Providing myths and fables to the Godless

Far from rubbishing the Gospels, Philip Pullman brilliantly re-explores them, revisiting a question that has haunted thinkers since at least the fifth century: are Jesus and Christ two separate entities?

Ann Furedi

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Reports of Philip Pullman’s intention to write about the Gospels excited the ire of many Christian militants who, since the publication of his anti-church epic-myth trilogy His Dark Materials, have seen him as corruptor of youth and pronouncer of things devilish. In the US, the prayerful called for a boycott of the first film of the trilogy – and the Catholic League claimed responsibility for a halt to Hollywood plans to film the rest. (Given that the film of The Golden Compass reduced a novel that AN Wilson thought was ‘unmatched [in the last decade] for range of depth and passion’ to the level of Harry Potter, I, too, think this result – whether a consequence of Christian protest or the global recession – is a blessing.)

Pullman is often regarded as one of the pack of ‘New Atheists’ – a fellow thinker of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who regard religion with contempt and loathing. This is a terrain on which, currently, it is fashionable to pitch one’s intellectual tent. Pullman has done nothing to distance himself from this orthodoxy, and has said much that aligns him with it. Recently, he told the Guardian: ‘I hope the wretched Catholic Church will vanish entirely.’ Although a minor, throwaway comment at the end of a long and thoughtful interview, it made the front cover of the G2 section; these days, anti-Catholicism shifts copies.

So, the publishing house Canongate must have anticipated a bestseller when Pullman signed up to ‘do’ the Gospels as a contribution to their ‘Myths’ series. Critics anticipated that Pullman’s ‘fable’, published amid more revelations about priestly child abuse, would light another bonfire under the Bible. Before its publication, Bryan Appleyard pronounced The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ as ‘incendiary’ and warned America to ‘brace itself’ again.

In truth, America can relax. Pullman is more subtle and complex about where he stands on the matter of faith than the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens. Challenged by Appleyard for once saying he was ‘trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief’, Pullman claims he was ‘winding [the reporter] up. I’d be a complete idiot if I tried to undermine Christianity. It would mean undermining what I am as well’, he said.

Appleyard describes Pullman as a ‘faithless Christian’, a cultural Christian lacking belief but formed nonetheless by the stories and values of the faith. Pullman doesn’t dismiss faith: he explores it. He has claimed in several interviews that he was inspired to write his latest story by a conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who asked him why he hadn’t dealt with Jesus in His Dark Materials. Pullman said he resolved to do a book about Jesus sometime. Some time later, he told the Guardian, he had an idea: the temptation of Jesus in the desert, not by sin but by Christ. ‘There’s the original prophet with the pure vision blazing in his mind’, said Pullman, ‘and he’s being tempted by the organisation man, who’s saying, “Well, we can set something up here, get something permanent going in the world, but we have to make a few compromises.”’

In Pullman’s fable, Mary has twins – Jesus and Christ. Jesus becomes the charismatic teacher that we know from the Gospels, preaching that God’s kingdom is nigh and people need to behave better. People say he performs miracles and start to call him ‘King of the Jews’ and the ‘Son of God’, but he never says this about himself, and there are plausible explanations for the miracles: the virgin conception is a denied seduction, curing leprosy is the management of misdiagnosis.

Christ, the weaker, but more manipulative and self-righteous brother, wants a better world. He thinks Jesus is ineffective and is persuaded by a nameless stranger to rewrite Jesus’s sayings to be more inspirational and awe-inspiring and meet better the purpose of building the church.

Pullman’s Christ, as the Archbishop of Canterbury observes, is in love with ‘the dream of an unanswerable human authority sanctioned by God, with the mirage of a world forever safe from doubt and permeated by the benign if somewhat capricious presence of a God’. Christ sells (quite literally) Jesus ‘the man’, because he wants Jesus ‘the vision’ – he is Judas and yet he is also St Paul. Discussing this in an interview, Pullman observes that ‘Paul refers to Christ rather than Jesus; the Gospels call him Jesus rather than Christ’. The difference, Pullman thinks, is that the Gospels wanted to tell us about his life, whereas Paul was interested in what the meaning of that life was after its death.

