Jesus Christ, superstar: Still the biggest – and most controversial – name in art

Philip Pullman's new novel is the latest creation to court controversy over its depiction of Jesus. Paul Taylor looks at how the artists, from Martin Scorsese to Rufus Wainwright via Monty Python, deal with the subject
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The Independent Culture

Today is Good Friday, so let's begin with one of the rare instances of rueful comedy generated by this anniversary. There were two thieves crucified at the same time as Christ; but Vladimir, the airier of the two tramps in Beckett's Waiting for Godot, frets at a worrying discrepancy in the written reports of this occasion. "And yet... (pause)... how is it – this is not boring you, I hope," he says to Estragon. "How is it that of the four Evangelists only one speaks of a thief being saved? The four of them were there – or thereabouts – and only one speaks of a thief being saved."

That little qualification "or thereabouts" is an exquisite piece of amusing understatement on Beckett's part, insinuating the dubious time-lag between the supposedly eye-witness accounts of the events of Christ's life and death and the Gospels that record them. Indeed, there were many more gospels than the four eventually chosen by the Church authorities in the third century AD as its canonical texts. And so Beckett invents, through Vladimir, some neat verbal vaudeville about the anomalies and the wishful thinking that these indeterminacies permit. Why credit the view of that particular Evangelist as opposed to that of the other three who imply that both thieves were damned? "Who believes him?" asks Estragon. "Everybody," is the reply. "It's the only version they know". To which Estragon's response, with an unconscious nod to Darwin, is: "People are ignorant bloody apes."

This year, Good Friday happens to fall on 2 April. In 1906, it fell on 13 April. Unlucky for some; and especially unlucky for Beckett, for it was the day on which he entered "this bitch of a world". But, with piquant irony, the written records conflict, rather like the Gospels on the ultimate fate of the thieves. Beckett's birth certificate specifies the date as 13 May and there has been speculation that the author, who thought of life as a gruesome matter of "giving birth astride a grave" was misreporting the facts in the cause of a grim joke (which would have been all the better had Good Friday fallen on 1 April that year). But to cap the jest, there is corroboration for the more portentous alternative in no less an authority than the Births and Deaths column of The Irish Times.

Vladimir and Estragon are kept dangling in the play, like thieves condemned to an endless wait with no Jesus Christ at the centre in either damning or saving mood. It would have been categorically impossible for Beckett to have put Jesus on stage, given the blasphemous comedy of the cock-eyed and consciously self-contradictory notion encapsulated in another great line in Godot: "The bastard! He does not exist!" This takes a smack at Christ on two counts: his physical conception outside wedlock and the fact that, as the purported son of God, he arguably makes sense only as a conception.

But whereas Beckett leaves an absence in the place where Jesus might have been, countless playwrights, painters, poets, novelists and film-makers before and after him have been ready to pile in with their versions of Christ. Good Friday seems a propitious time to examine the broad outline of these various depictions – particularly in view of the fact that, this very week, they have been thrown into arresting relief by the publication of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, a wonderfully fresh reworking of the Gospel stories by Philip Pullman. The author who subverted Paradise Lost in his trilogy His Dark Materials (by suggesting that knowledge and sexuality are redemptive rather than the cause and consequence of the Fall) is concerned in this new book to extricate what is ethically beautiful and of permanent value in Jesus's teachings from the religious institutions that fallibly mediate and self-servingly distort them.

When you try to detect categories amidst this multiplicity of art-works, it's clear that the great watershed comes in the mid-19th century after the double onslaught of the rationalising Biblical critics, such as David Strauss, whose Life of Jesus (1835-1836) reinterpreted the miraculous in terms of myth (and was one the books that Pullman read in preparation for the novel), and Darwin's On The Origin of Species (1859). After these interventions, there was an increasing split into a world where Jesus is still believed to be both God and man and a world where people divide into the out-and-out debunkers, those for whom Christ's wrestling with his identity is a metaphor for the struggle of the spirit within the creaturely nature of man, and those who identify (sometimes to excess) with a secularised idea of Christ – a tribe that further subdivides into the "I-am-an-outcast-too" and "I-too-am-a-superstar" schools.

With regard to the latter, Norman Mailer – as if unfortunately inspired by the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Jesus Christ Superstar – revealed perhaps more than he'd quite bargained for when publicising his The Gospel According to the Son, arguing that his own celebrity had given him the kind of special insight you need to write the autobiography of someone who is divinely dual-natured: "Obviously a celebrity is a long, long, long way from the celestial, but nonetheless it does mean that you have two personalities you live with all the time. One is your simple self, so to speak, which is to some degree still like other people, and there's the opposite one, the media entity, which gives you power that you usually don't know how to use well. So the parallel was stronger than I realised". In its blithely unconscious comedy and parochialism, that statement is more compelling than anything in his curiously flat and flaccid book, which has Jesus reporting on his supernatural feats of raising the dead, walking on water and sitting in heaven with daddy in the tone of someone surprised to be hanging out with himself, as it were, and not sure how he'd go about answering, if it were asked about himself, that perennial fan-club query "what's he really like?"

