Sunday, April 04, 2010

Philip Pullman's newest isn't likely to end up a fundie favorite

If Christians had a rough time with Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ, I don't quite see them lining up to buy the latest from Golden Compass author and staunch heathen Philip Pullman. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, releasing May 20 in the US, is described thus:

...the remarkable new piece of fiction from best-selling and famously atheistic author Philip Pullman. By challenging the events of the gospels, Pullman puts forward his own compelling and plausible version of the life of Jesus, and in so doing, does what all great books do: makes the reader ask questions.

In Pullman’s own words, “The story I tell comes out of the tension within the dual nature of Jesus Christ, but what I do with it is my responsibility alone. Parts of it read like a novel, parts like history, and parts like a fairy tale; I wanted it to be like that because it is, among other things, a story about how stories become stories.”

Written with unstinting authority, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is a pithy, erudite, subtle, and powerful book by a controversial and beloved author. It is a text to be read and reread, studied and unpacked, much like the Good Book itself.

Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, depicting a war against God, is a modern fantasy classic, and if your only exposure to it is the well-intentioned but murkily executed Golden Compass film from a couple of years back, you owe it to yourself to check out the books themselves. They're very much the anti-Narnia. In this video clip, Pullman responds with simple honesty to a question about Christians finding his new book offensive.

I'll be putting my pre-order in.


  1. Am I the only one who thought the Dark Materials books were just craptacular?

    I'm a somewhat hardcore atheist and have been reading fantasy since uh, well reading Narnia when I was about five. I should be right in his wheelhouse demographic but halfway through the second one I got bored. I didn't like any of characters, the plot wasn't intriguing or even all that coherent.

    In a completely different vein, I think the idea of having a war against god as promotion of a skeptical world view is pretty silly. I think a better way would be to tell a story with compelling characters whose adventures show the failures of faith and superstition and the triumphs of science and reason.

  2. I'm not trying to be a contrarian, but I doubt it'll be as awesome as Christopher Moore's Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Friend. That one has Kung Fu, prostitutes, and an angel who wants to be Spider-Man.

  3. Rasputin: Probably not the only one, just part of the benighted minority. Your last sentence pretty well sums up the Dark Materials books, so there must be another trilogy out there with the same name that you read. :-)

    akusai: Well, we won't know till it's out, will we?

  4. All I have to say to Phillip Pullman is Amen Brother...LOL...oh sorry :-)

  5. The comments section of that video is SO precious. Christians shifting their focus onto 'But it's just so UNCIVIL!'.

  6. Every time a theist plays the "uncivil" or "disrespectful" card, it makes me want to say "excuse me, your religion says I deserve to be tortured for all eternity simply for having been born. Shut the frak up and grow a thicker skin."

  7. A book title is offensive to christians. If there's one thing that really irritates me about some theists is how they take offense to anything that challenges their religion. If a theist's faith is so strong, they shouldn't give a damn what non-believers say. What leg do they believe atheists stand on? Is there something about atheists that frighten them? Shouldn't we be the ones afraid if we're the ones "going to hell" and not them? These vocal ones might be the weakest of the faithful. Their agitation is likely due to their own insecurities about their belief system unraveling. If only it took a book title!

  8. Pre order? Just downloading it now from iTunes!

  9. "Am I the only one who thought the Dark Materials books were just craptacular?"

    It has a lot of ideas which themselves could be good...I'm not as satisfied by the final world that was built.

  10. I dunno, I'm with Rasputin, here. I felt the characters in His Dark Materials were fairly flat an uninteresting, as was the narrative. I also thought The Subtle Knife made a huge mistake by opening up with a new character and not even touching on the first book's cliffhanger for chapters. The new character (that boy whose name I forgot) also seemed to, by his presence, turn Lyra into an even less interesting character; at first she was at least strong-willed, but when he showed up she demurred to his authority more often than not.

    Oh, and the third book should have ended about 150 pages before it did.

    I know, I'm part of a benighted minority, but just the fact that a book resounds with my ideological framework is not enough for me to like it, and I didn't really dig these books on their own merits.

