The good writer Phillip and the wishful-thinker Pullman

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Phillip Pullman (review)

Phillip Pullman’s retelling of the gospels is always interesting but reveals his view of religion to be confused.

Chances are it won’t be news to you that Phillip Pullman knows how to tell a story. And that includes telling arguably the most important story of all: the life and time of Jesus Christ.

Only in Pullman’s version there is no Jesus Christ. Instead there is Jesus and Christ, two brothers who between them create the Christian religion as we know it today. Jesus is a righteous prophet of social justice, whilst Christ is the unreliable chronicler of Jesus’ life and message. Jesus is disdainful of all authority including that of God (whose existence he seems dubious of). Christ, by contrast, believes that for the message to have an impact it must be imbued with the supernatural and provide a justification for establishing an institution to promote it.

This is a neat conceit and Pullman delivers it well. Most impressively he does this by pastiching not the grandiose poetry of the King James Bible but the dry functional prose of the more recent translation like the NIV. Despite this constraint Pullman still makes his telling highly readable and his version almost invariably has more literary merit than the original.

Where it falls down is in his theology. This is basically a didactic story: he his advocating for Jesus the carrier of a true Christian message against Christ its distorter. Jesus believes in the things Pullman does (compassion for others, political radicalism and atheism) whilst Christ is the standard bearer for organised religion and divinity. He’s also a liar who skulks in the shadows and covertly consorts with nefarious figures.

This is a wildly implausible reading of the Gospels. There is little historical sense in seeing Jesus’ divinity as something that was posthumously foisted on a human teacher. The problem with such a reading is that in the earliest Christian sources we have (Paul’s letters) already treat Jesus as God. The Gospels which introduce us to Jesus the man were written later. Thus if one is going to dismiss any part of Jesus as a fabrication then it should logically be his earthly deeds not his purported divine nature.

And there is no reasonable basis for supposing that he was an atheist. If he had been, then arriving at our current version of the Gospels would have required not just embellishment but a complete fabrication. Jesus preaches loving others a lot but discusses God even more and intimately connects the two. Christianity without some sense of the supernatural and transcendent would be a desiccated husk.

That’s mostly beside the point though. This isn’t what Pullman is saying did happen but his way of discussing what is valuable in the Christian story and what isn’t. The problem is that where he sees a simple lesson, there is actually a tension. Pullman is of course right to detect a scepticism of religious authorities in Jesus’ message – it’s hard to miss though plenty of people manage it – and there is of course a tradition inside as well as outside Christianity of regarding the authoritarian hierarchies of organisations like the Catholic Church with horror.

However, that’s not to say that religious organisations are without their merits. I’ve already quoted the sociologist Tom Shakespeare on this blog explaining why religion is valuable and in this context it bears repeating:

Without religion, the danger is that an individual thinks that he or she is the centre of the universe. Religion asks more of you than just to look after yourself. Because religion is a collective practice, it enables us to learn from others around us, and from a history of sincere and disciplined examination of the problems of life – a history which is sometimes called the Wisdom Traditions. Through reflection and discussion in the context of religion, we can achieve discernment, which means seeing reality more clearly.

Putting this principle into practice, Shakespeare joined the Quakers. While I have many issues with the ‘Friends’ in no meaningful sense can they be accused of authoritarianism. They are democratically organised and have used “though shall decide for yourself” as a slogan. Being organised like that has its disadvantages; there are things which a centralised institution like the Catholic Church can do which the Quakers can’t. But there clearly are a plurality of different ways of setting up religious institutions. Therefore, it is wrong to suppose as Pullman does that to institutionalise religion necessarily means turning it into something authoritarian.

The problem with Pullman’s atheist Jesus is that he is too simple a creature to reflect these kind of nuances. He is just a blank slate onto which Pullman projects largely platitudinous exhortations to be good and righteous. The Jesus of the Bible is far more interesting and enlightening because he is all about paradoxes: law and morality, mercy and justice, tradition and revelation to name but a few. He is himself a paradox. He is God and man. Jesus and Christ.

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One thought on “The good writer Phillip and the wishful-thinker Pullman

  1. Patently an atheist Jesus Christ is a question worthy of not a single breath of sensible consideration. Equally, I think any suggestion that we dispense with notions of Jesus Christ as a living, breathing man worthy of similarly short shrift (despite realising that you raise this by way of demonstrating the fatuousness of the reverse logical ‘reasoning’). All of this is by-the-by, however – I think largely these discussions are meaningless in the way that Pullman’s book is fairly meaningless.

    Two points of note only: 1. the “literary merit” test on which you adjudge Pullman to be superior to the Gospels is rather thin. I suspect that the subtext is “language that speaks of value to me today; language that I can appreciate” rather than a translation that is unavoidably clumsy of the Greek nuance. As example, does Pullman really write poetry filled with greater meaning and rhythm than Philippians 2:6-11?

    2. You discuss “a scepticism of religious authorities in Jesus’ message”, but continue in the vein of a queasiness about authoritarianism. The inclusion of Tom Shakespeare is interesting, but disconnected from Jesus Christ. Questions about a liberal democracy of church and of efficiency are not considerations that bothered Jesus. The line “scepticism of religious authorities” skids over at least three important aspects:

    a) Jesus started his ministry in synagogues (Mark 1:21-22, 39).

    b) Jesus was the subject of assassination plots from religious authorities (eventually successful) from very early on – their attitude to him was far worse than the reverse! (Mark 3:6).

    c) Jesus declares that the worldwide Church will be built on Peter the Rock (Matthew 16:17-18). This man is to have the keys of heaven and earth – if this isn’t authority, perhaps leading to (entirely appropriate) authoritarianism then I don’t know what is. Jesus did not apparently have a problem with an authoritarian truth, upheld by the Church. Obviously within the context of love and no judgement (Matthew 7:3), but us let not project the our predilection for liberal consensus onto the Son of God and his righteousness.

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