Contemporary atheism has a notable moral tone which goes something like this: The universe is what it is and does and nothing more. Since there is no good reason to believe in anything ‘more’ it is immoral to believe in God. The Jesus story is a story which provides us with no sufficient reasons to believe it is more than just a story. Consequently Christian belief is also immoral. ‘Church’, due mainly to a disregard for truth and an inability to respect humankind, is itself an immoral institution.
So ecclesial life is given short shrift. This moral tone is not exactly original, but it gives contemporary atheism a fresh cultural momentum. And it has a literary dimension.
Some of Philip Pullman’s extensive children’s literature, much beloved by many adults, is explicitly atheist and anti-Church. This feature has been much discussed (see for example, Hugh Rayment-Pickard, The Devil’s Account. Philip Pullman and Christianity [Darton, Longman and Todd, 2004]). But whereas Pullman’s delightful trilogy, His Dark Materials, is set in contemporary and imaginary worlds, his latest story, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, is set in the time and place of the New Testament. As Gerry O’Collins SJ points out in his short, clear and well-informed rebuttal, Philip Pullman’s Jesus, Pullman has moved into historical fiction. O’Collins’ main and telling criticism is that Pullman’s fiction does not sufficiently respect the history or the texts involved. This matters, since Pullman’s book would have held little interest in the absence of the New Testament.
In outline, the Pullman narrative is as follows. Mary gives birth to twins, the elder ‘Jesus’ and the younger ‘Christ’. The standoffish younger brother becomes the tempter in the desert and betrays Jesus in Gethsemane. Christ records what Jesus says and does – or ought to have said and done – with help from an elusive ‘stranger’ and an ‘informant’ among the apostles. The record is written to benefit the authoritarian and deceitful ‘Church’ to come. Historical truth is sacrificed to an eternal truth from above. After his death and burial the body of Jesus is removed from the tomb by two disciples and Christ impersonates his twin in the Emmaus narrative. Christ does not like all of this, but goes along with it. In the meantime many gospel incidents and parables are retold – although some, as O’Collins points out, are rewritten rather than retold. The kind of rewriting involved prompts O’Collins to wonder whether the scoundrel in question is really Pullman (O’Collins, pp. 44, 69 & 99.)
It is the rewriting which O’Collins holds up for historical criticism. Pullman gives attractive paraphrases for some parables and events, but omits passages which imply that Jesus has an authority on par with God’s authority. Moreover, Pullman modifies some episodes so that attention is drawn away from the person of Jesus and hence evades the thrust of the passage. This is particularly so in the double retelling of the parable of ‘The Prodigal Son’ in Luke’s Gospel where ‘the unconditional mercy of God embodied in the person of Jesus’ (emphasis in original) is absent from Pullman’s retelling (O’Collins, p. 43.)
Jesus’s miracles are also rewritten. Naturalistic explanations shape Pullman’s narrative and consequently empty the gospel accounts of ‘their deep and enduring significance’. That Jesus doesn’t bless the loaves and fish in Pullman’s narrative of the multiplication of loaves (Mk 6, 34-44) is for O’Collins a ‘failure of imagination’, an imagination which indeed ‘sometimes shines’ (O’Collins, pp. 52, 65). Naturally, Pullman also gives an old naturalistic explanation for the resurrection. For O’Collins, he has insufficient regard for the reliability of the gospel texts.
The deftly named ‘stranger’ who inveigles Christ into ‘improving’ the Jesus story is, in Pullman’s narrative, an angel, probably fallen. O’Collins, surely rightly, identifies this figure as representing the leaders of the future Church who ensure that the ‘truth’ recorded is what they consider it should have been This, O’Collins says, is indeed a ‘nasty travesty’ of what happened (O’Collins, p. 72).
Pullman certainly gives a reductive account of reworked gospel texts. The idea of an unembellished primitive narrative is of course itself a great fiction. But Pullman’s narrative effectively makes ‘Christ’ the single source of the gospels. O’Collins (as usual) is assiduous in drawing attention to the history, in this case the multiple sources of the gospels – more sources, indeed, than there are evangelists.
To imagine all of these sources to be radically perverted is to overwork Pullman’s admonitory finger to the bone. The same is true of the great figures from the first centuries of Christian history. As O’Collins points out, it is also difficult to imagine all of them being so wicked (p. 72). In any event it was the Gnostics, not the early Christians, who sacrificed historical truth to presumed knowledge from above (O’Collins, p. 74). Moreover, Pullman’s critical and negative view of Church history is not matched by an evaluation of ‘secular’ history. He is silent, as O’Collins points out, about the evil done by atheists (p. 80).
Clearly Pullman reads back into the formation of the gospels the corruption he sees in the ‘Church’ now – where ‘Church’ sounds like the splendidly named ‘Magisterium’ in His Dark Materials. This retrojection, however, is not done in order to free Jesus from later corruptions but precisely to identify a baleful institution. What seems to me a legitimate device for fiction is in the event, as O’Collins points out, not historically convincing. It may help Christians to learn about what Joyce Poole called ‘the harm we do’, but better history would give a more knowledgeable and faithful awareness. Jesus, as O’Collins reminds us, has a hard time as the Church’s best critic (pp. 80-81).
