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Philip Pullman takes a poke at Jesus — just in time for Easter!

March 22, 2010

Philip Pullman

Regardless of the controversy Philip Pullman’s new anti-Christian novel may generate, some commentators are sure to say it proves the superiority of Christianity over Islam simply because he probably won’t be assassinated or his publishing house bombed by some seething Fundamentalist.

This is, of course, balderdash. The security that critics, blasphemers, apostates and atheists enjoy to besmirch Christianity with impunity is less a matter of Christian love than the triumph of secular civil authority in the Western world.

More on that in a moment. First, Pullman: The author of the popular Young Adult fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, Pullman “has been on the US’s most ‘challenged’  books list for the last two years,” according to the Guardian. That’s because the trilogy “portrays God as a senile old man and the church as an oppressive tyrant.”

Indeed, Pullman has long been among Britain’s leading atheists. His Dark Materials is, among other things, an atheist-humanist answer to the Christian symbolism, themes and message of C.S. Lewis’ even more beloved series of children’s fantasies, The Chronicles of Narnia.

Pullman’s new novel is clearly designed to shock and offend, beginning with its title:  The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. It’s part of Canongate Books’ “Myths” series, which has ancient myths re-imagined by modern writers: Margaret Atwood on Odysseus, Victor Pelevin on Theseus, David Grossman on Samson, and so forth.

I haven’t seen it yet, but reportedly The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ argues that the version of Jesus that we know — a divinity whose sacrifice redeems humankind — is entirely the creation of St. Paul.

“Paul was a literary and imaginative genius of the first order who has probably had more influence on the history of the world than any other human being, Jesus certainly included,” Pullman told the Guardian when the book was announced last fall. “I believe this is a pity.”

While I’m a committed secularist who believes in absolute free speech, I do not find it charming when someone attacks other people’s faith in predictable and vulgar terms. Of course, Pullman is a gifted writer, and this book may be, as the publisher avers, “pithy, erudite, subtle and powerful,” worthy of “being read and re-read, studied and unpacked, much like the Good Book itself.”

Haw! That’s a good one, putting Pullman on a par with one of the literary masterpieces of the world. I guess next we’ll be saying Mary Stewart’s take on the Arthurian legend is worth study and re-reading, just like Sir Thomas Malory.

The proof is in the reading, of course. But I doubt Pullman’s come up with anything new. Poking Christian orthodoxy in the eye is old sport, dating at least to Thomas Jefferson’s The Philosophy of Jesus, and including, to name but a few, The Passover Plot, Slaughterhouse Five, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Da Vinci Code and the Jesus Seminar.

Pullman, needless to say, glories in the hate mail he’s received, some of it based on the title alone. Security will be “heightened” for a reading at Oxford on Sunday.

“The letter writers essentially say that I am a wicked man, who deserves to be punished in hell,” Pullman crows. “Luckily it’s not in their power to do anything like sending me there.”

I wonder if Pullman would be so sanguine had he written a similarly outrageous book about the Prophet Muhammad? Certainly, it is safer to take a big swing at the fat pinata of Jesus. Just ask Salman Rushdie or the Danish cartoonists.

Some, I know will argue that this means Christianity is a superior, less barbarous, or perhaps more mature faith than Islam. But only those ignorant of history will fall for that one.

You mean the Christianity that murdered hundreds of thousands of Albigensians, Beziers, Waldenses, Anabaptists and other heretics? That burned William Tyndale at the stake for the crime of translating the Bible into English?

Surely no one can think Christian clerics and institutions would hesitate to arrest and execute heretics and blasphemers if they still had authority to do so. Fortunately, Western secularism has transferred judicial and governing power to the civil state, making it safe for Pullman to tweak the nose of Christ and his followers.

None of this implies that either religion is  right or wrong. In much of the Old Testament, God is railing against the Jews for disobeying his law, while much of the New Testament consists of Paul’s letters to churches that have gone astray. Religion is practiced by people, always fallible, not by God.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. alexis permalink
    March 22, 2010 1:23 pm

    For someone who thinks Christianity is a joke, he sure spends a lot of time and effort attacking it. Thou doth protest too much? And it does seem like he is totally in this for the shock value and for the hate mail, seemingly no better then Howard Stern. I bet he never got enough love.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 22, 2010 1:33 pm

    In all his life? Wasn’t brought up right?

    Sorry, I was having a Lucinda moment.

    I think you may be on to something here. I hold no brief for religion, though I must admit my former hostility has cooled considerably over the past couple of years. I’ve come to think that mocking someone else’s faith is rude and unseemly and seldom called for. No one knows the meaning of life, should there be one, and anything that offers comfort in the short, often brutal course of mortal life deserves some respect, even if it’s incorrect.

    • alexis permalink
      March 22, 2010 2:23 pm

      Ha! Yes, I had Lucinda in mind when I said that.

