Philip Pullman versus God: the rematch. The crowd is restive. Opinions as to exactly who won the pair's last encounter are divided. Some people have placards: "Atheists For Narnia!" "Jesus Loves You Anyway, Philip!" Pullman, bouncing up and down gently in his gym shorts and trainers, seems unconcerned. But where is God?
Wait a moment, here comes someone ... a mild-looking bearded man in a robe has entered the ring. Surely not the Almighty? Could it be ... yes! The crowd goes wild! God has sent his only begotten son!
In The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Pullman sets his axe to the very root of Christianity, having previously gone after the branches in the fantasy series His Dark Materials, which climaxes with the death of a senile, hapless god and the overthrow of his church. When I heard that Pullman had set out to write his own version of the Gospels, my instinct was to groan.
I groaned too soon. If your problem with His Dark Materials was simply that you found any criticism of Christianity offensive, your chances of liking Pullman's new book are not great. But if you were bothered more by his lack of subtlety or generosity, or by his misplaced confidence that his story would not be damaged by its descent into unvarnished polemic, give this one a go. It's beautifully written, in spare, resonant prose entirely the equal of the best modern English versions of the Gospels. (No one could match the King James version, and Pullman has more sense than to try).
More importantly - because eloquence is a given with this writer - it's an intelligent engagement with questions that any honest reader of the New Testament has to consider. If Jesus Christ was really the human incarnation of an all-knowing God, then he was sent to Earth in the full knowledge that his life would trigger the Crusades, the Inquisition, George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, a thousand get-rich-quick televangelists, and the systematic misreading of every word he ever uttered.
So what exactly was God up to? Pullman's answer is to tell the story of a man who did most of the things Jesus does in the Gospels, including a great many things that could have been miracles. Even his birth could be a miracle: his beautiful young mother conceives after being visited at night by an angel.
"In order not to frighten her, he had assumed the appearance of a young man."
This ambiguous rendition of the virgin birth will be contemptuously dismissed by some. I have to admire Pullman's impish capacity to nod towards mystery and scandal in one go.
Here is the big departure from the Gospel version: Pullman's Jesus has a twin. After the visit from the Three Wise Men, who predict that one of Mary's sons will become the messiah, Mary gives the smaller, frailer boy - her favourite - the nickname Christ. Jesus grows up to become a great preacher. Christ lives quietly in his brother's shadow and, after a visit from a mysterious stranger - a Jewish politician? an angel? Satan? - becomes inspired to write the official record of Jesus' life. His aim is to foster the growth of the Kingdom of God, which he imagines as a great organisation, all-powerful. He decides a good name would be "the Church".
So we have Jesus the radical pacifist, preaching something very close to spiritualised communism, and we have Christ the covert demagogue, massaging Jesus' every word just enough to produce the desired outcome, which happens to be the real, historical outcome. Which an all-knowing God must, in fact, have desired, or why would He have sent His son in the first place?
It's a plausible and pleasingly non-strident account of the birth of a religion, lifted into something far more by Pullman's development of Jesus and Christ as characters. Pullman has not just found the right vehicle for his views on Christianity with this book. He has written something profound, mysterious, and beautiful.
-David Larsen is an Auckland reviewer.
*The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, by Philip Pullman, Text $39.