Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is some mighty fine adventure reading for anyone over the age of 12 who likes excitement and danger and bears covered in magnificent armour. But as an anti-Narnian apologetic, which is what the author has claimed it to be, it flops badly. It is actually embarrassing when we get to the end and the anti-Catholic undertones become front and central and God dies. If that sounds interesting, it might just mean that I am obviously a better writer. 😉
The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ is his latest novel, a version of the narrative of Jesus in the lineage of the Last Temptation of Christ, without the great, deep ideas or glorious writing. It tells the story of Jesus and Christ, twins born in strange circumstances to a pious woman called Mary. One becomes a travelling sage who enrages the powers that be. The other trails behind him in the shadows, taking note of what has been said for the sake of “posterity”. In the end, one dies, the other lives and a tragic misunderstanding arises that then presumably explains Christianity away. This is a very disappointing book.
It is incoherent, tedious and very boring.
Incoherent: Any author writing about Jesus who does not understand the parable of the Good Samaritan (it is primarily about race hatred, not being a good person), the parable of the two lost sons (the older brother is fatally misunderstood by Pullman) and the freaking resurrection cannot seriously hope to gain our respect, trust or avid readership. He does not realise even in part the extent to which the resurrection of Jesus was unimaginable to the Jewish world in which he lived. Even the idea of a single man being raised by God would have seemed mental, un-understandable. These are just three easily communicated incoherences in a book that is quite literally filled with stuff that doesn’t fit together or doesn’t fit the historical milieu. Historical fiction is not my favoured genre, but if you are going there you surely have to do some work to stop it being fantasy.
Tedious: Every angle that Pullman draws has been drawn before. Jefferson wrote a Gospel with all the “supernature” stripped out of it. Hell! Pullman gets upstaged by Danny Boyle’s little seen movie Millions, which argues that the miracle of the feeding was just a grand social realisation that if only we shared, all our bellies would be full. The sermon on the mount gets stripped of all its glorious brilliance to be replaced by something that is simply wish fulfillment. On the internet or over a pint, an ignoramus has been known to say that “all religion has been wish fulfillment” but it is inconceivable that a globally recognised author would project such a general nothingness of a statement on to the sermon on the mount. That is the sermon on the mount about which Kurt Vonnegut, head of the American Humanist Association in his day said:
But if Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being.
Pullman identifies with the nu-atheists and demonstrates their same childish, tedious, shallow and frankly embarrassing insistence that nothing is good in Jesus, no, nothing.
Very boring: Around these parts we have a saying. The word “christian” is an excellent noun but a lousy adjective. The point is that putting “christian” before something, say rock music or graphic novel, pretty much renders the art utterly boring. Those who believe in a Creator God really ought to trust that in the reality that God creates, art is good in and of itself. We don’t need to baptise it to make it legitimate. Such false sacraments just discredit the work.
This is a general attitude shared in our popular culture. Hence, Sufjan Stevens has to continuously insist he is not a Christian songwriter, even while writing songs of glorious praise. It is why Jars of Clay, who were less willing to parse the story quite so subtly are commonly mocked in popular culture even though some of their albums are quite simply masterpieces, whether you share their faith or not.
Yet we don’t have the same attitude towards the self consciously proselytising atheist works. This is an out and out atheist novel, in the same cringey way that DC Talk’s music was Christian rock. Regardless of whatever merit there may have been in DC Talk’s music, it fails to be enjoyable because the “Christian” is so much more important than the music. As it is there, so it is with Pullman, except without the narrative depth offered by the Christian gospel. In short, Pullman’s work is boring because its sole purpose is to make us like Pullman. Not even the freaking Gospels have that as an intention!
The devil plays a much greater role in this story than God, which is funny because without God, how did the devil get in? But he advises the scoundrel Christ to elevate truth over history (because Pullman wants you to distrust metaphysics but he can’t tell you to do that without using metaphysics) and change the words of his twin Jesus to better fit the story that is unfolding. The devil character says:
What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom than what was.
The Kingdom that Pullman invites you into is self evidently committed to this conviction. The history of Jesus of Nazareth becomes the handmaid of this atheistic evangelistic tract, not its governor.
Your Correspondent, A novice in the order of “Our Lady of Perpetual Astonishment”