Philip Pullman seems to enjoy stirring up controversy. He annoyed many Christians with his best-selling anti-church, anti-God trilogy His Dark Materials. And it’s evident that he was out to provoke when he made comments like, ‘my books are about killing God,’ and, ‘I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.’ He’s admitted that the latter comment, at least, was intended to wind up the reporter. Often he insists that he’s simply telling stories, not preaching an atheist message.
Still, it’s hard to think that Pullman’s new book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, is merely telling a story. Even the title seems calculated to inflame Christians, and it’s surely no accident that it’s being published in Easter week. The story itself is a curious mixture of respectfully retelling some parts of the Gospel accounts while mangling others.
Pullman says he decided to write about Jesus after Rowan Williams asked why he’s never done so. He went back to the Gospels and read them in different versions, and then re-read Paul where he was struck by many more references to ‘Christ’ than to ‘Jesus’. Pullman claims that Paul wasn’t interested in Jesus the man, only the divine Christ.
So he decided to rework the story of Jesus to focus on this perceived tension. In his version, Mary gives birth to twins: Jesus and Christ. In the wilderness Jesus is tempted not by the devil, but by his brother. Christ wants Jesus to build a powerful church which could spread throughout the world being a force for good. Jesus flatly rejects Christ’s pragmatism; he is an idealist who preaches the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God.
Christ, however, is approached by a mysterious stranger who encourages him to see the spiritual ‘truth’ beyond the sometimes inconvenient historical events. Eventually, the stranger seduces Christ into betraying Jesus (who loses his faith) and then deceiving the disciples into thinking that Jesus has risen from the dead.
Pullman’s point is that what we read in the Gospels is not what actually happened. The real historical Jesus has been smothered by inventions of the early church – in particular the incarnation and the resurrection. Pullman’s Jesus is an extraordinary man, but he’s nothing more than that. He does no miracles, makes no claims to divinity and remains irrevocably dead after his crucifixion.
This is a well-worn attack on the Gospels, though Pullman gives it a provocative new coat of paint. It’s a great shame that he evidently has no idea of the very impressive evidence for the reliability of the gospels.
It’s interesting to see how, despite Pullman’s tinkering with the Gospel accounts, Jesus remains a profoundly compelling character. When he prays in Gethsemane and concludes that God is not there to hear him, it feels like a grating contrast with what we’ve seen of him earlier in the book.
It’s also fascinating that Pullman seems unable to tell the story without occasionally bringing in some very mysterious goings on, which do appear to be miraculous or angelic, even though he tries to deny or redefine such things. It feels like there are times when he’s had to struggle hard to come up with a different interpretation of the events.
Pullman’s gospel fairy-tale is hardly a threat to a Christian’s faith, but it could well be a stimulus which starts many people thinking. The fact that an atheist like Pullman is trying so hard to explain away the divinity of Jesus should drive people back to the Gospels, to see for themselves what the truth really is.