Apr 17, 2010

Monkey Droppings - A duo on dogma: "People will leap to the most lurid meaning they can find, even if it's one the author never intended."

Today, the Monkey examines two recent fictions on Christian mythology.

Fictions on mythology.

So...fictions on...fictions?

The Monkey's brain just melted under the pressure of so much meta.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

by Philip Pullman (2010)

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible!
by Jonathan Goldstein (2009)

He took the loaves and the fishes, and blessed them, and then said to the crowd "See how I share this food out? You do the same. There'll be enough for everyone."
And sure enough, it turned out that one man had brought some barley cakes, and another had a couple of apples, and a third had some dried fish, and a fourth had a pocketful of raisins, and so; and between them all, there was plenty to go round. No one was left hungry.
And Christ, watching it all and taking notes, recorded this as another miracle.
Let's get the obvious out of the way; if you're going to court controversy in Christian culture, you just couldn't do better than have Philip Pullman write a reenactment of the Christ mythology. Hell, that's just throwing gasoline on an already-raging inferno.

Backstory: Philip Pullman became a pariah to many in the evangelical Christian community upon the publication of his young adult fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials (of which the first, The Golden Compass, became an expensive movie that disappointed more than it enthralled). Filled with discussions on theology, God, and the functions of the Church, there has ever since been an ongoing challenge to the works as being anti-religious.
I'm going to throw in my two cents here (my blog, my rules); His Dark Materials (besides being a superior fantasy entertainment) is not anti-religious, although I can see why many might find Pullman's questioning of the Church a trifle upsetting. His Dark Materials is not anti-religious, it is anti-abuse of power, and in light of recent developments in the Catholic Church, more timely than ever. Now, back to our original scheduled programming already in progress.
So getting a novelist already condemned as being an atheist to rewrite the story of Christ is a good way to drum up some free publicity (and it's already working, apparently). Also, as his work The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (hereinafter referred to as GMJSC) is being published as part of Knopf's Myths series, you get the added heat of persons ticked off that their religious belief system is being labeled 'a myth'; somehow, I don't think Margaret Atwood's retelling of Penelope and Odysseus or Alexander McCall Smith's take on Dream Angus would cause the same uproar. So, kudos to Knopf; there really is no such thing as bad publicity. Now, if you could take on the story of Muhammad, then you'd really get some attention.

But those gleefully expecting an excoriation of the Christ story (yeah, okay, I admit I'm one of them) will be somewhat disappointed, as GMJSC is an inherently respectful and solemn work. Pullman proves in this novel that he understands and truly loves the value of myths to society, and also that he condemns those who would use such value to corrupt and terrorize. But he will raise some hackles, never fear.

In Pullman's take on the myth, Mary (the virgin mother, for those unfamiliar with the story - what, I should just assume we all know this? Sheesh.) has, instead of the one son, given birth to a set of twins. "They were both boys, and the first was strong and healthy, but the second was small, weak, and sickly. Mary wrapped the strong boy in cloth and laid him in the feeding trough, and suckled the other first, because she felt sorry for him." Jesus, the strong one, is blessed with the force of personality that effortlessly attracts followers; as he's the quieter of the two, the three wise men who foretold his coming naturally gravitate toward him. Christ, the sickly second one, is more unassuming in manner; "although he resembled his brother, of course, he had the sort of face that few people remember, and his manner was always modest and retiring."

At first, it appears that a mistake might have been made; Christ has a natural affinity for small miracles, using them to get Jesus out of trouble. But as they mature into men, Jesus is the one who decides to teach the word of God to whomever will listen, abandoning his family and setting down the road with an ever-growing throng of disciples. Jesus is the prophet; Christ, the politician. Christ dearly loves his brother but is perplexed at his mind-set:
He does things out of passion, and I do them out of calculation. I can see further than he can; I can see the consequences of things he doesn't think twice about. But he acts with the whole of himself at every moment, and I'm always holding something back out of caution, or prudence.
Christ, wanting to fulfil a function in Jesus' ministry, decides to become a recorder of Christ's words and parables, but soon finds the task more complex than he initially realized. "What Jesus seemed to be saying with these stories, Christ thought, was something horrible: that God's love was arbitrary and undeserved, almost like a lottery." At the urging of a mysterious stranger, Christ begins to reinterpret Jesus' teachings to make them more consistent, more understandable:
Sometimes there is a danger that people might misinterpret the words of a popular speaker. The statements need to be edited, the meanings clarified, the complexities unravelled for the simple-of-understanding...What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom than what was.
What Pullman tries to do (and very largely succeeds, from my point of view) is both celebrate the life of a man who tried to do some actual good and condemn the willful misuse and misinterpretation of his words to better control the masses. As Christ witnesses through his own actions the inevitable corruption that infects any political hierarchy, he begins to doubt his very belief in what he has so long argued for:
The body of the faithful, the church, as [the stranger] calls it, will do every kind of good, I hope so, I believe so, I must believe so, and yet I fear it'll do terrible things as well in its zeal and self-righteousness...Under it's authority, Jesus will be distorted and lied about and compromised and betrayed over and over again.
That's a little on the nose, but we are talking parables here, hardly the most subtle form of allegory around. The entire novel is presented in a similar tone, simple yet laden with meaning, not an easy effect that Pullman somehow pulls off.

