There’s always been something visceral about Philip Pullman’s atheism. The brilliant children’s writer is as convinced of the intellectual case against God as Richard Dawkins or any of the other so-called new atheists he’s associated with. But what really seems to animate him—certainly through the course of The Golden Compass, his most famous novel, and its two sequels—is a contemptuous anger for the institutional Church, both Catholic and Protestant, and the more sordid parts of its history. So it’s a bit surprising to see a few (a very few) kind words come the Church’s way in Pullman’s provocatively entitled new novel, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.
Perhaps they arose from the equally surprising relationship—one of mutual respect—between the author and Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. “The novel grew out of an onstage conversation that I had with the archbishop,” says Pullman in an interview. “He pointed out, correctly, that although I had attacked religion in my trilogy, I hadn’t grappled with Jesus. The idea wouldn’t go away, and I began thinking about the differences between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Christ of Paul’s epistles.”
So it is, in Pullman’s self-described “fable”—one of publisher Canongate’s series of ancient myths reworked by modern authors—that Mary gives birth to twins. Jesus is the spiritual genius, the one who preaches love and forgiveness, demands justice for the downtrodden and believes in the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom on earth. But Christ is the religious genius, the one who can envisage—with the help of a shadowy, never-named stranger (“the ultimate clerical bureaucrat,” Pullman calls him)—an entity called the “church” that will carry on his brother’s message, or as much of it as ordinary people, in the judgment of the church, can handle.
So Christ retells Jesus’s acts and rewords his parables to make them more miraculous, more ethereal, more appealing, to create the sort of story that would inspire men and women—as the Gospels have through human history—to comfort the sick and feed the hungry. In the end, Christ even betrays his Jesus with a kiss, for the man must die for the story to live. Afterwards, Christ impersonates his dead twin at key moments, feeding the rumour of resurrection. (Naturally, Doubting Thomas was never allowed close enough to touch the imposter’s wounds: that’s a good story Christ wrote up later.)
Much of this is Pullman having casual fun— some of it mean-spirited—with details he doesn’t really care about in the miracle stories he appends to the beginning of his novel, in the manner of Luke’s Gospel, the main source for the most beloved Christmas stories. (Pullman almost visibly rolls his eyes in his account of the “virgin” birth.) The grandson of an Anglican clergyman, Pullman had a childhood “steeped” in traditional Christianity, and recalls Luke as “the most cheerful evangelist, everyone’s favourite.”
The tenor, not to mention the quality of the prose, of Good Man Jesus undergoes a sea change when, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the story arrives at something Pullman does care about. In a powerfully written 10-page soliloquy the author says he composed with “quite some intensity,” Jesus offers the gospel according to Pullman, who despises the Christian and Platonist split between flesh and spirit. This world is all we have, Jesus says to the night, and it’s lovely, “every inch of it, every blade of grass and drop of blood.” There might as well be nothing else, “because these are enough to gladden the heart and calm the spirit. Body and spirit?.?.?.?is there a difference? Aren’t they the same?” And this church his brother speaks of? “My whole heart and mind and body revolts: as soon as men who believe they are doing God’s will get hold of power, the devil enters into them.”
But Pullman is an artist—at least most of the time—and not a polemicist, and his entire novel is suffused with irony. The back cover reads, “This is a story,” a declaration with multiple meanings: please don’t shoot the messenger; see how the man Jesus might have been transformed into the divine Christ; and, especially, look carefully at the soul of a writer. Pullman’s Christ has more than one motive to do what he does, including a genuine belief it’s what’s best for Jesus and humankind, but what compels him to keep at it, even at times of doubt, is what Pullman calls “his storyteller’s itch to take a story and make it better. Just like the Gospel writers.” Hence the title? “Yes: all storytellers are scoundrels.”