Philip Pullman renowned author and atheist had this book published in the week before Easter. I bought my copy at the WH Smith branch in the Eurotunnel Terminal and read it on holiday.
Lots of people sing Philip Pullman’s praises as an author. I’m not really in a position to be able to comment. I’ve read his Dark Materials Trilogy and remember enjoying them as stories. But I suspect that he wouldn’t want to be judged as a novelist on his latest offering, ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’. It’s a bit wooden and reads like an archaic translation of the Bible. But I’m no literary critic. My purpose is simply to reflect on what Pullman has produced from the perspective of local church ministry.
I want to ask and answer three questions
- What’s the book essentially about?
- What’s Pullman trying to do in it?
- How should Christians respond?
1. What’s the book about?
It’s basically the gospel accounts with some additional extras, occasional distortions and some radical reinterpretations. It’s a story which looks like the gospel accounts but isn’t. It’s like milk with arsenic. There are good bits in there but they’ve been spoiled by the additions!
Essentially it takes the late 19th Century liberal theological idea that the Jesus of history became, in Paul’s writings especially, the Christ of faith. And it encapsulates that in a novel.
Pullman himself wrote,
Christ is an addition; he comes later. I reread Paul, and I counted 30 occasions when he refers to Jesus but 150 plus when he refers to Christ. Paul wasn’t interested in Jesus, he was interested in Christ – in the God part, not the man part. Paul was an incomparable genius, literary and administrative, whose view of this entity he called Jesus Christ, strongly skewed towards the Christ part, is what the church has been founded on ever since.
Pullman wants to maintain that these are two very different versions of Jesus. And so he splits them. He turns them into two separate characters; twin brothers in fact. In his account Mary gives birth to twin boys; one is called Jesus and the other is named Christ. And there you have it; the good man Jesus and the scoundrel Christ.
In childhood Jesus is normal, healthy and mischievous whereas Christ is sickly, bookish and pious. In adolescence Jesus is red blooded, robust and popular whereas Christ is cautious, precocious and ostracized. In adulthood Jesus is straight talking, charismatic and principled whereas Christ is pragmatic, scheming and manipulative.
Contrary to expectation, Jesus ends up being the one who pursues the path of righteousness and preaching the Kingdom of God. He’s popular amongst the crowds but he provokes a strongly negative reaction from the religious authorities. Yet much of what he does takes place in the background of the unfolding narrative. We’re taken up much more with the developing career of the Christ. He is a scheming and calculating manipulator. He thinks that a church structure is necessary in order to preserve Jesus’ powerful teaching. At the instigation of a mysterious character known only as ‘the angel’, the Christ seeks to establish an organisation to perpetuate Jesus’ message about the Kingdom. The identity of the enigmatic stranger is never revealed. It could be a satanic figure; no other mention of the devil is made in the discourse. It could perhaps be a portrayal of the Apostle Paul. After all, Pullman views him as the chief architect of the Christian church. We’re never told.
But the Christ is an unpleasant hateful character. Pullman deliberately portrays him as such by inserting him in the narrative in the place of two key characters. He takes the place of Satan in Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. And he takes the place of Judas when he betrays his brother with a kiss. In the end the Christ plays the part of his allegedly risen brother and attracts the limelight that you would expect. We’re not meant to like this man and what he stands for.
2. What’s Pullman trying to do?
The book is a novel. But that doesn’t mean that he isn’t trying to make a point. As Rowan Somerville wrote,
‘It becomes evident in Pullman’s choice and manipulation of the Biblical narratives that, like the Gospels themselves, he has a thesis to put across and a heavy axe to grind. Pullman’s Messiah is a pious, honest mortal, a Liberation Theologist with a message for a corrupt world, but his Christ is the founding father of the power hungry Church’.
As I understand it, Pullman’s trying to discredit the reputation of the church and undermine its’ influence. He’s not a big fan of ecclesiastical bureaucratic authority.
In the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus considers but then rejects his brother’s idea of a worldwide institution known as the church. He recognises that it would inevitably lead to an abuse of power, cruelty and conquest. That, of course, is exactly what the Christ was after. Pullman comments on this section saying,
‘He is really speaking for me in that section. Of course I don’t condemn speculative thinking, or organising people to help them do good, or setting up hospitals or giving hospitality to travelling strangers or educating people. But we have seen very recently how some aspects of all this can go wrong. People can abuse power. The greatest excuse in the world is that ‘God told me to do it’: hence the Crusades. Once you are appealing to an authority that can’t be checked, you are doing something dangerous’.
He appears to be channelling Dawkins at this point. But his argument is that the church is Christ’s idea. It has nothing to do with Jesus. It’s the wicked, manipulative self serving creation of people who are hungry for power. To make that case he presents us with a story in which Jesus’ agenda is hijacked by the Christ. His view is that what the church has become is not what Jesus intended. And this is a novel to explain how it might have happened.
