2 Dec 2010

Philip Pullman threatened over new novel, says Catholic child abuse crisis the result of inevitable corruption of religious authorities

CBC News - Canada April 19, 2010

Divine intervention

Philip Pullman subverts the story of Jesus Christ in his controversial new novel

Philip Pullman is a fair man, despite what his critics might say. He wants it to be known that not all of his detractors want him to burn in an eternal hellfire.

"Some are quite helpful," he says over the phone from his home in Oxford, England. "Some write me very kind letters directing me to biblical verses that will help me understand the error of my ways."

'People need stories, myths and miracles. They need the impossible to happen. It might be regrettable, but it's true.' - Philip Pullman on religion

The irony here is that although the 63-year-old author is one of Britain's most famous atheists (along with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens), Pullman doesn't need anyone's assistance navigating the Bible. The grandson of an Anglican vicar and an admirer of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury (whom he describes as "an unprejudiced man of great intelligence and learning"), Pullman isn't your ordinary non-believer.

Despite its gasoline-on-the-flame title, his latest book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, is a compassionate meditation on the nature of faith. To write it, Pullman spent months poring over religious texts and kept three translations of the Bible, as well as the works of Jesus scholar Geza Vermes, by his side. At this point, Pullman is probably better versed in the scriptures than most believers.

"I wrote the book with a great deal of respect towards the Christian story," he says. Pullman's tale is part of Canongate Books' Myths series, which has commissioned writers like Margaret Atwood to revisit famous legends. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which comes with the caveat "this is a story" emblazoned on its back cover, retells the chronicle of Jesus's life, imagining him as the bigger, cooler twin to a nebbishy, weaker brother named Christ.

While Jesus attracts a following for his good deeds and speeches against bigotry, Christ trails in his wake, recording the events for posterity and exaggerating Jesus's run-of-the-mill acts of kindness into divine interventions. The loaves and fishes thing? Turns out Jesus just told the crowd to share whatever meager offerings they brought with them. But in Christ's jazzed-up version, a miracle was born.

"My Christ is a storyteller," Pullman says, "and all storytellers are scoundrels, no doubt about it. We're interested in the shape of narrative, not out of any concern for the characters, but because we like the shape it makes. This is a real moral failing on our part."

Christ justifies his fabrications with the belief that a humourless idealist like his brother needs a bigger platform for his message – perhaps a holy book and a religious institution. According to Pullman, that's where the trouble always starts.

Reflecting on the current child sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, Pullman says that whenever anyone is put in the role of religious authority, that influence is twisted into something ugly. "Look at any church of any faith: Control over it is claimed to have been given directly from God. The people who make that claim are in a position of unparalleled power over their fellow human beings. When that happens, corruption inevitably follows."

This is a subject that Pullman first tackled in his young adult fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, a brilliant coming-of-age saga and an anti-Narnia take on the corrosive power of organized religion. The best-selling novels have the distinction of being multiple award winners and among the world's most banned children's books.

In The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, it's Jesus himself who is outraged at the thought that his teachings might become the basis of a religious organization. Most poignantly, he loses his faith altogether shortly before the crucifixion that would become the centerpiece of the Christian faith.

"Jesus expected the kingdom to come any minute," Pullman says. "He's like those deluded cult leaders telling everyone the Armageddon is coming on Tuesday. And when it doesn't come, he's disillusioned, and his only release from that is his death."

When Jesus rails against a god he no longer believes exists, Pullman says he's speaking for his own younger self, a religious child who became an atheist in adolescence. "I was angry at God for not being there and angry at myself for being taken in. I gave some of my emotions to Jesus in that passage."

Even now, Pullman says he sympathizes with the pull towards religion. "People need stories, myths and miracles. They need the impossible to happen. It might be regrettable, but it's true."

He adds that perhaps Jesus – "who was a man, and only a man," he stresses – understood this, too. "At first, I identified more with the Christ character because he was a writer and he was my invention. But as I researched the book, I had an increased respect and admiration for the historical character of Jesus and his superb gift for storytelling and for creating parables."

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christis in stores now.

(Rachel Giese is a writer based in Toronto)

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The Telegraph - Uk March 22, 2010

Philip Pullman threatened by religious zealots over new Jesus Christ book

By Andrew Hough

The atheist writer, 63, claims he had received dozens of angry letters from critics accusing him of blasphemy in his new book “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ”.

The author of the best-selling His Dark Materials trilogy has received scores of letters condemning him to “eternal hell” and “damnation by fire”.

In the book Mr Pullman writes that a man called Jesus lived 2,000 years ago but that Christ, as the son of God, was the invention of the disciple Paul.

The book, to be published next week, is in the form of a gospel and is partly inspired by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Neither Mr Pullman, who is expected to have special security when he appears at next week’s Oxford Literary Festival, nor his agent were available for comment on Sunday.

But the author earlier told The Sunday Times that he had been threatened by some people who were concerned about the book. It is not clear if authorities have been contacted.

“Many refer to the title itself, for which there is clearly a passionate objection from some out there,” he said. “The letter writers essentially say that I am a wicked man, who deserves to be punished in hell.

“Luckily it’s not in their power to do anything like sending me there.”

Books by Pullman, an honorary associate of the National Secular Society, have previously been criticised by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

His critics often cite an interview in which he reportedly said: "I'm trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief”.

Last year he was one of several authors who attacked the introduction of the new Independent Safeguarding Authority anti-paedophile database.

One of his earlier books, Northern Lights, was turned into the film The Golden Compass starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

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