The author Philip Pullman is well known for expressing his anti-religious views through his work. The “His Dark Materials” trilogy was frequently interpreted as an attack on both the church and God himself. Interestingly, that series dealt with the Old Testament and the history of the church, while skipping over the Gospels, but now Pullman has returned to fill that particular gap.
The story is a fictionalised take on the life of Jesus. And while in many ways the story sticks closely to the Gospels, it introduces one major deviation: Jesus has a twin (called Christ) who alters Jesus’ message in order make it more popular. Pullman does this as a way of exploring how the radical teaching of Jesus somehow gave birth to a rich and powerful church. He’s tapping into a long tradition of contrasting the “Jesus of history” with the “Christ of faith”. While many people reject the idea that the two are somehow in opposition to one another, even in church circles there are Christians who wish the church would be truer to its humble origins.
What is most interesting about the reviews the book has received is not only the wide range of opinions the book has received, but the impossibility of predicting who is going to say what. The critic for the strongly pro-establishment Daily Telegraph suggests that “Pullman has done the story a service by reminding us of its extraordinary power”, while the frequently dissenting Guardian criticises it for being “totally without subtlety”.
Most unusual of all is a considered review by the Archbishop of Canterbury, which offers a couple of gentle objections but nevertheless thinks the book is “mostly Pullman at his very impressive best”.
What readers have said about the book…
“I don’t think this is an anti-Christian book; although it is, very definitely, an anti-church book; but Christianity and the church are two different things. Pullman’s description, spoken through the mouth of Jesus in this book, of what the church is and what the church should be, is one of the most finely tuned exposés of where we (Christians) have gone wrong.” LC James, Amazon
“I bought this as a great Pullman fan and a practicing Christian (perhaps a rather more open minded one than Pullman would admit is possible). I thoroughly enjoyed reading it: it is ingenious; beautifully written; thought provoking and sometimes very moving.” HazeyJanet, Amazon
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Jesus has probably inspired more books and biographies than anyone else in human history. But which of them are worth reading if you’re exploring the life of Jesus for the first time – or even for the second or third times?
Written by Simon Jenkins
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