Whilst we may sympathise with some of his sentiments, there’s clearly more to his opposition of the church than his dislike of her track record. We may have issues with some of the regrettable episodes in church history but we’re not all trying to reinvent the Christian faith in response!
3. What’s our response?
Let’s not go off the deep end. He’s not the first to write this sort of thing. And he won’t be the last. No doubt well meaning Christian brothers and sisters will fire from the hip and write regrettable things. Some of what’s said won’t do the cause of the gospel any favours at all. This book’s publication provides us with lots of opportunities to talk about Jesus and that’s got to be a good thing!
This is how I think we ought to respond.
1. Persuade people to read the originals.
I don’t think that Christians need to read Pullman’s book. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to read it unless they have friends for whom it’s a big issue. It doesn’t take long. It’s not much longer than one of the gospels, rather obviously! I got through it in a couple of days on holiday. You won’t be damaged by reading it. But you might get confused, especially if you’re new to Christian things. And so the best thing to do is to read the originals. We would do well to copy Charlotte Higgins, the Guardian Columnist, who wrote that the book ‘sent her rushing back to the Gospels. I read Matthew over my lunchtime soup, ready to see with new eyes these fascinating and startling documents’. In preparation for his book, Pullman reread the gospels. One wishes he’d paid closer attention to them! But why not read one of the originals and encourage others to do the same. We need to encourage people check out the evidence for themselves.
2. Admit where Pullman has a point.
If I’m right that one of Pullman’s chief reasons for writing this is his intense hatred of institutional religion, then we need to concede that sinful human beings have committed atrocious acts and recruited God to their cause. We shouldn’t try to defend the indefensible. But instinctively I want to defend the church because I’m one of them and they’re my guys. But it’s unarguably the case that ecclesiastical power has not always been a force for good, as the recent revelations about child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church have highlighted. But just as in the same way that we shouldn’t write off the beautiful game of rugby union by watching England massacre it by their own interpretation. Neither should we write off Jesus’ teaching because of our failure to put it into practice. If I wanted someone to appreciate rugby I’d want them to watch a team that knows how to play the game. It pains me to say it, but I’d want them to watch Wales or France. We shouldn’t write off rugby because some people make a complete pig’s ear of it. Neither should we write of Jesus and the church because some people have totally misrepresented what Jesus had in mind.
3. Defend Jesus from misrepresentation.
Let’s not be blasé about what’s in it. Pullman’s account of Jesus is heretical. There’s no getting away from that. I don’t suppose that he’s too troubled by that because he’s an atheist. Pullman has described himself as a ‘Christian atheist and even more particularly, a Church of England atheist. And very specifically, a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist’. And so, in his mind, there’s no God to upset. But there are Christians to upset. And so he tries to hide behind the phrase ‘this is story’, which is printed on the back cover. But that’s disingenuous. He knows what he’s doing. He’s quoted as saying that his book ‘is a story about how stories become stories’. He presents a view of Jesus in which his incarnation is called into question, his divinity is denied, his miraculous activity is at best ambiguous and his resurrection is a devious invention. This is not orthodox Christian teaching. Pullman may be alright with that, but we shouldn’t be. It’s like someone ‘dissing’ your Mum. It’s the kind of thing that got us into fights in the playground. We don’t have to resort to fisticuffs but an even greater sense of indignation ought to fire our opposition to what Pullman wrote. Jesus is our Lord and our Saviour and he’s being misrepresented and we shouldn’t let that go. In an astonishing admission Pullman is recorded as having said, ‘I think my version is much closer to what Jesus would have said. The version in the Gospels is so different from what he said usually’. I’m sorry, say that again?! The obvious question to ask is ‘how do you know what Jesus said if it’s not in the gospels?!!! Once you start down that road we can reinvent Jesus in whatever image we choose. And that’s essentially what Pullman has done.
4. Become informed on the issues.
There are a few ways to do this.
The Good Book Company have a short booklet entitled ‘Can we trust what the Gospels say about Jesus?’ There are longer treatments of the subject like FF Bruce’s ‘The New Testament Documents; Are They Reliable?’ Paul Barnett’s ‘Is the New Testament History?’ and Craig Blomberg’s ‘The Historical Reliability of the Gospels’. But that short booklet is a good place to start.
You can sign up for Christianity Explored and examine the eyewitness evidence at first hand as you work through Mark’s Gospel with others. The website gives details of courses close to where you are.
If you’re near Balham, South London, you could come along to evening church on Sunday May 9th to hear David Wenham, a world renowned New Testament Scholar address these issues. It may be that you have friends who have read the book or are interested in the issues. And if that’s the case then invite them along as well.
For more information and reviews of Pullman’s novel take on Jesus, you might find the following helpful and provocative
Charlotte Higgins, the Guardian here
Rowan Somerville, the Daily Telegraph here
Salley Vickers, the Daily Telegraph here