Philip Pullman’s got Christians’ goat again. Or rather, they see him as a goat – destined for an eternal roasting, unlike good sheep like them. Pullman’s about to publish a book called The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ – and Christians have been writing him letters of denunciation and damnation.
But what bothers me about this little news vignette, is not Pullman’s book. (From what I can gather, it will be a pretty unoriginal regurgitation of the old ‘Jesus-was-nice-but-Paul-made-him-into-a-beastie’ myth). No, what bothers me is the way, yet again, it presents a watching world with a dispute between the calm, rational atheist and those hysterical, crazed and judgemental Christians.
Which bothers me on two counts. Firstly because – and you’d expect me to say this – it is simply not true that most Christians are shrill, paranoid hellfire merchants, looking to hurl anathemas around. More on this in a bit. But the second reason I get twitchy about this is that, in fact, I don’t think Pullman is calm and rational. I think he’s got just as much of a bee in his bonnet as the wild-eyed religious zealots he pillories.
I read Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy some years ago. I enjoyed volume one. Sure, it was dark, a bit creepy, but a little daemon-possession makes for a good yarn. Volume two was, if anything, better still. (I love the idea of a ‘subtle knife’ that can cut its way between worlds.) But by volume three something else was happening. The anti-god, anti-church theme, which had been bubbling along under the surface, came to the boil. (‘God’ is a senile old bully, ‘church’ an institution of repression and abuse.) In fact, Pullman’s agenda boiled over, messily – and spoilt the story. Novel became diatribe. God is awful, wicked, nasty, an ogre, the church his twisted mechanism of control. Now go out and tell others: religion is evil. Evil, I tell you!
Again, I know I’m open to the jibe ‘of course you wouldn’t like that – you’re a Christian!’ But that really isn’t the point. (Apart from anything else, my God is nothing even remotely like Pullman’s creation; my God sacrifices himself, in love, for the world.) It’s just that Pullman spoiled his own story because it became silly – hysterical, crazed and judgemental, in fact, like the religious individuals who are now giving Pullman advance notice of his damnation.
Pullman is an a-religious zealot (along with his church’s high-priests Messrs Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris). But zealotry is zealotry.
Philip Pullman is ‘unperturbed’, report the media; the disapproving letters are ‘water off a duck's back’; he’s not bothered by these silly Christians. Well, quite. So he shouldn’t be – because the letters are, evidently, silly. ‘The letter writers essentially say that I am a wicked man, who deserves to be punished in hell’ smiles reasonable, persecuted Pullman. ‘Luckily it's not in their power to do anything like sending me there.’ (Chuckle, chuckle, stupid religious loonies.)
But look a little closer at what Pullman is saying. Pullman essentially says that Christians are wicked men who deserve to be punished. And he’ll bang on about it. He’ll even spoil his own novels for it.
Meanwhile, back to my first reason for discomfort – most Christians aren’t judgemental loonies. In fact, far, far, far from it.
Last night I sat down for the evening with our local church leadership team. We spent a couple of hours talking about how we could best serve those we pastor in the church. How we could best meet their needs. We prayed about it. There was love and concern in the air. There was gritty resolve to live given; to make church a place of security and strength for many – including many who are hurting and in need. That’s church – and that’s the true Christ.
And he’s no scoundrel, Philip.