“The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ”, by Philip Pullman

A bit of a surprise. Some disappointingnesses: why does Pullman “explain” the miracles (e.g. the Feeding of the Five Thousand a result of sudden sharing, and the Resurrection… Well, I’ll try and get on to that later)? I did Scripture O Level in 1979, and our commentary on Mark said the same thing then. Perhaps Pullman’s scriptural schooling was more hardline, so explaining the supernatural in this way has the appeal of novelty. To most Anglicans it’s part of the package.
Yet sometimes his insights move: the retelling of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (by retelling Pullman means the “original” version as told by Jesus) is an improvement on Matthew’s version. When the five foolish girls, who hadn’t the foresight to take spare oil, ask the five wise girls to share, Pullman writes, ’And two of the far-seeing ones shared their oil with two of the foolish ones, and all four were admitted to the banquet. Two of the clever ones refused, and the bridegroom shut them out, together with two more foolish ones.
’But the last wise girl said “Lord, we have come to celebrate your wedding, even the least of us. If you won’t let us all in, I would rather stay outside with my sisters, even when the last of my oil is gone.”
’And for her sake the bridegroom opened the doors of the banquet and admitted them all. Now, where was the Kingdom of heaven? Inside the bridegroom’s house? Is that what you think? No, it was outside in the dark with the wise girl and her sisters, even when the last of her oil had gone.’ This version seems much more consistent with Jesus’ other teachings about the Kingdom and the poor, and looks to the cross.

In “His Dark Materials”, interviews, and this book, Pullman attacks not religion, but organised religion; not God or Jesus, but the Church. In this book, there’s a pair of twins: Jesus, the genuinely profound teacher, and Christ, the jealous runt, manipulated by a shadowy figure to record and rewrite his brother’s words. Jesus=Jesus, Christ=Church. This position of “Jesus Good, Church Bad” is surely that of orthodox Christianity. He would offend only the most die-hard beretta-bristling catechism-chanting Mother-Church junky.

And then there’s the Resurrection. Now it’s easy: two brothers, empty grave, morning mist, and the alive brother in the garden, who’s at first mistakenly identified, and then deliberately impersonates his dead sibling, in order to establish the Church in which he believes. Another miracle explained away, another knock at the sky pilots, but Christianity itself remains unassailed.

Unless Christianity depends on the miraculous…

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