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The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ Part 11

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'As you explained on another occasion, you think very little of people.'

'I see them as they are. You too used to have a realistic idea of their capabilities and limitations. Are you becoming more like your brother as time goes past?'

'He knew them well, and he wasn't deceived, but he loved them.'

'Indeed he did,' said the stranger, helping himself to the bread, 'and his love is the most precious thing imaginable. That is why we must guard it so carefully. The vessel that will carry the precious love and teaching of Jesus Christ to the ages of the future is the church, and the church must guard that love and teaching night and day, to keep it pure and not let it be corrupted by misunderstanding. It would be unfortunate, for example, if people came to read some of his sayings as a call to political action; as we know, they are nothing of the sort. Instead we should emphasise the spiritual nature of his message. We need to make our position hard to argue with, my dear Christ, and by talking of the spirit we do just that. Spirituality is something we are well equipped to discuss.'

'I have no taste for that sort of talk any more,' said Christ. 'You had better take your scrolls away with you. Let someone else tell the story.'

'The story will be told many times. We shall make sure of that. In the years to come we shall sort out the helpful versions from the unhelpful. But we have spoken of these things before.'

'Yes, and I'm sick of it. Your words are smooth, but your thoughts are coa.r.s.e. And you have become coa.r.s.er with your success. When you first spoke to me you were more subtle. I begin to see now what it is, this story you and I and my brother have been playing out. However it ends, it will be a tragedy. His vision could never come to pa.s.s; and the vision that will come to pa.s.s is not his.'

'You talk of my vision and his vision; but if it were your your vision it would have all the merit of truth as well as-' vision it would have all the merit of truth as well as-'

'I know what your truth means,' said Christ.

'Of course you do. But which is better,' said the stranger, breaking off some more bread, 'to aim for absolute purity and fail altogether, or to compromise and succeed a little?'

Christ felt sick for a moment, but he couldn't remember why. Martha slipped her hand into her husband's to steady him.

But as Christ sat and watched the stranger eating his bread and pouring himself more wine, he couldn't help thinking of the story of Jesus, and how he could improve it. For example, there could be some miraculous sign to welcome the birth: a star, an angel. And the childhood of Jesus might be studded with charming little wondertales of boyish mischief leavened by magic, which could nevertheless be interpreted as signs of greater miracles to come. Then there were matters of more profound narrative consequence. If Jesus had known about his execution in advance, and told his disciples that it was going to come about, and gone to meet it willingly, it would give the crucifixion a far more resonant meaning, and one that would open depths of mystery for wise men to explore and ponder and explain in the times to come. And the birth, again: if the child born in the stable had been not just a human child, but the very incarnation of G.o.d himself, how much more memorable and moving the story would be! And how much more profound the death that crowned it!

There were a hundred details that could add verisimilitude. He knew, with a pang that blended guilt and pleasure, that he had already made some of them up.

'I leave it in your hands,' said the stranger, brushing the breadcrumbs off his own as he stood up from the table. 'I shall not come to you again.'

And without another word he turned to leave.

When he had gone Martha said, 'You still didn't ask his name.'

'I don't want to know his name. How deluded I was! How can I ever have thought he was an angel? He has the look of a prosperous dealer in dried fruit or carpets. I don't want to think about him ever again. Martha, I'm tormented; everything he says is true, and yet I feel sick when I think of it. The body of the faithful, the church, as he 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 selfrighteousness . . . Under its authority, Jesus will be distorted and lied about and compromised and betrayed over and over again. A body of the faithful? It was a body of the faithful that decided for a dozen good reasons to hand him over to the Romans. And here am I, my hands red with blood and shame and wet with tears, longing to begin telling the story of Jesus, and not just for the sake of making a record of what happened: I want to play with it; I want to give it a better shape; I want to knot the details together neatly to make patterns and show correspondences, and if they weren't there in life, I want to put them there in the story, for no other reason than to make a better story. The stranger would have called it letting truth into history. Jesus would have called it lying. He wanted perfection; he asked too much of people . . . But this is the tragedy: without the story, there will be no church, and without the church, Jesus will be forgotten . . . Oh, Martha, I don't know what I should do.'

'You should eat your supper,' said Martha.

But when they turned back to the table the bread was all gone, and the wine-jar was empty.

The Myths Series

Myths are universal and timeless stories that reflect and shape our lives they explore our desires, our fears, our longings and provide narratives that remind us what it means to be human. The Myths The Myths series brings together some of the world's finest writers, each of whom has retold a myth in a contemporary and memorable way. Authors in the series include: Alai, Karen Armstrong, Margaret Atwood, AS Byatt, Michel Faber, David Grossman, Milton Hatoum, Natsuo Kirino, Alexander McCall Smith, Tomas Eloy Martinez, Klas ostergren, Victor Pelevin, Ali Smith, Su Tong, Dubravka Ugreic, Salley Vickers and Jeanette Winterson. series brings together some of the world's finest writers, each of whom has retold a myth in a contemporary and memorable way. Authors in the series include: Alai, Karen Armstrong, Margaret Atwood, AS Byatt, Michel Faber, David Grossman, Milton Hatoum, Natsuo Kirino, Alexander McCall Smith, Tomas Eloy Martinez, Klas ostergren, Victor Pelevin, Ali Smith, Su Tong, Dubravka Ugreic, Salley Vickers and Jeanette Winterson.

Also by the author

His Dark Materials

Northern Lights

The Subtle Knife

The Amber Spygla.s.s

Lyra's Oxford

Once Upon a Time in the North

The Sally Lockhart books

The Ruby in the Smoke

The Shadow in the North

The Tiger in the Well

The Tin Princess

Fairy tales

The Firework-Maker's Daughter

Clockwork, or All Wound Up

I was a Rat!

The Scarecrow and his Servant

Others

The Broken Bridge

The b.u.t.terfly Tattoo

Count Karlstein

Spring-heeled Jack

Puss in Boots

The Wonderful Story of Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp

Mossycoat

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The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ Part 11 summary

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