  3. Tommy permalink
    March 22, 2010 1:43 pm

    “Always look on the bright side of life” – Brian

    Some of the funniest, ludicrously funny things I have ever read are in the Bible. Some of the funniest, ludicrously funny people I have ever met are those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. Sure Pullman is up to some good old fashioned “stirring it up”. And good for him. All religion is at the same time absurd and sacred. I think his book is a product of more and more fundamentalists and creationists trying to cram their beliefs down the throat of today’s youth. Pullman is, in a maybe clumsy sensationalistic rude and graceless way, giving everyone the other side of the coin. The urination scene seems to be more of a comment on the lost gospel writer than on the Jesus character. I mean move out of the way dude, he’s havin a piss. How subservient can someone be?

    And Alexis, wouldn’t you rather Pullman wrote books instead of rode a Harley in reaction to a lack of love.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 22, 2010 2:08 pm

      Interesting point, but let me say that one of the reasons I have evolved from atheism to agnosticism has been the unseemly behavior of brutish atheists the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and now I add Pullman to their company. Such as they show that religious types are not the only ones willing and eager to do some cramming.

      • Tommy permalink
        March 22, 2010 2:57 pm

        How boring would life be without the brutes. No Marquis de Sade, no Anton LaVey, no Ghandi, no Mother Teresa, no Albert Camus, no Jerry Falwell, no Kurt Cameron, no St. Peter.

        Hell is a place where we all agree!

  4. A-K87 permalink
    March 22, 2010 1:43 pm

    Chauncey, excellent piece again! I read the His Dark Materials trilogy when I was about 15 and I still think about how it made me feel at the time every now and then (I’m a big wuss). Although the first novel North Lights (named The Golden Compass outside of the UK) was aimed at young adults, people of all ages (and religious beliefs/non beliefs) can gain something big out of reading the enitre trilogy as it is extremely multilayered. In 2003 The BBC’s Big Read survey discovered that His Dark Materals came 3rd behind Pride and Prejudice and The Lord Of The Rings as the UKs best loved book.

    I really did not pick up on any ulterior motive to ridicule Christ or his followers. I’m really looking forward to Pullman’s latest novel especially because he doesn’t seem to be the attention seeking-controversial type despite his ‘anti-religion’ views. I am really baffled as to the offensive title and wonder whether the media (particularly over here in the UK) are blowing the actual contents out of proportion.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 22, 2010 2:10 pm

      I enjoyed The Golden Compass and I also enjoyed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Fortunately, it is not necessary to subscribe to a writer’s religious or philosophical positions in order to enjoy their novels.

  5. March 22, 2010 1:47 pm

    “I haven’t seen it yet, but reportedly The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ proposes the discovery of a fifth Gospel that reports Jesus’ last words on the cross were, “Please, somebody, finish me.””

    “And Pullman’s book will be vulgar: One of Jesus’s last actions, according to the Guardian is to urinate on the head of the lost gospel writer as he dies on the cross.”

    I thought I would come and correct some misconceptions. The story you’re referring to is not Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. The Fire Gospel by Michel Faber told a story about the discovery of a Fifth Gospel in order to retell the myth of Prometheus.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 22, 2010 2:11 pm


      Thanks so much for that. I am, as you can see, reacting not to Pullman’s book, but to the media splash surrounding it, and I found some of the reporting so far to be confusing. I will correct my blog post at once.


      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        March 22, 2010 2:18 pm

        Note: This post has been corrected to eliminate the confusion between Pullman’s new book and Michael Faber’s book, published earlier in the “Myths” series, on Prometheus. Sorry for the error. I misread one of the news stories about Pullman.

  6. March 22, 2010 1:56 pm

    I will be playing cards with all the Gods tonight. (every Monday night) Jesus may be sitting in for his father. (they do that some times). I will ask when the game is over what they think of the book. They all have very good senses of humor. I will let you know.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 22, 2010 2:11 pm

      Be careful. I have it on good authority that Zeus cheats.

  7. rachel permalink
    March 22, 2010 1:59 pm

    Balderdash is a very good word.

    Yes, I don’t really understand people who get so much out of offending so many people. I agree with you Chauncey Mabe, just because I don’t believe in something doesn’t mean that I need to poke fun at people who do.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 22, 2010 2:12 pm

      Yes, I’m quite fond of “balderdash.” But it must be reserved for rare use, lest it become an occasion of unintended fun. Thanks for noticing.

    • Tommy permalink
      March 22, 2010 2:47 pm

      There is this new show on television called South Park, it’s great and in no way offensive to others beliefs.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        March 22, 2010 4:02 pm

        I have heard of this program. It’s on the Self-Help Channel, right?

  8. Candice permalink
    March 22, 2010 4:12 pm

    Love your headline, Chauncey Mabe.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 22, 2010 4:57 pm

      Thank ye, ma’am. I aim to please.

  9. March 26, 2010 11:43 am

    Played cards Monday night. Charlie Crist sat in for Jesus. I won a solar system, two suns and a night with Chelsea H. One of the prizes I had to give back. One I could keep. Guess witch one.

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