Philip Pullman is something of a bête noire for many religious writers. In the years up to 2000 he wrote a trilogy of novels ostensibly for older children: Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass make up His Dark Materials. With a title drawn from Milton’s Paradise Lost they tell a fantastical coming-of-age story of two children within a series of parallel worlds and universes. But Pullman’s humanism is evident throughout and he presents a damning portrayal of organised religion. The Magesterium and its agents attempt to control everything, including a brutal repression of children’s spirits and souls.
That’s what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling…
It’s been described as ‘atheism for kids’. But in truth, Philip Pullman has a deep understanding of spirituality, and while he clearly distrusts organised religion, he’s certainly a lot more than a hatchet-man for the new school of militant atheists. Indeed, in his fictionalised biography of Jesus, The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ, he retells much of the New Testament Gospels very faithfully, and even augments the ethical and moral strength behind Christian teachings.
Jim Crace’s excellent novel Quarantine tackles similar themes of storytelling and myths around the character of Jesus, but in a more fictional setting. There are countless reviews of this simple but profound book online. Two of my favourites are by Sally Vickers and Richard Holloway. Here’s what I reckon…
Pullman’s concept and approach is clear from the first line.
This is the story of Jesus and his brother Christ, of how they were born, of how they lived and how one of them died. The death of the other is not part of this story.
It’s a story about story-telling, about how myths and tales become truths, about the difference between what happened and what might have / could have / should have happened. It recounts the well-known Bible narrative in simple episodes, in chapters barely a few pages long of unadorned prose.
Jesus is popular, strong, and learns to be a carpenter. His weaker brother Christ is more intellectual, spending his time in the Synagogue. Quickly we see a divide between Jesus’ more extreme spirituality and that of Christ. Jesus sets extraordinarily high standards, but Christ admonishes him, instead suggesting he could really help people if they could more easily relate to what he says, if he might ‘perform miracles’. But Jesus rejects him, dismissing them as
…conjuring tricks… a sensational show for the credulous? You’d do better to forget about that and attend to the real meaning of things.
Christ can envisage a Church, a Kingdom of The Faithful, with dominion over Emperors. Again Jesus rejects him…
What you describe sounds like the work of Satan.
Nevertheless, as Jesus continues to preach to eager crowds, Christ follows, watches, listens and records everything from a distance, hidden from view. Then a stranger visits Christ, and is the key to the rest of Pullman’s story. The stranger is alternatively referred to as an angel, but he’s deliberately anonymous and often sinister, manipulating Christ. Almost immediately the story shifts from a playful experiment with an alternative version of the New Testament, to something altogether more deliberate. The stranger appeals to Christ that he needs to work to make his vision of a Church into reality, that he…
…must be prepared to make history the handmade of posterity and not its governor. What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom than what was.
Christ starts using his creativity to tell a ‘better’ story. We see more mundane versions of well-known parables and events transformed into miracles. Christ starts sending spies to record what Jesus says and does, then he retells the stories later. He doubts and discounts some of Jesus’ more ‘difficult’ or indeed inconsistent teachings.
Christ wrote down every word, but he resolved to improve the story later.
As we approach the Passion, the stranger urges Christ to give Jesus over to the authorities, and it is Christ who plays the role of Judas. The stranger introduces the idea that Jesus must rise from the dead to provide greater inspiration to future generations. It’s in the garden of Gethsemane where Philip Pullman abandons the Biblical sources and gives his Jesus a crisis of faith, in which he questions the nature of God, sacrifice and belief. It’s filled with poignant, human self-doubt. He rails against God’s silence and against the concept of a Church, as he fears men will corrupt God’s power, the rich will take control and wage wars ‘in God’s name’, and priests will abuse their positions.
If I thought you were listening, I’d pray for this above all: that any church set up in your name should remain poor, powerless and modest. That it should wield no authority except that of love… That it should own no property and make no laws.
He concludes that in the absence of God, with that continual silence, men will reject God and return to the natural world around them.
Christ hides during the crucifixion, and at the moment of Jesus’ death, he “walked away very carefully, as lightly as he could, trying to make no impression on the earth.” From this moment on the resurrection becomes the truth. Mysterious figures remove Jesus’ body from the tomb. Christ ‘becomes’ Jesus risen from the dead, playing the part as long as he must to establish the story, then disappears into obscurity. The stranger continues to assert the importance of spectacle and miracle within the myth.
The Holy Spirit is inward and invisible. Men and women need a sign that is outward and visible, and then they will believe.
The Resurrection and the ritual of Holy Communion become the central focus of the fledgling Church.
Christ is riddled with doubts and uncertainty, wracked with guilt at what he has helped to set in motion, that it does not reflect his brother’s feelings or intentions. But the stranger insists that those who follow after them will perpetuate and prolong the stories to create the Church, and in a final sentence of stunning simplicity and portent, he eats of all Christ’s food and drinks his wine.
Pullman’s deceptively simple prose helps us focus on the implications of the story he tells, how events are shaped into stories, that are augmented and adapted to create a more compelling narrative, rich with symbols and meaning, filled with rituals. The teachings of Jesus are hard and abstract. Humans are imperfect and weak, and need the structures of an organised Church.
Nevertheless, the points he is making are clear – that these structures were a priori a compromise on the core moral doctrines of Christianity, and that these compromises have been multiplied and exaggerated over generations as the corrupting influence of men has become more and more powerful. The teachings of Jesus as presented here are mainly simple and clear, and reassert much of the traditional messages of the modern Church, but without the ritual and ‘presentation’. It’s almost as though he feels that the ‘miracles’ are attempts to ‘ sex up‘ the moral code Jesus was preaching.
It feels to me that Pullman, without saying so explicitly, has written this book to try to shake both believers and non-believers into reappraising their behaviour, if not their beliefs. It was certainly my reaction. Indeed, it reaffirmed for me that I do want to live by (most of) the messages of the New Testament, even if I don’t believe in the nature of the messenger.