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Review by The Right Reverend George Hacker, former Bishop of Penrith.
If this were a book about the Prophet Muhammad, it would already have earned the author a Fatwa, and he would be taking shelter in a safe house somewhere, à la Salman Rushdie. As it is Philip Pullman has received his quota of hate mail – not a new experience for him. Others have just been crushingly dismissive. ‘A story about stories falls flat’ – so a reviewer in the Church Times. But what about – ‘Archbishop of Canterbury Praises Philip Pullman’s Story of Jesus’- a headline in the Guardian directing the reader to a review by Rowan Williams on another page? That turned out, as you might expect, to be a thoughtful assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the book – appreciative of some aspects of it, yes! but rejecting its main thesis. But then headlines are notoriously misleading, as the Guardian itself acknowledged in its ‘Correction and Clarifications’ column a few days later.
So what are we to make of this book? Well, on the back cover it states plainly in large letters, ‘THIS IS A STORY’. And we shall get it wrong if we treat it as anything else. It is certainly not a serious piece of history. There is absolutely no evidence to support the central theme, that Mary had twins, one called ‘Jesus’ and the other called ‘Christ’, and that Jesus was the prophetic visionary, while Christ stayed in the background recording events and ‘improving’ on them, in the interests of founding a Church, so that the message would not die. It is a STORY – so not a direct challenge to the Christian Faith in terms of historical fact – though at other levels it clearly is. But more of that later.
To me it reads more like science fiction – though fiction set in the past rather than the future. And this is borne out by a note at the back. The book, the note says, is one of ‘The Myths Series’. ‘Myths’, it explains, ‘are universal and timeless stories that reflect and shape our lives – they explain our desires, our fears, our longings and provide narratives that remind us what it means to be human.’ The best science fiction does this, which is why so many adults have become fans of the revamped ‘Dr Who’. The myths of Greece and Rome do it too, as do the early chapters of the Bible. They are stories with a purpose – stories designed to explain, illuminate, and so hopefully influence and shape the way we react to whatever situation we find ourselves in at the present moment. The best science fiction is always more about the present than the future, just as the old myths are more about the present than the past. And this book falls into that category.
So what does it have to say that throws light on the present and what it means to be human in today’s world? Well, we begin to get an answer to this quite early in the book, when Jesus is tempted in the wilderness – not by the devil but by Christ! And the temptation? To go for success – through popularity, spectacular miracles, and an all powerful institution.
I can see the whole world united in this Kingdom of the faithful – think of that! Groups of families worshipping together with a priest in every village and town, an association of local groups under the direction and guidance of a wise elder in the region, the regional leaders all answering to the authority of one supreme director, a kind of regent of God on earth! . . And there would be councils of learned men . . to declare what was to be believed and what was to be shunned. . . I can see all doubt vanquished, I can see all dissent swept away, I can see the faithful gazing up in adoration on every side.
Powerful stuff, and the Church has yielded to this temptation often enough – even if Jesus didn’t. And it still finds the whole idea of success seductive, until a Francis or a Bonhoeffer, a Mother Teresa or a Jean Vanier, arises to remind it of its roots in the weakness and foolishness of a God who stoops to become one of us because he loves us and cares for us. And what about our achievement centred society, with its obsession with status, and its marginalising of the poor, the unproductive, the inadequate – not to mention the elderly? Philip Pullman’s main target is the Church, but his barbs find other marks as well, and ones less likely to have built in prophetic voices to help them recover their soul.
As the story unfolds, more sinister elements appear. A mysterious stranger persuades Christ to ‘improve’ his record of the doings and sayings of Jesus in the interests of the Kingdom of God.
In writing about what has gone past, we help to shape what will come. . . If the way to the Kingdom of God is to be opened, we who know must be prepared to make history the handmaid of posterity, and not its governor. What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom than what was. I am sure you understand me.
This is the ‘Gospel of Spin’, which we have seen more than enough of in recent years. And at a much darker level, it has been the justification for all the lies and manipulations of the truth, which have been the trade mark of every repressive and corrupt regime since time began. Yes, mysterious stranger, we understand you all too well. And thank you, Philip Pullman, for putting it in such a succinct and memorable way.
Finally, of course, the manipulation of the truth moves from words to deeds. Christ is persuaded by the stranger to betray Jesus and impersonate him in a rigged resurrection. So the success of the new movement is assured, in spite of a total loss of faith by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane – a loss of faith which eventually moves to a loss of belief in the existence of any sort of God at all.
