The Good, the Bad and the Best Intentions

This afternoon, I spent an hour talking about ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas with Sonia Orchard and Nick Gadd.

The Victorian Writers Centre have set up a very funky sort of writers’ book club. On the first Friday of every month, a panel of authors discuss a recently released book to a lunch time audience (1.00 – 2.00 pm). The events are free and the conversation is lively. At least today felt pretty lively. Sonia and Nick spoke really well and there was some good input from the audience too.

I felt weirdly nervous when we walked up on stage. It wasn’t that I was unprepared or didn’t have anything to say but I didn’t really want to admit that I hadn’t liked the book. I love nearly all of Philip Pullman’s other novels but this one left me horribly disappointed. Sonia and Nick didn’t like it either. There were problems with the structure, the prose and the character development. If it had been about someone other than Jesus, it would have made very little sense. Though perhaps the fact that I had a good Biblical education made it hard for me to read it without sighing in irritation. Great big slabs of it were simply paraphrased excerpts from the synoptic gospels, with a dash of bits from elsewhere including a big chunk of dialogue from ‘The Grand Inquisitor chapter of Dostoevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’.

I wound up talking with some passion about how much I enjoyed ‘His Dark Materials’ – Pullman’s YA fantasy trilogy about alternative realities, the magic of myth and the wonders of the physical world.

‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ is not a children’s book, nor, do I imagine, will it hold much interest for YA readers. One member of the audience said it had a lovely resonance for him as it connected with his childhood Sunday school experiences that he had lost touch with and he enjoyed revisiting some of the stories from the Gospels. I think for some readers, it will bring that sort of connection and I know Philip Pullman said he hoped it would send people back to the Gospels to re-examine the contradictions in the different Gospels. But frankly, if you’re simply looking to revisit the stories of the Bible and to make up your own mind about their significance and their beauty, to understand the good, the bad and the fallacious, you’re probably better off getting a nice edition of a Children’s Bible with the stories told in crisp, clean prose.

Recently the children’s author Duncan Ball, who has a voracious appetite for great fiction, gave me a copy of “The Summing Up” by the English author, Somerset Maugham. It’s a sort-of memoir in which Maugham wrote about his experiences of a lifetime of writing fiction. His understanding of language and its uses is impressive. Maugham wrote:

“To my mind the King James Bible has had a harmful influence on English prose. I am not so stupid as to deny its great beauty and it is obvious that there are passages in it of a simplicity which is deeply moving… Those rhythms, that powerful vocabulary, that grandiloquence became part and parcel of the national sensibility. The plain, honest English speech was overwhelmed with ornament. Blunt Englishmen twisted their tongues to speak like Hebrew prophets. …the fact remains that ever since, English prose has had to struggle against the tendency to luxuriance.”

When it comes to a good story, nothing serves it better than the plain, honest English language.

Kirsty is an Australian author of books for children and young adults.

“Books are windows into other ways of being.”

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