The Gospel According To Phil

Philip Pullman at The Telegraph:

Last year I wrote a short book about Jesus Christ. I know that people are surprised to find a hardened atheist writing about such a subject. Some of my correspondents are sure that my intention is evil, and that I will meet my judgment before the Great White Throne (Rev. 20.11, they add helpfully). Be that as it may, and I think it won’t, I know from my experience with previous books that many readers do have an honest curiosity about the author’s point of view. So they sometimes ask me: ‘What do you really believe? What does your book mean? How should we understand it?’

Some writers – apparently William Golding was one – are firmly of the opinion that there is a correct way to read their books and they argue strongly with readers who, they think, have got them wrong. My view is the opposite. Readers may make of my work whatever they please. Some people, indeed, have seen things – connections and patterns and implications – I had no idea were there. If such readers want to persuade others of their interpretation, however, they have to do so fairly and honestly, by reference to the text and not to any pretended secret key or private knowledge.

The problem with my telling people what I think it means is that my interpretation seems to have some extra authority and that sometimes shuts down debate: if the author himself has said it means X, then it can’t mean Y. Believing as I do in the democracy of reading, I don’t like the sort of totalitarian silence that descends when there is one authoritative reading of any text.

So in general, I prefer not to discuss the meaning of my work. But the book I’ve just published, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, is different from the sort of books I’ve published before. Its protagonist belongs not just to me but to the history and the culture of the past 2,000 years, and the story is not just any story but the foundation story of the Christian religion. It is too important to too many people for me to take my usual line. This time I have to say something about my story and explain, so to speak, where I’m coming from.

David Plotz at Slate:

Like many atheists, the novelist Philip Pullman has emphatic and complicated religious beliefs. Pullman used His Dark Materials, his masterpiece trilogy, to deliver a savage beating to the Catholic Church (the thinly disguised “Magesterium” in the novels) and lay out a fantastically appealing humanist theology based on angels and a supernatural force called “Dust.” To condense the belief system of His Dark Materials into a few sentences: Human souls and angels are made of the Dust that binds all living things together. There is no God, just a presumptuous first angel who called himself God. Wicked angels exploit the idea of God to rule the world. The Magesterium is their instrument of evil on earth—authoritarian, secretive, and murderous. Pullman’s theology is simultaneously crushing and ecstatic. Who can forget his depiction of God as a decrepit angel, locked in a crystal prison? Or his image of Dust, golden, hazy, flowing in and out of our bodies, a personal aurora borealis?


Which brings us to Pullman’s new work, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which is, to put it mildly, a very strange book. Superficially a novel, it is Pullman’s attempt to graft his belief system onto the life of Jesus, to mutate Christianity into a kind of Pullmanism. Give Pullman high marks for moxie: How many writers would dare to try to rewrite—no, to repair—the most famous, most sacred story ever written?

In this Gospel According to Philip, Jesus Christ is actually two people, twin brothers, one named Jesus, one named Christ. Each is less a person than a position, a side in Pullman’s theological debate. The elder, Jesus, grows up to be the great teacher of Israel. Manly, plainspoken, and politically liberal, he acquires devotees through wisdom and decency. He performs no miracles. Loaves and fishes? That was just him persuading his followers, Stone Soup-style, to share their meal. This Jesus speaks simply and clearly, and the loveliest parts of the book are when Pullman retells the most famous Christian parables and sermons in Jesus’ vernacular. Here’s a portion of his Sermon on the Mount:

“And while I’m talking about keeping quiet, here’s another thing to be secret about: and that’s prayer. Don’t be like those ostentatious hypocrites who pray out loud and let the whole neighborhood know about their piety. Go to your room, shut the door, pray in silence and in secret. Your Father will hear. And have you ever heard how the Gentiles pray? On and on, yakkety yak, blah blah blah, as if the very sound of their voices were music in the ears of God. Don’t be like them. … This is how you should pray. You should say: Father in heaven, your name is holy. Your Kingdom is coming, and your will shall be done on earth as it’s done in heaven. Give us today the bread we need. And forgive our debts, as we shall forgive those who are indebted to us. And don’t let the evil one tempt us more than we can resist. Because the Kingdom and the power and the glory belong to you for ever. So be it.”