Which brings me to what is for me the most important question: Is this book a serious challenge to people’s Faith? I said earlier that I didn’t think it was in terms of history, as the story is clearly fictional, but at a deeper level it does claim to represent something historical. Did the early Church, and St Paul in particular, ‘improve’ on the actual facts of Jesus’ ministry and death? This is the question Philip Pullman clearly wants us to ask after reading his book, and there is no doubt about his answer either. ‘What might have been is a better servant of the Kingdom than what was.’ The ‘Christ of Faith’ is the Church’s ‘improvement’ (and St Paul’s in particular) on the ‘Jesus of History’ in Philip Pullman’s view.
This is an not a new question. Most of us thought we had put it to bed when we were students, but it has a way of reappearing from time to time in popular thought. And it always has a certain air of plausibility about it – the simplicity of the gospels contrasted with the sometimes tortuous theology of Paul and others. I won’t rehearse the arguments against this view here, except to point to what has always been the clinching argument for most people who take the trouble to go into this in any depth – that the first Christians were all Jews, with Paul in particular a very strict Jew, and that everything in their upbringing, religious and cultural, would have made it most unlikely that they would have spoken about any human being in the way that they did (‘Son of God’, ‘Word of God’ etc), let alone offered prayers to him, however good and holy that person was. Unless it was forced on them by some overwhelming set of experiences . . which of course is what they said happened!
More persuasive perhaps is the emotional impact of the book. The continual debunking of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ miracles, with the suggestion that they were all written up, can have a cumulative drip drip effect, especially when reinforced by the culture of disbelief with which most of us are surrounded. That could be serious for anyone who was struggling with doubts already. In fact once or twice I found I had to remind myself of such things as the healing ‘miracles’ I knew of in my own experience – just to counterbalance the atmosphere Philip Pullman was creating. And then there is that long soliloquy in the Garden. I more than half suspect that what we have there is something of Philip’s own personal ‘credo’. It has the feel of a ‘Testimony’, and as such is moving, if not wholly persuasive. For the sense of God’s ‘absence’, which for Pullman’s Jesus is the last straw, has for many Christians turned out to be a major growth point in their personal pilgrimage. As Rowan Williams puts it in his review: ‘You only get anywhere near the truth when all the easy things to say about God are dismantled – so that your image of God is no longer just a big projection of your self-centred wish-fulfilment fantasies’.
So a controversial and thought provoking book. But one which, I am afraid, many will also find deeply offensive. For it tramples on things that will matter to them very much and which they hold sacred. For that reason, if for no other, I wish it hadn’t been written!
Canongate. 2010. Hardback. ISBN: 978-1-84767-825-6. 245 pp.
The Rt Revd George Hacker was Bishop of Penrith from 1979 until his retirement in 1994. He was the editor and main book reviewer of ‘Chrism’ magazine for 12 years and is the author of ‘The Healing Stream: Catholic Insights into the Ministry of Healing’, published by Darton, Longman and Todd in 1998. He lives in the Lake District with his wife June and continues to serve as Assistant Bishop in his former diocese.
Thank you for such a thoughtful and thought provoking review. It was a book I had no intention of reading, but it is one that one, I think, needs to have a grasp or some understanding of…
As you pointed out in the beginning had the book been about someone else then it would have been received differently. However as the basis of faith we turn the other cheek and walk on…
“So a controversial and thought provoking book. But one which, I am afraid, many will also find deeply offensive. For it tramples on things that will matter to them very much and which they hold sacred. For that reason, if for no other, I wish it hadn’t been written!”
To which, I can only point to what Pullman himself said on the matter of offence in Oxford recently.
“Yes, it [the title] was a shocking thing to say, and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. But no-one has the right to live without being shocked. No-one has the right to spend their life without being offended.
“Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if they open it and read it, they don’t have to like it. And if you read it and dislike it, you don’t have to remain silent about it. You can write to me, you can complain about it, you can write to the publisher, you can write to the papers, you can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No-one has the right to stop me writing this book, no-one has the right to stop it being published, or sold, or bought or read.”
I think it’s to the credit of British Christianity that there has been no ‘fatwa’ issued against Pullman for this book, and no demonstrations calling for him to be put to death.
I do agree with you, Annette – I think no book should be silenced. If we silence books, then we silence ourselves. And, as a (very very bad) christian, I think the more doubt, the better, really. The older I get, the more I think we should trust faith less. Because there’s always something more important going on underneath, and it’s often forged in doubt.