It is understandable why Rowan Williams (who, incidentally, reveals himself through his review as a more compelling literary critic than a church leader) should ask Pullman why Jesus is left out of His Dark Materials. The trilogy sets up the established church, ‘The Authority’, as the framework for evil and a force of corruption. It is not uncommon for writers who problematise the established church as an institution still to see Jesus the person as a force for good. Often, the mystical Christ of the church hierarchy is separated from the historical Jesus caught up in the Roman occupation, preaching radical, if subtle, defiance. It is a simplistic and over-simplified device that has helped many radicals to reconcile the dual role of religion: to them, Jesus represents the ‘sigh of the oppressed’, Christ ‘the opium of the people’.

The division of Jesus and Christ (Pullman’s twins) is a concept that has been bouncing around for almost as long as Christianity itself. Socialists have loved to love Jesus because Jesus, the revolutionary – scourge of money-lenders and defender of the dispossessed – sits conveniently with a radical social-justice agenda. Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, reportedly thinks Jesus is the greatest socialist in history. The Irish-Catholic, Marxist critic Terry Eagleton thinks Jesus has the edge on Trotsky as Trotsky didn’t rise from the dead.

The relationship of Christ’s divinity to his humanity was an issue before the Dark Ages. In the fifth century, the church was consumed in an almighty row about whether there were two persons (one human and one divine) or two natures (a human nature and a divine nature) in the one person (see Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, Unwin, 1946). The ‘two persons’ theory raised complicated issues about whether the Virgin Mary could be called the Mother of God, assuming that she were only the mother of the human person, while the divine person, being God, could have no mother. Predictably, heresies were defined; people died terrible deaths.

Given this tradition, it is understandable that Pullman on Jesus Christ might have been seen as having incendiary heretical potential.

But to me, a former ‘server’ at Anglican communion and teenage teacher of a Sunday-school class, The Good Man Jesus… seems far less challenging to Christianity than some of Pullman’s previous work. The Good Man Jesus… explores the existing myth of the son of God and exposes its contradictions and inadequacies. The subversiveness, and the joy, of His Dark Materials was that it weaved an alternative rich and absorbing myth.

Truly, The Good Man Jesus… will disturb thoughtful Christians. Jesus’s long soliloquy in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest (pp191-201) is a compelling articulation of God’s non-existence. It is a scathing assault on ‘smartarse’ priests who talk about God’s absence really being his presence. And it is interesting to read Rowan Williams’ attempt to answer this: ‘Well, yes’, he says, ‘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… What’s left then? This is the difficult moment. Either you sense that you are confronting an energy so immense and unconditional that there are no adequate words for it; or you give up.’

The Archbishop has a point – that is where the story of Jesus Christ leads us to. Take it or leave it. Faced with that, many of us choose to leave it and shelve faith accordingly.

The joy of Philip Pullman is that he doesn’t just leave it. He shelves the Christian faith and is uninhibited about simply ‘making up’ another story. A sort of substitute explanation for the way life is: mankind’s relationship to God, and to time and the Universe. He defines himself as ‘a man of stories’, fascinated by how stories come into existence and gain meaning, the way in which the Christian Church began to formulate its beliefs and establish a canon of scripture.

He presents Biblical themes as fables, which can be recast and represented, retold and reinvented. Perhaps it’s his atheism that allows him to do this. If there is no truth in the original story, then a different version can be told. With The Good Man Jesus…, he could not be clearer: the words ‘This is a STORY’ are printed in bold on the back cover. This is an incisive, insightful and engaging commentary on the Gospels which, contrary to the fears of some, is more likely to attract people to revisit the Gospels than to drive them away.

His Dark Materials provides no more lure to Biblical text than does Dante’s Inferno. It turns Christianity to so much less than ‘the dust’, which is the source of wonder throughout the trilogy. His Dark Materials subverts faith not because it portrays God as weak, impotent and defeated, and the established church as a force of evil, but because it sets aside the traditional Biblical myths and creates alternative stories that are just as rich. It offers different fables that are at least as satisfying as those that established religion offered. It shows us that it is not a matter of accepting Rowan Williams’ God, ‘or you give up’. It is a matter of finding our story.

Phillip Pullman says on the homepage of his website: ‘I’m not in the message business; I’m in the “Once upon a time” business.’ This is the best place for him to be, spinning those of us who do not have God some myths and fables of our own.

Ann Furedi is chief executive of BPAS.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ , by Philip Pullman, is published by Canongate. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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