Shock Us, Please: Pullman’s “Scoundrel Christ”

“No one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended.” This was English author Philip Pullman’s response (speaking at Oxford last March), when challenged on his selection of an adjective for the title of his new book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. (“Scoundrel” didn’t work for everyone as an appropriate description of Christ.) Whether or not you agree with Pullman or his critics, isn’t shock an acceptable—and even traditional—response to works of art that re-interpret something sacred?


We need our very finest minds to divine the very finest re-interpretations; Pullman’s book is one of these. His Mary gives birth to twins, Jesus and Christ. Here is a sample of his spare, specific style:

Every inn was full, and Mary was crying and trembling, for the child was about to be born.

"There's no room," said the last innkeeper they asked. "But you can sleep in the stable – the beasts will keep you warm."

Joseph spread their bedding on the straw and made Mary comfortable, and ran to find a midwife. When he came back the child was already born, but the midwife said "There's another to come. She is having twins."

This is a story we know well—in this case, plus some “shock.” Or, plus some story. It is via wise shocks that readers are forced to revisit their deepest assumptions, and in Good Man they are given a chance to test assumptions rarely tested, assumptions about a basic faith. While Christopher Hitchens pointed out in the Times Book Review yesterday, “Pullman outbids Monty Python in profanity by having Mary give birth to twins, Jesus and Christ,” profanity in and of itself lacks bite.

Hitchens noted that the book is one in a series. It is a provocative, deeply literary series, from Scottish publisher Canongate. Karen Armstrong (A Short History of Myth), Jeannette Winterson (Weight, on Atlas and Heracles) and Margaret Atwood (The Penelopiad, on Penelope and Odysseus) have all contributed volumes. Pullman’s is the latest. He should, and has been, applauded for taking risks both stylistic and theological, but it was editors at Canongate who took a uniquely original risk: they claimed the Christ story for their series.

No one has the right to live without being shocked. Why not? Perhaps shock helps us remember. Perhaps it is via the shock of something truly new (have we not had enough somethings old and somethings borrowed where biblical exegesis is concerned?) that we remember some stories are sacred because they are meaningful.

This is the end of Pullman’s answer at Oxford:

Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if they open it and read it they don’t have to like it. And if you read it and you dislike it you don’t have to be silent about it. You can write to me. You can complain about it. You can write to the publisher. You can write to the papers. You can write your own book. You can do all these things but there your rights stop.

Amen.

 

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
Keep reading Show less

Meet the Bajau sea nomads — they can reportedly hold their breath for 13 minutes

The Bajau people's nomadic lifestyle has given them remarkable adaptions, enabling them to stay underwater for unbelievable periods of time. Their lifestyle, however, is quickly disappearing.

Wikimedia Commons
Culture & Religion
  • The Bajau people travel in small flotillas throughout the Phillipines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, hunting fish underwater for food.
  • Over the years, practicing this lifestyle has given the Bajau unique adaptations to swimming underwater. Many find it straightforward to dive up to 13 minutes 200 feet below the surface of the ocean.
  • Unfortunately, many disparate factors are erasing the traditional Bajau way of life.
Keep reading Show less

Golden blood: The rarest blood in the world

We explore the history of blood types and how they are classified to find out what makes the Rh-null type important to science and dangerous for those who live with it.

Abid Katib/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Fewer than 50 people worldwide have 'golden blood' — or Rh-null.
  • Blood is considered Rh-null if it lacks all of the 61 possible antigens in the Rh system.
  • It's also very dangerous to live with this blood type, as so few people have it.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists create a "lifelike" material that has metabolism and can self-reproduce

An innovation may lead to lifelike evolving machines.

Shogo Hamada/Cornell University
Surprising Science
  • Scientists at Cornell University devise a material with 3 key traits of life.
  • The goal for the researchers is not to create life but lifelike machines.
  • The researchers were able to program metabolism into the material's DNA.
Keep reading Show less