Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy are three of my favourite books in the world. The books, if you haven’t read them, follow the adventures of a young girl called Lyra, who lives in a parallel world to ours, where humans’ souls exist outside their bodies and take animal forms. The sheer imagination that suffuses the novels is wondrous, and is underpinned by Pullman’s powers of characterisation; Lyra and her companion, Will, who’s from our world, are no mere products of ink on paper, but are as present as living, breathing flesh; as are their animal souls.
One of the most striking preoccupations of the books, and a common target for commentary since their publication, is the strength and corruption of its fictional church, called the Magisterium. In Northern Lights, the first of the books, the Magisterium has built a laboratory to perform dreadful experiments on children in the name of trying to eradicate Dust, which they believe is a physical manifestation of sin. The books are peppered with zealots of all kinds, from the lethal Mrs Coulter, a power-hungry associate of the Magisterium, to fanatics willing to flagellate themselves in advance punishment for crimes. Pullman’s fictional assailment upon wealthy, corporate churches was echoed in his personal statements, with his famous quote ‘My books are about killing God’ earning him plenty of ire from Christians all around the world.
His new book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which I reviewed recently for The Big Issue, tackles similar ground in a more radical fashion. In fact, it might be seen as the thematic prequel to the His Dark Materials books: it sets up the structures and mythology that Pullman had Lyra tear down. Pullman reimagines the original Christian birth as a double: Mary is the mother of twins, Jesus and Christ. Christ is the early forerunner in the story, a child who performs miracles and often assists his more compulsive brother, Jesus, out of trouble. As the brothers age, the differences intensify – Jesus becomes a charismatic religious teacher devoted to God, who repels with disgust Christ’s attempts to persuade him to capitalise on his influence and assemble a structured church, ‘all answering to the authority of one supreme director’.
Christ is asked by a mysterious stranger to make a record of Jesus’ doings, and he does so – at first as accurately as he can, but then with some revisions and editing. So we learn that the stories we now know from the Bible were entirely different in the doing; we see the tension of myth and history. For instance, the paralysed man whom Jesus exhorts to take up his mat and walk was not cured, but ’so strengthened and inspired by the atmosphere Jesus had created that he found himself able to move’. And, at a wedding in Cana where the wine has run out, Jesus has a few words with a steward and more wine appears, but it’s not certain exactly how; it’s possible that Jesus has simply asked for more to be brought out.
There is a lot to admire in the book, but there are also disappointments. I have not read anything so beautiful this year as The Good Man Jesus’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, which is served well by Pullman’s easy yet arresting prose. His way with characterisation and dialogue (assisted, of course, by the source material) provides us with a Jesus who is resolute and lion-like in ferocity. But there’s close to no subtlety in Jesus’s diatribe in Gethsemane. In Mark’s gospel, this is a moment of enduring and bottomless faith. But in The Good Man Jesus, Jesus has lost his faith completely, and is using his last moments not for reconciliation but catharsis: ‘Lord, if I thought you were listening, I’d pray for this above all: that any church set up in our name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest. That it should wield no authority except that of love.’ It’s rather too ‘The Church’s Worst Crimes throughout the Ages’, and not strongly foreshadowed in the book; as Rowan Williams said in his Guardian review, ‘nothing in the narrative has prepared us for this; the Jesus of earlier chapters has a robust conviction of the unconditional love of God’.
The Christian story is one that clearly has a powerful hold on Pullman. In fact, such is its power over him that my thoughts upon reading The Good Man Jesus were of a similar tenor to James Bradley’s conclusion in May 5th’s Australian Literary Review (though nowhere near as finely worded) that The Good Man Jesus ‘is a book so bound up in its argument with religion that it is … essentially a religious text, unable to transcend the terms of its creation’. The dilemma faced by Christ – how to represent Jesus’s story and ensure its longevity – is one that accepts the power and grace of that originary story. But while Pullman may have an argument with religion, he certainly doesn’t have anything against the power of story, the sole element of religion that emerges from the book unscathed.
Read the transcript of a conversation between Philip Pullman and Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury (whose intelligence and engagement with non-Christian viewpoints make me furious about being in the poisonous vicinity of George Pell), here.