If I have any real quibble with GMJSC, it's that it isn't risky enough. It's all well and good to have his stranger muse,
History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history. You are the word of God.
but I want more. The word 'scoundrel' in the title raised my expectations, I suppose. Christ is hardly a scoundrel, and Jesus is a deeply flawed 'good man.' This goes toward Pullman's central thesis, that the truth is flexible and will always distort depending on the speaker.

Maybe the story is too familiar to audience's to real bend and twist, but in the same series of books, Russian author Victor Pelevin retold the Minotaur myth as being trapped in an electronic maze. It was a befuddling piece of work, but you can't deny it radically altered the structure of the story. I admire Pullman's moxie, but I wanted him to push even further. As it stands, his story is effective and compelling, but in a small way a loss of opportunity to see how far he could go. This is hardly a blight on a sterling novel, however; The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is a fine piece of work, worthy of discussion.

And now, from Jesus to the others.

In a very strange reversal of my expectations, Jonathan Goldstein's collection of stories Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible! has not garnered any noticeable controversy, this despite its re-imagining of various biblical characters as being misanthropes, cowards, dunderheads, egotists, and comedians. Maybe Pullman stole focus, or maybe Jesus is the only unimpeachable one in the whole book. Still, fairly odd, as I have always found evangelical Christians to be the ones least likely to have a sense of humour about themselves.

Goldstein, an author and broadcaster - who's superbly idiosyncratic CBC radio program Wiretap should be placed on your podcast playlist forthwith - has put together a number of stories retelling some of the most famous tales in the Bible (most of which have been narrated on his show in shortened and altered versions). In Goldstein's imaginings, Adam is a dull-witted simpleton who "tried to pinch his own eyes out in order to examine them and God had to step in," Jonah is a hapless loser whose sojourn in the belly of a fish is the only notable thing in his life, and Noah is a bitter old man who missed the work ethic of his youth, having "lived long enough to see that craftsmanship was going down the toilet."

Like Pullman, Goldstein pens his fables with a simple, parable-like narrative style that eminently suits the subject matter; it's interesting how little one has to tweak the style to switch from drama to comedy. Where Pullman is interested in truly examining a myth and its consequences, however, Goldstein wants to fill in the gaps that saturate the Bible's many stories with his own dry humour, and try and give greater context to the character's actions.

For example, did you know King David's entire career was based on his wish to become a comedian? You see, Goliath was not only a bully, he was a teller of very poor jokes:
As well as being creative at murder, he also had a very big and hurtful mouth. He used it to make the Jews look bad. When Goliath stood on the hilltop near the Hebrew camp and called out to them mockingly - calling them Jewburgers, Jewlips, Jewy Jewballs and other anti-Semitic foods - the Jews pretended not to care. But they did care. Still, they figured it was better to endure insults than broken bones.
Young David also has a sense of humour, but it is as raw and unfocused as Goliath's. For David, physical comedy is the way to go when dealing with the big bully, and killing a giant with a tiny sling is surely the most ridiculous (and therefore funny) way of dispatching him.
Maybe if I strike him right in mid-insult - just after the words 'and furthermore...' - or pop him just as he's gulping from his goblet so the stone can bounce off his head and plop into his wine! If the Lord, in His infinite kindness, might grant Goliath's dropping dead to be preceded by a plopping sound, I will have achieved a comedy of the highest order!
Yet as in most of Goldstein's retellings, nothing goes according to plan. David becomes King and rules the land, but never quite masters the art of telling a joke. Joseph feels cuckolded by his wife Mary's having a baby by a deity, but his love for the unborn child sees him through the rough spots. Samson is a muscleheaded moron but, in a surprising display of pathos on Goldstein's part, destroys himself through his yearning for Delilah.

But The Bible! suffers from the sin of repetition, especially if you read more than one story a day. The stories all have the same deadpan wit, which becomes a trifle monotonous. There's a lot of good in Goldstein's stories - at times, he achieves the transcendent satire of early period Woody Allen at his most surreal - but when placed all together, they can be exhausting.

So, in a head-to-head battle for supremacy, Pullman is the winner, but Goldstein put up a hell of a fight. Both tell exceptional stories about exceptional people, but Pullman's philosophical treatise cuts far deeper.


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