Friday, September 11, 2009

Philip Pullman's Old-School Angry Book on Jesus

Philip Pullman is at it again. Now he's publishing a book on Jesus, to come out at Easter 2010, called “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.” It's based on the idea that the account of Jesus’ life depicted in the Gospels was largely shaped by the Apostle Paul. Pullman told The Guardian that his Jesus book is “among other things, a story about how stories become stories.”

Pullman says: "Paul was a literary and imaginative genius of the first order who has probably had more influence on the history of the world than any other human being, Jesus certainly included. I believe this is a pity. The story I tell comes out of the tension within the dual nature of Jesus Christ, but what I do with it is my responsibility alone. Parts of it read like a novel, parts like a history, and parts like a fairy tale; I wanted it to be like that because it is, among other things, a story about how stories become stories."

Pullman is best remembered for his fictional His Dark Materials trilogy, and least remembered for the movie version of Vol. 1, "The Golden Compass" (48% rating at Rotten Tomatoes - Peter Travers of Rolling Stone says the movie "just blows.").

From the UK's Telegraph: "Pullman told The Times newspaper that the idea of Jesus being the son of God came from Paul's ''fervid imagination''." In lother words, Jesus was not God the Son. Paul made it all up.

"Jamie Byng from Canongate Books said: ''Philip Pullman has written a book of genuine importance, a radical and ingenious retelling of the life of Jesus that demystifies and illuminates this most famous and influential of stories.
''It strips Christianity bare, exposes the Gospels to a new light and succeeds brilliantly as a work of literature because it is convincing, thought-provoking, profoundly moving and beautifully nuanced throughout. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ throws down a challenge and does what all great books do: make the reader ask questions.'' " (

What to make of this?

1. Pullman will surely not "strip Christianity bare and expose the Gospels to a new light." The idea that what we see of Jesus is a story fabricated by Paul is an old-school theological idea that no one is now using in contemporary New Testament Jesus-studies. (OK, someone is probably using it, the old "Jesus vs. Christ" theory, because Pullman is using it, but that leads directly to my second point...)

2. Pullman is not a New Testament scholar. Here's the life of Philip Pullman. 1) born in 1946; 2) lived as a child in Zimbabwe; 3) P's father died when P was 7; 4) P's mother remarried and they moved to Australia and lived there for 18 months; 5) P returned to go to school in Great Britain; 6) P studied English at Exeter College, Oxford, but did not enjoy it, and he posted average grades; 7) married Judith Speller and their son Jamie was born; 8) taught in two middle schools until 1986; 9) became a part-time lecturer in English at Westminster College, Oxford; 10) eventually gave himself to the task of full-time writing. But... no New Testament studies, no Christological studies, only "going to church and going to Sunday School and listening to Bible stories" while as a child he lived with his grandfather who "was a very good, old-fashioned country clergyman and a wonderful storyteller." (From Tony Watkins, Dark Matter: Shedding Light in Philip Pullman's Trilogy His Dark Materials, Chapter 2)

3. From 1 & 2, imagine this absurd scenario: Pullman's Jesus book comes out on Easter. New Testament scholars rush to get it. They read it and have their paradigms revolutionized because Christianity is "stripped bare" and the "Gospels are exposed to a new light." Right. And so shall the music of David Hasselhoff be recognized in Italy as the second coming of Luciano Pavarotti.

4. Pullman has got a personal thing against religion. He states: "I'm caught between the words "atheistic" and "agnostic." I've got no evidence whatever for believing in a God. But I know that all the things I do know are very small compared with the things I don't know. So maybe there is a God out there. All I know is that if there is, he hasn't shown himself on earth. But going further than that, I would say that those people who claim that they do know that there is a God have found this claim of theirs the most wonderful excuse for behaving badly. So belief in a God does not seem to me to result automatically in behaving very well." (In Killing the Imposter God: Philip Pullman's Spiritual Imagination in His Dark Materials, xvii)

And: "His anger towards God remains undimmed. It can sound frightening and immoderate, given his impeccably polite diction. The occasional thud of an F-word is really very funny. His rage comes across as that of someone with an authority problem - someone who has evidently exercised his own as a teacher and a father with restraint."

So Pullman's Jesus book seems to beg the question. a) God has not shown himself on earth. b) Therefore Jesus is not God come to earth. But of course. And, not a whole of scholarship here, right?

Today's Christological studies and Jesus research go to the Gospels first, and not Paul. So, methodologically, Pullman is misguided. He's living in a narrow world of old studies that were concerned with parsing Der Sogenannte historische Jesus und der geschichtliche, biblische Christus. Combine that with a life that is not that of a New Testament scholar, and the fact that's he's very, very angry, and we'll have, probably, some very good writing about some very wrong things. Pullman's Jesus book will tell us volumes about Pullman and nothing new about Jesus.