Like many atheists, the novelist Philip Pullman has emphatic and complicated religious beliefs. Pullman used His Dark Materials, his masterpiece trilogy, to deliver a savage beating to the Catholic Church (the thinly disguised "Magesterium" in the novels) and lay out a fantastically appealing humanist theology based on angels and a supernatural force called "Dust." To condense the belief system of His Dark Materials into a few sentences: Human souls and angels are made of the Dust that binds all living things together. There is no God, just a presumptuous first angel who called himself God. Wicked angels exploit the idea of God to rule the world. The Magesterium is their instrument of evil on earth—authoritarian, secretive, and murderous. Pullman's theology is simultaneously crushing and ecstatic. Who can forget his depiction of God as a decrepit angel, locked in a crystal prison? Or his image of Dust, golden, hazy, flowing in and out of our bodies, a personal aurora borealis?
It's not clear whether Pullman himself actually believes in Dust or if it's just an effective plot device, but there's no doubt that His Dark Materials has the same effect on certain susceptible readers (say, me) as Avatar does on some moviegoers. You finish the Pullman trilogy electrified and desolate, heartbroken that the world can't be as he depicts it. Though Pullman is most often compared to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein, the author he may resemble most is Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. This is not a literary comparison—Hubbard was a pulp hack, while Pullman has written the most thrilling and imaginative novels in a generation—but we may wake up one day and find that Pullmanism has become a religion, that Dust has been made flesh.
Which brings us to Pullman's new work, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which is, to put it mildly, a very strange book. Superficially a novel, it is Pullman's attempt to graft his belief system onto the life of Jesus, to mutate Christianity into a kind of Pullmanism. Give Pullman high marks for moxie: How many writers would dare to try to rewrite—no, to repair—the most famous, most sacred story ever written?
In this Gospel According to Philip, Jesus Christ is actually two people, twin brothers, one named Jesus, one named Christ. Each is less a person than a position, a side in Pullman's theological debate. The elder, Jesus, grows up to be the great teacher of Israel. Manly, plainspoken, and politically liberal, he acquires devotees through wisdom and decency. He performs no miracles. Loaves and fishes? That was just him persuading his followers, Stone Soup-style, to share their meal. This Jesus speaks simply and clearly, and the loveliest parts of the book are when Pullman retells the most famous Christian parables and sermons in Jesus' vernacular. Here's a portion of his Sermon on the Mount:
"And while I'm talking about keeping quiet, here's another thing to be secret about: and that's prayer. Don't be like those ostentatious hypocrites who pray out loud and let the whole neighborhood know about their piety. Go to your room, shut the door, pray in silence and in secret. Your Father will hear. And have you ever heard how the Gentiles pray? On and on, yakkety yak, blah blah blah, as if the very sound of their voices were music in the ears of God. Don't be like them. … This is how you should pray. You should say: Father in heaven, your name is holy. Your Kingdom is coming, and your will shall be done on earth as it's done in heaven. Give us today the bread we need. And forgive our debts, as we shall forgive those who are indebted to us. And don't let the evil one tempt us more than we can resist. Because the Kingdom and the power and the glory belong to you for ever. So be it."
Pullman's Jesus is a cipher. We see and hear him only from a distance, through his younger twin, Christ. Christ does have magical powers—he brings clay birds to life—but lacks his brother's wisdom, kindness, and charisma. Eventually, Christ becomes the chronicler of Jesus, recording the parables and sermons. Egged on by a mysterious stranger—Guess who!—Christ starts to "improve" the stories about his brother, fabricating miracles and claiming bogus divine interventions. Christ claims that he only wants to strengthen the authority of Jesus. Again and again, he tells us that miracles are essential because they will persuade Jesus' followers to believe and will legitimize the church. This infuriates Jesus, who detests lies, euphemism, and institutions. It spoils nothing about the plot to say that Christ winds up betraying his brother. The wicked institution of the church rises; the humane teachings of Jesus are supplanted with rules and mumbo-jumbo.
Where Jesus speaks plainly, Christ spouts marketing spiels and propaganda. Here he is trying to persuade Jesus he needs an organization:
"Think of the advantages if there were a body of believers, a structure, an organization already in place. I can see it so clearly, Jesus. … Groups of families worshipping together with a priest in every village and town, an association of local groups under the direction and guidance of a wise elder in the region, the regional leaders all answering to the authority of one supreme director, a kind of regent of God on earth. …Won't you join me in this? Won't you be a part of this most wonderful work and help bring the Kingdom of God to earth?"
The Good Man Jesus owes as much to the Old Testament as the New. It's Esau and Jacob. As in Genesis, there's an elder twin who's loving, free, and a little bit wild, and a younger who's sickly and scheming and ultimately betrays his brother. And Pullman's Christ, like Jacob, seeks to organize a previously casual faith.
The Good Man Jesus is a masterfully timed book, arriving just as the Catholic Church—Pullman's enemy No. 1—convulses over priestly child abuse and papal cover-ups. Pullman is surely referring to the Catholic scandals when he gives Jesus this savage speech:
"Any priest who wants to indulge his secret appetites, his greed, his lust, his cruelty, will find himself like a wolf in a field of lambs where the shepherd is bound and gagged and blinded. No one will even think of questioning the rightness of what this holy man does in private; and his little victims will cry to heaven for pity, and their tears will wet his hands, and he'll wipe them on his robe and press them together piously and cast his eyes upwards and the people will say what a fine thing it is to have such a holy man for a priest, how well he takes care of the children."
Now, I applaud Pullman's humanist beliefs as much as the next agnostic Jew, sympathize with much of his anti-clerical fury, and share his suspicion of organized religions. That said, The Good Man Jesus is often a drag. Weighed down with Christ's leaden speeches, it is hectoring and obvious where His Dark Materials was subtle and joyful. Pullman's notion that the church has betrayed Christ is hardly a revelation, but the problem isn't that he's telling a familiar story. The problem is that he is telling a familiar story and not having much fun doing it.
The Good Man Jesus has the misfortune to sulk in the shadow of another, much greater work of art about two Messiahs. I mean, of course, Monty Python's Life of Brian. Michael Palin and Terry Jones were at Oxford the same time that Pullman was, and the Pythons share his skeptical humanism and his fearlessness. Their movie, you'll recall, follows Brian, who's born the next stable down from Jesus, is mistaken for the Messiah, and is eventually crucified. Unlike Pullman, the Pythons play their twin Messiah schtick for laughs rather than fury. Who could forget their Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the cheesemakers …"? The Life of Brian mocks religious mania and lampoons crowd hysteria. It is no less profound than The Good Man Jesus and miles more entertaining. Pullman's sulfurous indictment of the wicked church is well and good, but, really, is it a more effective critique of Christianity than a wide-screenful of crucifixion victims belting out "Always look on the bright side of life"?