That Lord’s Prayer is better than the real one!

Pullman’s Jesus is a cipher. We see and hear him only from a distance, through his younger twin, Christ. Christ does have magical powers—he brings clay birds to life—but lacks his brother’s wisdom, kindness, and charisma. Eventually, Christ becomes the chronicler of Jesus, recording the parables and sermons. Egged on by a mysterious stranger—Guess who!—Christ starts to “improve” the stories about his brother, fabricating miracles and claiming bogus divine interventions. Christ claims that he only wants to strengthen the authority of Jesus. Again and again, he tells us that miracles are essential because they will persuade Jesus’ followers to believe and will legitimize the church. This infuriates Jesus, who detests lies, euphemism, and institutions. It spoils nothing about the plot to say that Christ winds up betraying his brother. The wicked institution of the church rises; the humane teachings of Jesus are supplanted with rules and mumbo-jumbo.

Via Andrew Sullivan, William Underhill at Newsweek:

One motive in writing the book is to shake the faith of believers. He hopes to send readers back to the Gospels to compare his story with the originals. “They will see for themselves how contradictory, how inconsistent, and different the narratives are,” he says. And Pullman is not shy about spelling out what he sees as the pernicious consequences of human institutions like the papacy that assume an unquestionable God-given authority. Among them: the Inquisition, witch-burning, the persecution of the Jews, and child abuse by Catholic priests.

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Yet this isn’t the indiscriminate anger of a proselytizing atheist. Pullman is too fair-minded. “The Christian church in all its different forms undoubtedly has done many, many good things,” he says. “It has set up hospitals, educated people, and given sanctuary. But it has done many wicked things too.” He’s read widely in theology, and he hesitates to dismiss believers as foolish. “Some of the kindest and most interesting responses to my book are from strong believers who keep an open mind and see what I am doing: shining a light from a different angle,” he says. “It is interesting to me that people whose intelligence I admire believe in something that is not there.” He expresses respect for the archbishop of Canterbury, who gave his book a positive review in the British press while concluding, in Pullman’s words, that “the Bible was better.”

Pullman’s own faith faded in adolescence after a childhood steeped in religion. One powerful influence was his grandfather, a Church of England clergyman. “I decided that science was a better guide to how the earth came about than the first two chapters of Genesis,” he recalls. But he rejects being lumped with such strident atheists as Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion). “I tell stories rather than write polemics, and I am a little kinder to religion than they are,” he says.

Indeed, Pullman denies that he is driven to write by antireligious passion. “I write because my imagination is engaged, and what I write is a result of that.” That’s why he’d never tackle Islam—a religion that might be considered just as culpable as Christianity. “I have never read the Quran,” he says. “I was not brought up as a Muslim. It simply doesn’t engage me.”

Mark Shea at The National Catholic Register:

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ emits major levels of suckage, even according to a sympathetic reviewer at the LA Times.

Like so many atheists who approach the figure of Jesus, something goes wonky in Pullman’s brain.  He can’t cope with the actual information we have about Jesus, so he just makes up a bunch of twaddle, tells us “I like my twaddle better than reality” and then proceeds to build an elaborate fantasy on the reality and declare himself a genius.

In this case, the conceit is that Mary had twins (after a proper seduction, of course) and named them “Jesus” and “Christ”.  Jesus was the good guy, a proper 21st century English leftie who likes the stuff Pullman does.  Christ (and what mother wouldn’t name her son “Christ”?) is the (I’m not making this up) evil twin who stalks Jesus and does all that awful stuff like faking the Resurrection and setting up a Church, etc.