Heck, I’m confusing myself now, so best stop rambling …
I found the book interesting and thought provoking and I think Christians would do well to read it as it raises some interesting issues about how history is written and why. I think Christianity has come out of it well because while there have been some interesting articles about the book but there hasn’t – as far as I can tell – been outright condemnation of it – even if there has been thoughtful and considered rejection. A civilsed debate is always going to be preferable to hell fire and brimstone.
Annette – those comments from Pullman are interesting and I agree books shouldn’t be banned because people are offended or shocked.
“No-one has the right to live their life without being shocked. No-one has the right to spend their life without being offended.”
This is the basis of free-speech. I agree 100% with Annette on this.
HOWEVER I also believe that everyone has the right to be treated with respect and, at times in this Atheistic country, there is distinct atmosphere of disrespect shown to those with faith which borders on the abusive. Atheists like Philip Pullman and Richard Dawkins are so strident with their opinions and media friendly that far from promoting free speech, genuine debate is sidelined. I’ve seen PP on TV and radio and in papers and magazines almost every day in the last few weeks, yet not once in that time have I heard another side of the story. That is not free speech. Brave free speech is speaking up even though you know you’ll be attacked. Not being as controversial as possible safe in the knowledge the media will support you.
Free speech is only worthwhile if it comes with respect. I genuinely think PP does show respect to christianity (his books are based on a deep affinity with scripture and a celebration of the wonderful contributions to our common ‘mythology’ of Christianity) but I’m not sure many of those who read his books always do. And Richard Dawkins certainly doesn’t.
I think it is a deep shame after such a detailed and thoughtful review that in your last lines you wish that the book that provoked these questions and ideas should never have existed.
I agree about Annette’s quotes on free speech. Can’t quite disagree with Sam, I’m afraid. As a great comedy lover, I don’t think a brilliant satire need be “respectful”. What about “The Great Dictator” – takes the piss out of Hitler with no respect at all. An example of free speech at its absolute and most worthwhile best.
I also dislike the sort of back-slapping done by some about how tolerant Christianity is in the face of cultural discussion. Hmmm. Actually, why should we be applauding? Why on earth should any think anyone should be murdered for such a reason?
And, actually, there have been worrying trends in recent years. Look at what happened over Jerry Springer the Opera, all the death-threating going on there etc. And the various plays that have been targetted by Christian groups and removed from the stage.
As for the debate over this book and one-sidedness – I can’t say I’ve seen that either. I saw The Review programme where I think the reviewers comprised two Christians, one Muslim and one atheist and the discussion they had was a very interesting, and, in the main, a positive one about this book.
Despite that worrisome last para, the reviewer has certainly intrigued me about this and I think this is one that I must take a look at.
RosyB brings up a very good point here, in her mention of Jerry Springer the Opera. I seem to remember that most of the harassment was caused by Christian Voice, a fundamentalist Christian group, who weren’t representative of other Christians, who very quickly pointed this out. In fact, Christian Voice made such a fuss that a Scottish charity was intimidated into returning £3,000 which had been raised by the cast of Jerry Springer and donated to them. Rosy’s comment brings out the point that you can’t paint all Christians the same, as you can’t paint all Muslims the same, or all athiests the same. There may be many athiests who are more christian in their outlook towards other people than some Christians.
I don’t have any axe to grind about religion or lack of. I’m of the Kris Kristofferson camp – “Whatever gets you through the night, whatever makes you feel alright”. But I think that, if people’s religious beliefs are strong enough, they can handle challenge of their beliefs, and perhaps should even welcome it, for challenge can make belief even stronger. This would also apply to athiests, who, of course, have their own set of beliefs, i.e., that there isn’t a God.
oops, John Lennon wrote it, I think… apols, John. And mentioning John Lennon brings us to “Imagine”, which everyone seems to love, and perhaps we should listen to the words… (“Help me make it through the night” being Kris, I think)
As an aside, I thought Jerry Springer the Opera was very very good indeed. I’d be very happy to see it again. I was gripped, and I thought it conveyed some fascinating concepts and the music was great. And before that point, I’d never even heard of Jerry Springer! Though I do admit I don’t really get out much …
I’ve been wanting to read this since I saw it in the shop (and I would have bought it had it not been a hardback). My instinctive reaction was that it sounded like a good STORY (the idea of the twins really appealed to me and I was interested in seeing how he pulled it off). Then it was included in a religion based episode of The Review Show and now I want to read it for another reason. I have heard that some consider Pullman “angry” about Christianity (I believe this may have been raised on The Review Show – perhaps rosyb can correct me?) and I really want to try and decide whether Pullman is as “angry” as he is accused of being. I’d like to see if he really was just out to shock and unsettle Christians. Obviously I won’t know for certain, but I’d like to make an opinion.
