What if Jesus had a twin brother named Christ, and the Church was the idea of the latter, not the intention of the former?
Pullman's short novel revels in this concept, mixing Christian mythology with speculative fiction. As shocking as this idea might seem, the true surprise is that Pullman, one of the literary world's most prominent, outspoken atheists, approaches his Biblical source material with respect.
Although published by Knopf in Canada, the novel is part of a Canongate (UK) series that asks writers to reinvent time-worn myths — Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad reworked Homer's The Odyssey for this series.
Jesus is the hero of this ambitious, exhilarating, and uneven novel. He's plain-spoken, honest, uncompromising, and practical. As his reputation builds, and talk of miracles begins to circulate, he admonishes his followers: “I've heard those rumours too, and I have more sense than to believe them.” Pullman works not to discredit Jesus, but to applaud his core values.
As Jesus travels and preaches, Christ records his life, but corrupts these accounts to produce more compelling stories. When Jesus exhorts his listeners to share their food, rather than hiding it from one another, and so “feeds” a crowd with only a few loaves and fish, “Christ, watching it all and taking notes, recorded this as another miracle.”
Thus Christ transforms Jesus' words into a system of thought, establishing a basis for the modern Church. It's this Church, not Jesus, that Pullman attacks. No surprises here, considering that Pullman's best-known novels — the young adult trilogy His Dark Materials, which includes The Golden Compass — are veiled assaults on the Catholic Church, set in a fantasy world ruled by a senile God.
Christ, Pullman's unwitting villain, is sketched with compassion. Speaking of Jesus, he says, “There are times when I feel like a ghost beside him; as if he alone is real, and I'm just a daydream.” The passage nods to the reader about Christ's fictional status, and offers a touching look at Christ's divided loyalties to his brother and his dreamed Church.
The potential criminality of the Catholic Church and the terroristic danger of fundamentalist orthodoxy are both current cultural debates. When Pullman refuses to engage these debates and instead concentrates on storytelling, he's brilliant. He exhibits a true passion for the Biblical tale and bemoans its manipulation by demagogues.
Pullman falters when he can't resist having Jesus foreshadow various evils the Church might commit, such as the child molestation scandal that continues to plague the Vatican. Christ envisions “the whole world united in this Kingdom of the faithful” with “all doubt vanquished … all dissent swept away” and “proclamations issuing from the centre to the furthest edges of the world.”
“What you describe,” says Jesus, “sounds like the work of Satan.” Such a Church would allow any priest to “indulge his secret appetites … and the people will say what a fine thing it is to have such a holy man as priest, how well he takes care of the children.” Speeches like this are just too moralizing, even for Jesus.
This is the novel's great irony. Pullman wants to extract the story of Jesus from the clutches of preachers and transform it into a secular narrative. But he's too preachy. He shines when he twists the stories, combining, changing, and corrupting — but the whole point of the novel is to condemn Christ and the Church for doing the same.
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