Conversely, there are those contemporary authors who would have no difficulty responding to that question with an unwary "well, he's very like me, actually". Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi re-imagined Jesus as Joshua, a gay youth growing up – as the gay, Catholic McNally did – in the repressed Texas of the 1950s.

The intolerant reaction to this piece was repulsive both in America and in Britain, where it became the subject of a ridiculous Islamic fatwa after it opened in 1999 at London's Pleasance Theatre. Death threats aimed at the earlier New York production were issued, and over in Laramie, Wyoming, two youths were crucifying a young gay man on a wooden rail where they left him to die.

But despite its sterling generosity of spirit, it would be implausible to describe this calculatedly anachronistic update of a medieval mystery play as penetrating. The role of Judas in the story of Jesus has always been morally troubling. In his role as betrayer, he is both a crucial cog and the ultimate sinner driven to suicide through shame. In McNally's play the contradictions were highlighted anew and ineptly. On the one hand, Judas graduates from being a smug sexual predator to Joshua's tender lover and man enough to resist the temptation to betray his partner. The fatal kiss, that here accidentally starts the tragedy, was a public statement of love and loyalty. On the other hand, Judas is punished by having to read out, as a kind of stricken voice-over, the Passion sequences from the New Testament.

Cocking a defiant snook against intolerance and yet at the same time sending up its own outrageous reinvention of the awaited saviour as a gay wet dream ("He will then be reborn/ From 1970s porn"), the wittiest exercise in this genre – and the freest from self-pity – is Rufus Wainwright's admirably droll yet doughty song "Gay Messiah". At one time, he used to perform it with almost Edna Everage-style finale excess as a flamboyantly camp crucifixion parody, with cohorts and crosses, at the end of his concerts. "No it will not be me/ Rufus the Baptist I'll be" he sang with blatant mock-modesty. And yet there's an edge of real political challenge to the chorus: "Better pray for your sins/ 'Cause the gay Messiah's coming". Or in the words of Jesus: "Judge not that ye be not judged.

Philip Pullman was first inspired to write about Jesus by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is himself the author of a superb book about Dostoevsky and his wrestle with the idea of Christ. The National Theatre had brought the two of them together for a platform discussion in the Olivier at the time of the stage adaptation of His Dark Materials, a work which has been decried by some Christians for its attack on organised religion in the shape of the Magisterium, a repressive institution not unlike the Catholic Church. Nick Hytner, the National chief who directed the tripartite production, recalls that Dr Williams freely allowed that His Dark Materials "could hardly be more passionately concerned with the intersections between theology and ethics". What he did query, though, was why, in an examination of religion and morality, Jesus had been left out of the equation.

Pullman has now plugged the gap with this new book that retells the Gospel stories. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ was unveiled last Sunday in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford where, evidently expecting trouble from protesters, the organisers had mobilised security guards.

As the title hints, Pullman's imaginative and highly thought-provoking innovation is to suggest that Mary gave birth to twins. Jesus is the passionate charismatic who embarks on his ministry and preaches the teachings as we find them in the Gospels, though sometimes amended and often arrestingly re-worded, in a Palestine then under a puppet government installed by the Roman emperor. Christ is his more reflective and self-conscious alter ego who sometimes witnesses events at first hand and at, other times, amasses, through an informant, intelligence about his twin's oppositional sermons and "miracles" (which we deduce could have a rational explanation). He is approached by a mysterious "stranger" who suborns him into altering the record, preying on his sense of his inadequacies, propounding the flattering but dangerous philosophy that: "In writing of things as they should have been you are letting truth into history. You are the word of God.".

This is the story of multiple betrayals – not least of how the conscience-stricken Christ is treacherously manoeuvred into betraying his own brother for the sake of founding a Church. It needs a martyr; it needs miracles. There is no separate Judas-figure in this account. And there is no resurrection. Christ sees with his own eyes the dead body of the crucified Jesus and then finds himself, in a case of grievous mistaken identity, having to play the role of his risen brother for early propaganda purposes. And, as Christ eventually attests, the story is a tragedy – a truly intractable no-win situation. Without the Church, Jesus's teachings would have been forgotten, but to achieve institutional status, the Church has to doctor the evidence and daily compromise his revolutionary message of renouncing wealth and putting unconditional love (of one's neighbour as oneself; of one's enemy; and as its own reward) at the heart of the spiritual life.

Published by Canongate as part of its excellent series that invites celebrated authors to rework myths, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is told with a self-effacing, yet incisive limpidity. I told Pullman that, unlike many artistic appropriations of Jesus's story, it did not feel to me to overweening. "Do you mean that you find it underweening?" he asked. "No," I replied: "weening" to just the right degree.