I’m not a Christian, but I don’t see anything wrong with challenging faith. I enjoy asking all religions – why? Why do you believe this? I’m actually fascinated by what people believe and why and it’s discussions like that that have confirmed my own beliefs. However a calm discussion is very different to putting someone down because of what they may or may not believe. I think you should always treat others with respect. In fact, I’ve no idea why some people feel the need to be nasty about beliefs that belong to other people!
This was a very interesting review, followed by a very interesting debate. I haven’t read this book, but I would like to.
I was brought up as a Christian, but since have had many doubts about the ‘magical’ aspects although I cannot dismiss my belief that Jesus (the man) was an important figure with some very interesting things to say. So I was intrigued by Pullman’s idea of twins because I feel that I can understand Jesus but struggle with Christ.
On the subject of religion I think it has to be open to debate if it wants to be taken seriously. I agree that people need to show respect but discussion is not something to be afraid of and if faith is strong enough it shouldn’t need to fear intelligent inquiry.
I agree, Nikki. Calm discussion is the point. There are many discussions that need to be had about all forms of political, social and religious affiliation but these happen most effectively if respect is shown to those you disagree with. You don’t shame people into changing if you want to make a friend. And I believe 100% that making friends is the way to improve the world, not making enemies. That’s why I’m drawn to people like the man Jesus and John Lennon (to take two from this conversation) who preech a personal attitude of respect and forgiveness, love and community.
Sure, Rosy, there can be great comedy which shows no respect to anyone. You can laugh along with is and it can even (occassionally) make you think about something in a fresh way. I would never say free speech should be subsumed to respect – see the case of the Danish cartoonists, for instance. Sometimes dissent just has to be disrespectful. But, in my opinion, not very often. Is disrespectful questioning really going to have any effect other than stratifying and entrenching positions? I had a conversation on earlier this week with someone who was disappointed that the Foreign Office appologised for their suggestions for what the Pope could do on his visit (open an abortion clinic, officiate at a gay marriage etc) and I was absolutely stunned that someone could be so divisive and angry as to think that would help anything. I’m not a fan of the papacy (I’m really not a fan of Christianity in general since I learned more about some of the underlying beliefs that support it all – Original Sin is an absolutely vulgar, horrific concept) but everyone lambasting their beliefs isn’t going to change anything.
It may be undramatic, it may not bring the sudden changes people cry out for, but incremental shifts are far more effective in the long run. It is the means by which you do things that is important, rather than the ends for the means are a part of the end. You can’t control what happens in the end, but you can control how you behave in search of them. Writing a book is a questioning means, and I absolutely support the freedom to do so. But most people don’t do that. Most people join a group on Facebook called something stupid or go along to a ‘controversial’ comedy show and laugh along like a good little sheep without taking the time to think for themselves and consider both sides of an argument. That’s what I have no time for.
Oh, and Nikki, Philip Pullman is definitely angry with Christianity. He has a rant against C.S. Lewis at least once a month which has become very tiresome. I love his writing, The Good Man Jesus… is on my to-read pile right now, but he has a bee in his bonnet that really bugs me.
That said, to start a review by saying:
“If this were a book about the Prophet Muhammad, it would already have earned the author a Fatwa, and he would be taking shelter in a safe house somewhere, à la Salman Rushdie.”
It is a perspective that is assanine in the extreme, and panders to the sort of Daily Mail cultural disrespect that I detest. Most of the review is fair and well argued and from a perspective I don’t know much about so I find it interesting. But that sort of comment is far from enlightened.
I have to agree with you, Sam, on the statement that started the review. It was a biased, kneejerk pronouncement and one that, as you say, would fit in well with the tabloids. It seemed very out of character with the intelligence of the rest of the writing.
Hi, it’s been a while since my visit here, but… What was I going to say? That I was pleasantly surprised to find a review of a book by Philip Pullman that I had not heard of – I live in France.
I am really glad that you reviewed it because His Dark Materials is one of the most influencial series of books I ever read, probably one those who made me who I am today: I was raised an atheist, and I read Northern Lights when I was 14, but I had to wait two or three years for The Amber Spyglass, so I was exactly the right age to read the three books and I also had a lot of time to think about the story and the ideas it carried while I was growing up. Really great ideas… or do I mean large? Anyway, I did not really had a faith, but I had a lot of questions about life as a teenager and Pullman helped me find my own answers – still helps me to, in a way. I will always be grateful for that.
