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