In his latest novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Philip Pullman, who famously pissed off a lot of Christians with the His Dark Materials trilogy, continues his vendetta against Christianity (the source of which remains something of a mystery). And although I suspect this book is rather less commercial, it certainly seems designed to round up any of the Christians who weren’t pissed off before and make sure they’re properly pissed off this time.
It’s not that he re-imagines the Gospel with Jesus and Christ as two people, attributing all the nice things Jesus said to the first whilst Christ takes on the role of tempter/Satan/Judas; it isn’t even that ‘Christ’ fakes the resurrection after Jesus is crucified (though that does seem like the Easter equivalent of a big ‘bah, humbug!’). Most Christians have spent too long enjoying The Life of Brian and The Last Temptation of Christ to be upset by such petty blasphemy. The thing that’s much more likely to get them riled is the suggestion that in faking the resurrection to carry on Jesus’ work, ‘Christ’ creates the church – i.e., the modern church is the spawn of Satan.
Provocative though the wrapping paper is, I can’t help but think that this flogged horse is already a little bit dead. It’s an idea based on two tiresome fallacies: first, the Dawkinsian* [*Just made this term up. Am sticking with it.] idea that the church wields power and influences people, therefore the church is bad. It’s not an idea that stands up to much scrutiny – the government wields power, it doesn’t mean that government is bad. Every teacher in the country has influence of sorts – are teachers therefore bad? Indeed, Dawkins himself ought to be victim of his own criticism, given the numbers in which his books sell – and the same goes for Mr Pullman. It’s not authority that is bad, but the abuse of authority – something which the church clearly has to deal with and be aware of, but so must the government, teachers, Dawkins and Pullman. The solution is not to get rid of the church, or indeed the government, teachers, Dawkins and Pullman (and in the Big Brother house, I’m pretty sure the church wouldn’t be out first, either).
Second, giving ‘Jesus’ all the nice things to say rests on the naïve ideal that Christianity’s qualities hinge around its niceness – the patronising atheist view that what Jesus said was totally, like, yeah, but he didn’t have to go rocking the boat and upsetting people and getting crucified. Well, bollocks to that: Jesus said ‘love one another’, but love is not always the same as nice, as anybody who has loved knows. Jesus overturned ancient traditions and (literally) overturned tables in the temple to make his point, and people got upset when he said he was doing it in the name of God. It’s that ‘arrogance’ that Dawkins rails against now, and I’ll admit it’s pretty galling when an American President invades the Middle East and says God told him to; on the other hand, people got really pissed off about Martin Luther King (and Martin Luther, lest we forget) and I don’t doubt that both of them did God’s work, even at the risk of their lives.
Pullman’s conceit is very convenient, for sure: he’s taking the bits of Christianity he likes and giving them the stamp of approval, whilst continuing his tirade against the aspects of Christianity that annoy him. And wouldn’t we like to do that with everything? I’d happily divide Philip Pullman the fine children’s writer, who has continued a grand tradition of bringing good writing and weighty concepts to a young audience, from Philip Pullman the bore, whose The Amber Spyglass lets said weighty concepts take over and as a result is flabby, overlong and is a hugely disappointing finale to the first two books in the trilogy; Philip Pullman the humanitarian, who clearly has a set of laudable moral values and despises oppression in all its forms, against Philip Pullman the hypocrite, who will proselytise against C. S. Lewis’ ‘Christian propaganda’ yet serve up far more polemic material as children’s literature.
It doesn’t work like that. Jesus Christ, singular, left the church to carry on his work. His message actually doesn’t work without the church, and the church, by necessity, is staffed with human beings. Human tend to fuck up, and yes, when that happens in the church that’s bad. But some of them – a lot of them, God willing – get it right a lot of the time. It’s easy to lose sight of the day-to-day success of the church given that it doesn’t make much of a news headline, but it’s there. Try to take the Christ away from Jesus and you really are left with a very empty bath and a very angry Mother.
Similarly, we’re left with Philip Pullman, singular. A good writer? Sometimes. A good man? Well, he obviously means well. But we all know what the road to hell is paved with.
Pompous fiction, amongst other things.