwood tinkered with The Penelopiad and Ali Smith reimagined one of Ovid's Metamorphoses, Pullman has gone straight for the jugular by re-imagining the most influential story of all.

In this story, Jesus, a passionate (and slightly irritating) idealist, has a savvy pragmatist of a twin called Christ (an amalgam of the Judas character).

The book is absurdly funny in parts ('Christ At The Pool Of Bethesda' is blackly comic), while in others it is a direct philosophical treatise. Pullman seems greatly concerned with how the story of Jesus Christ originated and has said the book is "a story about how stories become stories".

He takes the facts as presented in the Bible and draws back a curtain, offering plausible alternatives to the miracles portrayed there, and how stories might get edited in the retelling to become, quite literally, gospel.

One thing is clear -- Pullman knows his Bible (his grandfather was a clergyman), despite his reputation as the one of Britain's best-known atheists. In all of his work, he is preoccupied with the big philosophical questions: Where do we come from? Why are we here?

In 'Jesus In The Garden Of Gethsemane', the whole chapter is given over to a monologue, where Jesus questions God's existence and comes to the conclusion he doesn't exist.

"You're in the silence," says Jesus. "You say nothing. God, is there any difference between saying that and saying you're not there at all? I can imagine some philosophical smartarse of a priest in years to come pulling the wool over his poor follower's eyes: 'God's great absence is, of course, the very sign of his presence', or some such drivel ... That priest is worse than the fool in the psalm, who at least is an honest man. When the fool prays to you and gets no answer, he decides that God's great absence means he's not bloody well there."

You may never have heard of him, but Philip Pullman is one of the most important writers of the last 50 years and he's most likely going to be one of the most important writers of the next 50 years, too, if he continues to write on his chosen topics of philosophy, science and religion. What is abundantly clear here is the story of Jesus Christ remains as ingrained and resonant for the atheist Pullman as it does for most Irish people, no matter what our beliefs, and it's this, as much as Pullman's ingenuity, that gives The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ its real power.

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