religion

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ – Philip Pullman

I guess this is an interesting choice of reading material right after C.S. Lewis, especially since Pullman wrote His Dark Materials as a direct rebuttal to The Chronicles of Narnia, which he considered to be religious propaganda. I heard about this book years ago from Chris and recently bought it on a whim.

Whatever you think about Pullman, the alethiometer is downright awesome.

Basically, Pullman,  a well-known atheist, has decided to put his own spin on the story of Jesus Christ. The most obvious radical change is that in his story there are two brothers: one called Jesus and the other, his twin, known only as Christ.

It sounds bizarre, and clearly Pullman’s story is not supposed to be taken as fact. He writes in a pseudo-Biblical style that is more simplistic than traditional. But Pullman’s aim is not to tell the truth. His aim is to make the reader question the validity of the gospels and consider what elements enable a story to perpetuate itself throughout the centuries and resonate with generation after generation. His method is subtle and seemingly innocuous, but achieves his goals.

Pullman’s knowledge of the gospels and of the canons of Christianity impressed me. At the back of the book there’s a short afterword by Pullman, and he talks about how as a child he was actually brought up in the Christian faith. He states emphatically that the traditions of Christianity are still deeply embedded in him. He stopped believing as a teenager, when rudimentary science lessons did away with a literal belief of the six day creation and the virgin conception. Then, he ‘carried on a fairly anguished one-sided conversation’ with God for a while before he realised that the silence was complete. He describes himself as a ‘thoroughgoing materialist’ (matter is wonderful and mysterious enough without having to add spirit to it), and any talk of the spiritual makes him a little uneasy.

This picture inside the back cover really threw me off. I’m not sure why.

Pullman includes many episodes from the gospels (including one, if I’m not mistaken, from the rejected Gospel of Thomas — with the boy Jesus and the clay birds) and retells them with his own subversive spin. Jesus, the more charismatic twin, becomes a popular preacher, whilst Christ, hovering in the background, begins to document his brother’s deeds with some major embellishments and adjustments. An unidentified Stranger makes several appearances throughout the story, urging Christ to distill truth from history to work towards the greater purpose of forming an organised church. Christ becomes the tempter Satan in the desert; the betrayer Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane. Neither the virgin birth nor the resurrection are miracles in Pullman’s version.

Pullman’s book is powerful in its simplicity and most Christians will find it deeply controversial, even offensive. Personally, I felt that there were two particularly weaknesses: firstly, his ‘explanations’ of Jesus’s miracles felt somewhat wishy-washy. The crippled man lowered through the roof of the house was so overcome by the excitement of the place that he had the strength to get up and walk? I’m not sure what Pullman is trying to say there. That general good spirits can overcome paralysis and be mistaken for a miracle? Or is his own account supposed to be a tainted record of the events? I wish he’d been a little clearer.

Secondly, the unidentified stranger who urges Christ to create a false mythology of Jesus the Messiah. I felt that the character was inserted to make the book seem more mysterious. But the stranger didn’t do much for me; just made it vaguer. Pullman says the stranger possibly represents ‘the spirit of the church’ — but how does that work? I thought he didn’t believe in spirits :-P I imagined the stranger to be a figment of Christ’s imagination, but that too falls through, for he is an in-the-flesh character during Jesus’s trial.

Anyway, Pullman says that his work is for readers to interpret any way they will. And this is the sort of book that leaves you with an impression, whether good or bad. I certainly found it a thought-provoking read, and one that will stay with me for a while.

Here’s a good article if you want to read more: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126487207

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Surprised By Joy – C.S. Lewis

Ah, Clive Staples. Why must you be so well-read, eloquent and infuriatingly reasonable?

Seriously, this dude is a reading machine. I adore him, but how can any regular human being keep up?!? In his teenage years he’s reading Homer and Virgil, William Morris, Keats, and plenty of others I’ve never heard of. For ‘light reading’ during mealtimes, he browses through such ‘gossipy, formless’ texts as Boswell, Herodotus, A History of English Literature and The Anatomy of Melancholy. Good grief. No Women’s Weekly or Twitter for this fellow (if either had existed back in his day). Clive, have you purposely littered your book with dozens of obscure literary references just to make us mortals feel inferior?

I have wanted to read Surprised by Joy for many years. I have picked it up at least twice in bookstores, read through the first chapter and then put it down. A few months ago I bought it online; it was sitting idly on my shelf until I had a conversation with a friend during a three-hour drive about how our religious beliefs have changed over the years. And I said, “I really should read that C.S. Lewis book I bought.” And so I went home and I did.

Surprised by Joy is an autobiographical book about how Lewis went from being an all-out Atheist to one of the most famous Christian thinkers of the 20th century. I suppose I tackled this book with the goal of finding out what powerful reasoning this mighty mind of apologetics might bestow upon those struggling between evidence and faith. What transformational process had he undergone?

The first half of the book is typically autobiographical. Lewis talks in detail about his childhood and schooling. I really enjoyed those bits, especially the glimpses into different Irish and Scottish schools and his experience’s of boys’ school hierarchy. It made him seem so real and present, and I enjoyed his honest voice.

His childhood home was like something out of Narnia: ‘…long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstair indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books. My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them. There were books in the study, books in the drawing-room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interests, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not…In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves.’

How perfect does that sound!? I want my future home to be a maze-like hovel knee deep in crumbly tones. (I’m half kidding.)

Lewis also describes how he loved inventing imaginary lands as a boy, and you see the beginnings of the author of Narnia in his maps and carefully plotted histories of Animal-Land.

Woven into the story of his life is Lewis’s constant pursuit of an elusive, abstract concept that he calls Joy. It is a distilled sensation of northern gods and light-filled skies, of divinity and something grand. He describes his misguided attempts to capture Joy. This long quest for Joy ties in closely with the major changes in his character. He loses his childhood faith, becomes transiently interested in the occult, and then falls into cynicism, keen to trample on the opinions of his more open-minded friends.

The second half of the book becomes quite deeply philosophical and, in some places, difficult to follow (for poor me). Ultimately, Lewis describes his conversion back to Christianity in extremely abstract terms. He talks about how his cynicism was broken down, step by step, through logical realisations, until he came back to God ‘the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.’ Lewis’s story, of how he was reasoned back into his faith, is insightful, but I found it difficult to identify with.

All in all, the book was an interesting read but turned out to be different from what I was expecting. Don’t pick it up if you’re wanting a simple read about how a guy became a Christian. You forgot to factor in Lewis’s powers of Logic and Thinking! *Cue superhero action bubbles: BAM! POW!*

My favourite part of the book was when Lewis identified a phenomenon he calls chronological snobbery: the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age  and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.

I thought that was absolute brilliance. We’re all perpetrators of a bit of chronological snobbery at times. But we must pass to ‘the realisation that our own age is also “a period” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those wide-spread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.’

Hi, I’m C.S. Lewis! I really love books and I have a funky Irish accent.