Being quite older now, I do not know if The Good Man Jesus… could matter as much to me, but after reading the review – and the comments – I certainly want to try! So, thank you, foxes.
“If this were a book about the Prophet Muhammad, it would already have earned the author a Fatwa, and he would be taking shelter in a safe house somewhere, à la Salman Rushdie.”
I don’t think this is a biased, knee-jerk statement at all. The facts unfortunately suggest that it would be an entirely possible outcome if the book had been about Mohammed.
That’s not to say that the majority of British muslims would react badly, but has everyone forgotten the demonstrations on the streets of this country against Salman Rushdie, and the Danish cartoons? Elsewhere in the world, people died because of the latter…
Spanish Inquistion anybody, or the Crusades, or the massacre of the Cathars. Unfortunately, religious intolerance of all sorts has led to bloodshed through the ages, and I feel for a review by a former Bishop, the statement about Salmon Rushie was actually quite inflammatory and biased, so I have to disagree with you, Annette.
I think the first sentence is highly accurate, especially in the U.S. At this moment, a Muslim extremist group, based in NYC, is causing a brouhaha about the Prophet Mohammad being cast in “South Park”, a cartoon on the Comedy Central cable channel. The Prophet is not only in this weird cartoon, He is dressed in a bear suit. The cable channel will not air the episode(s) without heavy editing. This is a current news story, an overreaction to a poorly made cartoon mostly featuring “humor” focusing on bodily functions. Lest anyone think South Park is mocking only Islam, they’ve also had story lines ridiculing Christianity(with Keanu Reeves as Jesus) & Judaism.
If people are getting that offended over a stupid cartoon, they certainly would over a book, which are generally taken more seriously.
Wow! I seem to have started something! Blame Moira – she got me into this and is no doubt purring away happily from a safe distance!
To be serious though, my opening sentence was not a knee jerk reaction at all, but as Annette and Jackie point out, something all too likely to happen if it had been Muhammad that was being attacked rather than Christ. All I was actually trying to do was to show that Philip Pullman’s book has produced mixed reactions, which is a sign of how controversial it is, but my attempt to be arresting seems to have been misunderstood. I certainly don’t approve of Fatwas, any more than I approve of hate mail from Christian extremists, or the Inquisition etc (Melrose) for that matter. And, Sam, I am a Guardian reader, so you can guess my views on the Daily Mail!
I hope that will clear up that misunderstanding – though it would appear that I am not allowed to say anything that might even mistakenly shock people, while Philip Pullman is! Which brings me to my last sentence, where I say that I wish the book had not been written, because of the hurt it might cause some people. I did think very carefully before I wrote that, and I guessed that it would cause some reaction from people who value freedom of expression and are quick to condemn any hint of censorship or suppression of ideas. Please note there that I didn’t say I thought the book ought to be banned, but only that I wished it hadn’t been written, which is not the same thing. And I wrote that because in the past, like so many clergy (and others in the caring professions), I have had to try to help people who have been damaged by the fall out from such books. It is all very well for Philip Pullman to say: ‘No-one has the right to live without being shocked. No-one has the right to spend their life without being offended’, but he doesn’t have to pick up the bits. Or be the cause of it in the first place. I think he might feel differently if he could actually see the hurt that books like his can cause people – particularly some of the vulnerable people – life’s casualties – that the clergy and others spend a lot of their time trying to help. Of course people don’t have to read it – but the media hype can sometimes do as much damage as the original, if not more, in that it tends to go for the more sensational bits.
So please note, I am serious about that last sentence, because this book cannot just be treated as an interesting academic happening. It will have consequences. And some of them will be painful.
Now, how about someone commenting on the actual content of the review?
You’ll recognise, George, that when you make a statement, people are entitled to interpret as they see fit, and to me it is still a knee jerk reaction, whether or not you intended it to be. We all look at things through our own reality tunnels, e.g., Christian, white collar male; Muslim woman; gay athiest; pagan female. Reality tunnels are varied and many. And, so, whilst you see it one way, others will see it differently, as I do. Pagans may see the depiction of Pan by Christians as “the devil” offensive and Christmas is a fine example of the homogenisation of religion with Christ and Christmas trees all mixed merrily together. Religion is very divisive as a subject.
I didn’t comment on the review as the article itself didn’t actually interest me, but some of the comments by yourself and other posters did.
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