I am sympathetic to O’Collins’ response. The kind of historical fiction Pullman writes has a family resemblance to, say, Jim Crace’s imaginative though somewhat empiricist roman-a-clef, Quarantine, which covers Jesus’s temptations in the wilderness. There, however, Jesus is not named as ‘Jesus’, still less as ‘Christ’, which as O’Collins points out was never a proper name in the New Testament period. Pullman avoids an amiable literary convention and keeps New Testament scholarship at a distance. However, there is a solid and complex body of scholarship about the formation of the gospel texts, including the synoptic question, which suppose the evangelists edited and retold earlier material. O’Collins knows this work well, but uses it very little. This is a pity since Pullman’s story is, of course, a story about the retelling of stories.
There is, moreover, a difficult intersection between ‘history’ and ‘faith’, where – to the bewilderment of many – faith is dependent on but not deducible from history. Pullman’s ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ are a pointed version of the old conundrum about ‘the Jesus of history and Christ of faith’. One main issue here is the truthfulness of the four evangelists in telling – and re-telling – the Jesus story. Truth-telling is also the issue if we question the coherence of the four gospels with Paul’s letters and the rest of the New Testament. Paul, it appears, never read the gospel texts as we have them now, so any coherence is a source of some wonder. O’Collins is very helpful in pointing out and itemising the interest Paul shows in the ‘historical’ Jesus.
There are of course other significant issues which remain, notably the existence of God, the nature of that existence, and the character – should God ‘exist’ – of any experience of God. Pullman deals with these in the long, moving and much-noticed Gethsemane chapter. Jesus experiences the silence and the absence of God and will not be satisfied with a ‘presence in absence’, nor, I suppose, with a silence which is not dumb: ‘...God’s great absence means he’s not bloody well there.’ (Pullman, p. 196) In this section, as O’Collins and others have said, it is Pullman rather than Pullman’s Jesus who speaks. History is gracefully or abruptly abandoned. However, ‘silence’ and ‘absence’ are places where imagination and truth may struggle; it is perhaps in places such as these that Pullman and O’Collins (and the rest of us) might have an opportunity to meet.
What kind of God is absent remains an open question. The God of Pullman’s His Dark Materials is a fine candidate for disbelief, absence and non-existence. This God represents the kind of atheism sent up in a witty and sustained fashion by Terry Eagleton, who makes it clear that God ‘is not a censorious power which prevents us from being good middle-class liberals and thinking for ourselves.’ (Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution. Reflections on the God Debate, p. 17). Whether Pullman has moved forward to a new and more taxing atheism is unclear. Nonetheless it is clear that the non-existence of God allows Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ to be the kind of story it is. But only partly.
Some of Pullman’s retellings of the gospel texts are as O’Collins says – echoing Rowan Williams – ‘pitch perfect.’ Even so, O’Collins is highly critical of Pullman’s refashioning of, for example, the parable of the ten bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13) since it draws attention away from the mysterious figure of the bridegroom. Pullman’s retelling – or rewriting – seems to me unnecessarily complicated. But the end picture is clear: a wise bridesmaid refuses to enter the bridegroom’s house out of solidarity with her foolish sisters who are refused entry: ‘And for her sake the bridegroom opened the doors of the banquet and admitted them all’ (p. 142). This does have an evangelical attractiveness. The wise bridesmaid seems a sister of the Syro-Phoenician or Canaanite lady (Mk 7:24-30; Mt 15:21-28) who is the only person in the New Testament to win an argument with Jesus. Perhaps O’Collins has the better exegesis while Pullman has the more attractive ‘reading’. Arguably both express a kind of truth.
Is it Pullman who is the scoundrel as O’Collins suggests? I don’t think so, any more than I think Pullman is the New Testament scholar he never tries to be. There are some failures of historical imagination, and some real successes of Pullman’s storytelling avocation. The Gethsemane chapter gives something of Pullman’s own vision, from a telling denunciation of the clericalism and a dismissal of Platonism, to a picture of a Church which ‘remains poor and powerless... not like a palace with... guards... but like a tree with its roots deep in the soil, that shelters every kind of bird and beast and gives blossom in the spring and shade in the hot sun and fruit in the season, and in time gives up its good sound wood for the carpenter; but that sheds many thousands of seeds so that new trees can grow in its place...’ (pp. 199-200). All this is honourable enough, though I’d back O’Collins both in being honourable and in having a better sense of that truth which is in history. And I would have preferred a (slightly) longer book.
On the back of the cover of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ – which physically looks like a presentation Bible, white and gold with a white ribbon marker – we are told ‘This is a Story’. I still wonder what desperate disclaimer this might be?
Brian B McClorry SJ directs the Spiritual Exercises at St Beuno’s Spirituality Centre in North Wales.
Find Philip Pullman’s Jesus on Darton, Longman and Todd's web site
Find The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ on Canongate's web site