Philip Pullman – author of the fabulously written, famously antireligious Dark Materials fantasy trilogy – is at it again. According to an NPR interview, his latest novel was inspired by the Archbishop of Canterbury asking him where Jesus fit into the Dark Materials world. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ posits Jesus of Nazareth having a psychologically disturbed twin brother named Christ. The storyline plays on the inconsistencies of the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus.
It sounds a bit silly to me. Progressive Christian theology distinguishes between Jesus and Christ with the phrase “Jesus the Christ.” Jesus was a human being, the Christ is the salvific, revelatory presence of God unveiled by a human life. Progressive Christians tend to be comfortable with the idea of more than one Christ in history, in the world, and most certainly in art and fiction. Woman Christ? Oh yes, see the feminist sculpture Christa by Edwina Sandya, or read Elizabeth Moon’s fantasy novel Deed of Paksenarrion. Wizard Christ?! Harry Potter. Google “Christ Figure” in Wikipedia and check the notes under Literature for a fascinating remark: that generally in literature (many examples listed), Christ figures stop at being martyred and don’t get as far as resurrection. Paksenarrion and Harry do get resurrected. So does the extraterrestrial Christ, E.T. in the movie. Offhand I’d say that convincingly resurrecting a Christ figure is, in terms of storycraft, quite a challenge.
In Pullman’s new book the resurrection is a fraud perpetrated by the twin brother, Christ.
Well, intellectually honest theologians, intelligent believers, and Christian agnostics (of whom there are many, and some of them write novels) have grappled for a long, long time with the original incredibleness of the Gospel, the devastating imperfection of the Church, the inconsistency of the Bible, and the darkness of the human unconscious. One of the first theologians to recognize the deep waters below the conscious mind was Martin Luther in the 1500’s. WHAT THE CHURCH SAYS DOESN’T MAKE SENSE!! is hardly a newsflash.
On the other hand, Philip Pullman does what he’s doing very well, and faith is well served by brilliant honest skepticism. It can clear out mindless weediness and rank undergrowth. One of the most amazing anti-religious tales ever written is Olaf Stapleton’s classic Star Maker. That novel alone, taken with the seriousness it deserves, destroys the credibility of God the Supreme Being in our day.
Theologian Paul Tillich’s God Beyond God and God the Ground of Being held up to the 20th Century a lot better than orthodoxy’s Supreme Being or the Watchmaker of Deism. Process Theology has held up too. Liberation Theology brewed in the 20th Century, proclaiming God’s “preferential option for the poor” and stirring the pot of the Roman Catholic Church. One thing critics like Pullman may miss – understandably, if they decamped from organized religion at an early age – is the extend of the prophetic, i.e., critical and reformational, tradition, in religion. And the mystical undercurrents. Christian mystics across the centuries called God shining darkness, mystery that terrifies and fascinates, lover of souls, cloud of unknowing, and on and on, images and stories that didn’t square with Church doctrine and sometimes got the mystics into trouble.
My copy of the Dark Materials trilogy was a gift from a Roman Catholic priest who valued its message against the worst perversions of organized religion. This priest – since deceased and celebrated by a funeral Mass that drew in all sorts of friends and clergy – knew well that Church and Christ are not coextensive. He also knew how mystical and prophetic movements always bubble up in organized religion and are never welcome there.
The mystics experienced God in ways that doctrine made little or no allowance for. Reformation happened because Luther saw the Church in dire need of reforming from the top down. And then there was the real Jesus of Nazareth. Believe me, many intellectually honest theologians, seminary professors, and Biblical scholars and historians have studied the words and works of Jesus to learn what he really said and meant. Much of the best scholarship points to this: with his parables and his paradoxical sayings wasn’t spelling out what people should think about God. He was dislodging God from the mental and cultural boxes in which the idea of God was contained. And he was freeing people from mind-bending, heart-breaking condictions imposed by religious authorities. Which is, to say the least, work that forever needs doing.