Philip Pullman: Good Man or Scoundrel?

It’s not often that an author gets death threats for writing a novel. It happened to Salman Rushdie some years ago after a Muslim Ayatollah issued a Fatwah on him for writing ‘The Satanic Verses’. But it’s happened again recently. This time the threats have come from Christians and the threats have been made against Philip Pullman, the well-known writer of the trilogy ‘His Dark Materials’.

His new book was published just before Easter and it’s called ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’. The death threats came before the book was even published, and so must have been based just on the rather provocative title and the fact that Pullman is a well-known atheist.

When I first heard about the book, I knew that there’d be quite a lot of publicity and controversy, so I thought I’d better get hold of a copy and read it. I’m glad I did. It’s thought-provoking and anyone who reads it with an open mind will find that it can stimulate some really creative thinking about the Christian faith and, in particular, the stories about Jesus in the New Testament.

It’s important to say straight away that Philip Pullman knows the New Testament very well. He was brought up a Christian and, after his father died in a plane crash when he was very young, he lived with his grandfather – who was a clergyman.

Pullman says that the book was partly inspired by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who said to him once that he should write about Jesus. And this is the result – ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ – and it very clearly states on the back cover of the book: ‘This is a story’.

It’s a re-telling of the gospel stories in a little over 200 pages. But with striking differences. First and foremost – and the key to the whole story – is that Mary gave birth to twins in Bethlehem – one called Jesus and the other called Christ. As they grow up Jesus becomes the down-to-earth, radical preacher who gathers a group of disciples and a strong following among the ordinary people. He’s not very popular with the religious or Roman authorities though, and they see him as a threat.

The other twin – Christ – lives in Jesus’s shadow. He’s a quieter, more intellectual character. Quite early in the story he meets a mysterious stranger who wants him to write down everything Jesus says and does for posterity. He even persuades Christ to betray Jesus to the authorities. Jesus is arrested, tried, crucified and buried. Then on the Sunday morning the body of Jesus is removed from the tomb and Christ impersonates Jesus to persuade the disciples that he has risen from the dead.

Now that’s an over-simplification of Pullman’s novel. But from that summary you can see that what he’s written is a long way from our traditional understanding of the gospel stories.

So what’s Philip Pullman trying to do in this book? And is it any sort of threat to the Christian faith?

The key to understanding what he’s about is his belief that the Church has got Jesus wrong. That, basically, Jesus was a good chap and the Church distorted and added to his original message to create an organisation which could control human beings for its own ends.

The mysterious stranger in the story could be interpreted as being St Paul. It’s the stranger who, having told the Christ character to write everything down, then encourages him to add to the events, to elaborate, to change history. He tells Christ: ‘You are helping to write that history. – – – What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom than what was. – – – There is time – and there is what is beyond time. History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting the truth into history.’

Pullman really understands what Bible scholars have thought for many years – that many sections of the gospel are not what they seem. They may not all be the authentic sayings of Jesus, or accounts of what happened, but later additions to the text – perhaps to strengthen the message, to make a better religious point, or to support doctrines about him that developed 30, 40, 50 or 60 years after his death.

I haven’t got the time to go into too much detail on this right now, but if you study the gospels in any depth you can see what’s been going on. The differences, for example, between the stories in St Mark and St John. You sometimes wonder if they’re talking about the same Jesus. Or the way St Paul develops his thinking about Jesus for a Greek-speaking, gentile world. It sounds so different in many ways from the Jewish preacher in Galilee.

So Pullman understands much of what happened in the early church. He knows his New Testament. Some parts of the book are beautifully written and can add greatly to our understanding of the Gospels. The chapter where Jesus is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, for instance, is very moving, even though – at the end of the chapter – Jesus decides he’s talking to himself – because God isn’t listening.

There’s a lot that’s hard to get your head round. That it’s Christ rather than Judas who betrays Jesus. That the body of Jesus was carried away from the tomb and disposed of. That Christ married and retired to the sea-side under an assumed name after his final visit to the disciples.

But – as Pullman says – this is a story. It’s not history – any more than the gospels are ‘history’ in the sense we would accept it today.

He’s not a threat to the Christian faith. He doesn’t himself believe in God, but he has a great respect for the Bible and for the person of Jesus. He worries about what the Church has done to Jesus over the centuries – but, then, so do I and so do a lot of people who call themselves Christians.

I think Philip Pullman will have done us a great service if his book makes a few more people take the Gospels seriously; to ask hard questions; to try to understand more clearly the core of the message of Jesus – to love God and to love your neighbour as you love yourself. That affects every part of human life and it’s not about power and control. It’s about the glorious freedom of the children of God.

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