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.
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.
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