Rowan Williams at The Guardian:

The narrative is mostly Pullman at his very impressive best, limpid and economical, though one or two passages feel like easy point-scoring – the Annunciation story told as a seduction, or the mechanics of a fraudulent resurrection. At only one point does he break the flow of this narrative, in a long soliloquy by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest. Jesus’s own faith, it transpires, is now on the edge of extinction. He admits to himself that there is no answer to be expected from heaven. Looking towards God, in the complete absence of any definable divine action or manifestation, is no longer possible. We may look back wistfully at a world in which this once felt possible or natural; but we have to let it go or be dishonest.

It is essentially the vision of Mary Malone in the third volume of Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Here as there, it is expressed with some real emotional power. But there are problems. One is simply that nothing in the narrative has prepared us for this; the Jesus of earlier chapters has a robust conviction of the unconditional love of God as the basis for forgiveness and generous confidence, and for principled opposition to religious nonsense and tyranny. Set against the magical, power-hungry deity of “Christ”, this is a liberating vision of the divine. Suddenly, it seems to have collapsed because there is no conclusive sign from heaven; and nothing in the story helps us to see how this happens.

The problem for a believer goes deeper. In the gospels, too, Jesus agonises in Gethsemane and gets no answer. But he accepts that he has – so to speak – taken on the responsibility of providing an answer in his own life and death, in a way consistent with his claim throughout the gospel to be speaking on behalf of God’s liberating authority within a paralysed religious and social world. So when he cries out to God in agony from the cross “Why have you deserted me?”, this is the consequence of his decision to be – in his own person – God’s “answer”. And there is no consoling word that can come to him from outside.

There is a clear narrative line in the Bible from Jesus’s revolutionary confidence in announcing God’s forgiveness, through to the terrible resolution in Gethsemane and its consequence on the cross. Simply as narrative, I think it makes better imaginative sense than Pullman’s abrupt introduction of Jesus’s abandonment of faith. Now Pullman would reject such a narrative line, because it claims that God’s “failure” to answer doesn’t decide anything. Pullman’s Jesus is scathing about “smartarse priests” who talk about God’s absence really being his presence. Well, yes: Christians use this kind of language. But not to let themselves off lightly; they’re arguing that you only get anywhere near the truth when all the easy things to say about God are dismantled – so that your image of God is no longer just a big projection of your self-centred wish-fulfilment fantasies.

What’s left, then? This is the difficult moment. Either you sense that you are confronting an energy so immense and unconditioned that there are no adequate words for it; or you give up. From Paul to Luther, George Herbert or Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Hitler’s prisons, there are plenty who haven’t given up; and they haven’t given up because they see their experience in the light of something like this understanding of Gethsemane and the crucifixion.

That apart, Pullman leaves the Christian reader with a genuine paradox to ponder, and he doesn’t – to his credit – suggest that the arguments are not serious. The sinister stranger in the book – who stands for all philosophical system-makers who want to improve on history by importing eternal truths at the expense of ordinary truthfulness – insists to “Christ” that Jesus’s message can only survive clothed in the language of miracle and power. It is very much the argument we find in the mouth of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor – that Jesus was too radical for ordinary human consumption, and for his memory to survive at all, you will have to lie about him. But what Pullman doesn’t fully allow, I think, is the degree to which the New Testament itself is already aware of the dangers. Mark’s gospel, in particular, presents a Jesus who insistently refuses to use his own miracles to prove his status, and a company of disciples who are chronically incapable of understanding Jesus’s challenges. It seems to recognise the irony that the more you say about Jesus the more you risk getting it wrong.

And through the Christian centuries, these unresolved tensions and deliberate ironies in the Bible have gone on prompting people to resist the lure of Pullman’s “Christ” and his anxious religiosity – a Francis of Assisi, a Bonhoeffer; an Óscar Romero, murdered 30 years ago last week for his resistance to state terror in El Salvador. They have seen through the surface froth of religion and heard the voice Pullman himself obviously finds so compelling. That should make us pause before deciding that the New Testament is quite as successful in sanitising an uncomfortable history through religiously convenient “truth” as Pullman implies. It is aware of its own temptations. It trains its readers in self-questioning.

Not always, God knows, given the church’s record. But often enough to mean that the gospels are still a more resourceful text even than such a searching, teasing and ambitious narrative as Pullman has given us.


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