With due respect to the indefatigable Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, Philip Pullman probably will be recalled as the most significant of the muscular British neo-atheists who have emerged with such intellectual force over the last decade or so.
When he is, however, it won't be for his new novel, "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ," which is a polemical fable every bit as wrong-headedly obvious as the title suggests.
Pullman's masterpiece — the trilogy "His Dark Materials" — is an elaborate, elegant work of fantasy that runs through parallel universes and involves an affirmation of the physical world's everyday joys played out against a deadly struggle for freedom with a sinister religious establishment called the Magisterium. Though originally marketed to young adults, it's one of those works — rather like Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" or C.S. Lewis' "Space Trilogy" — sophisticated enough to hold adult attention. Pullman's title, for example, is drawn directly from line 916 of Book Two of Milton's "Paradise Lost," and the entire trilogy is, in fact, an inversion of that great work. Similarly, the surname of Pullman's main character, Lyra Belacqua, has its own sly pedigree — Samuel Beckett, who chose it for the absurd everyman of his early prose, borrowed it from Dante, who portrayed a slothful Florentine lute maker by that name in his "Purgatorio."
The real strength of "His Dark Materials," however, is that it is a genuine work of literature written from a provocative point of view, not a mere provocation seeking literary expression. For that reason, any number of religious believers, including leading prelates of the Anglican Church in which the author's grandfather was a vicar, have argued that the series can be enjoyed as a cautionary tale about the overweening claims of pietistic authoritarianism. And so the books can be read, though for his part Pullman always has been quite clear concerning his ultimate purpose. As he recently explained:
"When you look at organized religion of whatever sort — whether it's Christianity in all its variants, or whether it's Islam or some forms of extreme Hinduism — wherever you see organized religion and priesthoods and power, you see cruelty and tyranny and repression. It's almost a universal law."
Given that Pullman chose the Latin word used to describe the Catholic Church's teaching authority for his trilogy's smugly murderous religious establishment, it's no surprise that he has a special antipathy toward Rome. He told an interviewer, who inquired about the current sex abuse scandal, that the church has "been caught with its trousers down, in many different ways, hasn't it? They … didn't expect to have to account for themselves in the way that they've had to. But this is what happens, always, when you have an organization whose authority derives from something that may not be questioned …. I hope the wretched organization will vanish entirely."
"The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ" was commissioned by its publisher, Canongate, as part of a series in which the world's great myths "are retold in a contemporary and memorable way." This one comes up decidedly short of the mark. In part, that's because of Pullman's wholly unexpected ambivalence toward his subject. He's apparently fond — even admiring — of Jesus the defender of the poor and scourge of hypocrites. On the other hand, he loathes what Jesus' followers and the generations that came after them made of his teachings in the form of an institutional church.
Fair enough, but you'd expect a writer of Pullman's abilities to make something fruitful of the tension between his affection and his revulsion; instead, he falls back on the hoariest of conceits: the evil twin. In this version Mary bears twin sons. One is a healthy, rather impish boy who grows up to be a man's man and a fearless teacher, Jesus. The other, Mary's favorite, is sickish, bookish, reclusive and inclined to suck up to authority. She calls him Christ.
There's a sadly missed opportunity here, for one of the questions that has preoccupied Christian theologians has been how Jesus understood himself and his place in his community. It would have been interesting to watch an author of Pullman's talent engage that question from his outsider's perspective. Instead, readers are stuck with the "evil twin" shtick. Worse, Pullman sadly misuses the character he calls Christ, abusing him for didactic and polemical purposes. Thus, when Jesus goes into the desert to fast and pray for 40 days and nights, he is tempted not by Satan, as he is in the synoptic Gospels, but by his twin brother, Christ. The nature of that temptation is Christ's belief that Jesus' teachings must be housebroken so as to form the basis of a church that will last.