By contrast, so much of what passes for radical subversion in artistic presentations of Jesus is on the level of a sophomoric stunt. In his controversial Piss Christ (1987), Andres Serrano offers us a photograph of a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of his own urine. It's well shot and indeed rather beautiful; Christ looks as if he's floating in incipiently turbulent Tizer. But does it really hold water, so to speak, to argue – as Sister Wendy Beckett did – that this work is a salutary statement about "what we have done to Christ"? While I would defend Serrano's right to exhibit Piss Christ against its rabid detractors, I think, pace Sister Wendy, that it is more a statement about what we have done to our notions of what constitutes profundity in art.

But then the illiberal religious protesters often waste their time trying to ban pieces that are either blasphemous only in a very shallow sense or not blasphemous at all. Take Monty Python's Life of Brian. This popular 1979 movie satirises blind faith and the underhand wiles of Christian zealotry via the hapless mixed-race Brian Cohen, who finds himself mistaken for the Messiah and winds up nailed to a cross singing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life". Jesus himself is not the film's target, nor is Christianity (except for its madder zealots).

This was demonstrated last autumn when a spoof oratorio version Not the Messiah (He's A Very Naughty Boy) had a one-night stand at the Albert Hall where, to my mind, it failed as satire because there was nothing genuinely provocative in the comic mismatch between the show's jokey sentiments and the oratorio form.

Martin Scorsese's 1988 movie The Last Temptation of Christ, adapted from the Nikos Kazantzakis novel, is thoughtfully, as well as deliberately, transgressive. Kierkegaard declared that the Incarnation was "the absolute paradox". The film wrestles with its intractability through a Jesus (played by Willem Dafoe) who is in the grip of a febrile identity crisis, unsure whether the voices he hears are from God or Satan, and keen to confide in Judas, a character sacrilegiously presented as a man who is only doing his duty.

In Dennis Potter's TV play Son of Man (first broadcast in 1969), Colin Blakely portrayed Jesus as an earthy outcast, who "burns inside" so much he begins to doubt that he can be the son of a carpenter. But he performs no miracles during his ministry and dies on the cross with no hope of resurrection. The implication – that his martyrdom is all the more impressive given his irreducible humanity – was made explicit in lines Potter added to the late stage version, which starred Joseph Fiennes, where, asked by Judas if he is from God, Jesus replies "The son of man... cannot be other than a man, or else God has cheated". It's an original and breathtaking view that the Incarnation would have been a divine fraud.

Their versions of Jesus dramatise their own personal struggles – Scorsese with the Catholic Church and movie-making; Potter with the BBC and a body that did indeed burn with chronic psoriasis. But in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Pullman offers a work of genuine discretion – deeply involved and involving, but with a great instinct for what to leave tacit. He confesses that "both Jesus and Christ at points speak for me. I agree with [Jesus] when he says, in the Garden of Gethsemane, that if there is got to be a church, let it be a poor one and one that makes no laws. And I agree with Christ's reasons for thinking it a tragedy: 'without the story, there will be no church, and without the church Jesus will be forgotten'".

In depictions of the Crucifixion, there is always the need to find an appropriately expressive spot somewhere between alienating idealisation at one extreme and a near-pornography of suffering at the other. Alan Bennett identified with a sweetly sanitised Pre-Raphaelite painting of Jesus on the cross at his school, because, as a very late developer who hated the tortures of the gym room, he felt empathy for someone hanging from a bar with no underarm hair. By contrast, there was as much visceral horror as empathy in one's reaction to the morbidly tactile quality of the painted 17th-century Spanish sculptures (such as Gregorio Fernandez's horizontally laid out and graphically, wounded Dead Christ) in the National Gallery's recent Sacred Made Real exhibition.

In Pullman's book, the short Crucifixion scene is all the more devastating because the focus is on the sufferer's confusion and loneliness as this atrocious event starts to bend to the service of propaganda.

Pullman is a board member of the National Theatre, where they mounted the controversial play Paul by Howard Brenton. While very different, the book implicitly agrees with the view taken by Brenton that Paul, the ultimate born-again convert, hijacked Jesus's mission and forced onto it warping global ambitions. But the play surprised those poised to agitate for its banning. Nick Hytner tells me that he received two hundred letters of protest beforehand in a "plainly organised campaign"; more fervent, though, were the letters afterwards. "Many Christians were fascinated by it on its own terms: it seemed to them to be an awestruck secular response to the miracles wrought by faith. A sceptical, rational playwright starts from the premise that nobody ever rose from the dead, has speculative fun with what might have happened and then goes on to explore, for instance, how unreason can produce something as magnificent as the First Letter to the Corinthians."

Pullman is not bowled over by unreason like the romantic Brenton, but what he does say is that, while he is an atheist, he would also sign up to being a "Jesus-ist". And to those bound to be intolerantly offended by The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, one of the consolations that he offers is the thought that: "This is not the last story that is ever going to be written about Jesus. There will be many, many more and I look forward to reading them." They will display one of Jesus's insights: "By their fruits shall ye know them."

'The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ' is published Canongate (£14.99). It is also available as an e-book (£12.99), audio book (£16.99), and app for iPod and iPhone Touch (£9.99).

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