  11. Having read the first book entire, and being halfway through the second, I'm with Akusai.

    I loved the first one - esp those wonderful bears - but the second book seems a far drop from strong beginnings.

    You know that feeling you get when a story loses you... oh I'm reading a book and I could be reading another one or watching THE PACIFIC or playing WoW or cleaning the garage and... hmm, where was I? Ah yes, Lyra was walking around alternate-London with that young man...

    Yeah, that feeling.

    As for "the failures of faith and superstition and the triumphs of science and reason," is that really the case here?

    Sure, Pullman is taking a pretty obvious shot at religion - no prize for guessing which one - but is he therefore extolling science and reason?

    So far, the DarkMaterialsVerse contains sentient, talking bears, polymorphous demon familiars, flying witches and all manner of magical doings.

    Lyra's alethiometer, a key plot device, is pure sorcery - no different from tarot cards, magic mirrors or scrying pools.

    Pullman can have his characters babble on about the pseudo-physics of 'Dust' all he likes, but his fictional world is a magical, irrational place.

    The problem with the Magisterium is that it's the wrong religion - not that it's religious in the first place.

    This is not the advocacy of reason. This is the scourging of heresy.

  12. George, within the context of the rules of the fantasy world Pullman has created, the scourging of heresy is the same as the advocacy of reason. Yes, this is a realm where talking bears and angels and souls and even God actually exist. It's very clear that the world of the story is not a godless one.

    What the Church in the series represents is unthinking adherence to tyrannical dogma. It is vital to them to suppress knowledge of the existence of Dust because that would confirm the existence of alternate universes, which their dogma denies. Lord Asriel is the scientist and explorer who defies them to investigate the phenomenon.

    I gather from your comment you probably just aren't that well versed in the fantasy genre and how it uses elements of the fantastic to explore themes relevant to us in good old reality. But hey, different strokes and all that.

  13. Martin,

    My modern fantasy reading has ranged from Lord Dunsany to Stephen Donaldson and manifold points between. I am well familiar with the genre tropes, story devices, literary mechanics, allegories, cliches, what have you.

    Yes, I "get" what Pullman is doing. His is not a subtle knife. (See what I did there?).

    My point was, and remains, that I think they err who praise HDM by ascribing to it an encomium to "science and reason" because, simply, it is no such thing.

    That the Magisterium is a religious hierarchy and a rather despicable one at that does not automatically make its defeat a victory for science and reason.

  14. Fair enough, I didn't know. I had a lot of friends, many of whom were avid readers, who had simply never read fantasy before, jump into Lord of the Rings when the movies came out and respond with variations of WTF when confronted with the style, the language, the tropes, etc.

    So I thought Pullman's series worked, and you didn't. That's okay, we don't have to like the same books in life! :-) But as to your final point, in a theistic universe such as those in the novels, it would not be pursuing science and reason to take the atheistic view (I can't tell if that's what you're implying so sorry if I'm missing it). It would be, however, if you were trying to uncover facts about that universe that the reigning religious authority were suppressing.

  15. Martin,

    I didn't take it personally; we don't know each other that well and mine was the sort of remark I myself have heard from friends who in fact do NOT read much (or any) fantasy literature and thus commit all manner of category-errors when they critique it.

    Accordingly, I have been chewing over the basis of our disagreement. I think your riposte has merit and I will need to revisit HDM.

    But as to your final point, in a theistic universe such as those in the novels, it would not be pursuing science and reason to take the atheistic view (I can't tell if that's what you're implying so sorry if I'm missing it). It would be, however, if you were trying to uncover facts about that universe that the reigning religious authority were suppressing.

    Yes, just so. I seem to have missed the mark on this one.

    It occurred to me the other day: That Gandalf is himself the same sort of creature as Sauron doesn't change the meaning of what he does. Reducing LOTR to two uber-wizards playing geopolitical chess misses the entire point.

    So, back I go to HDM. I hear the audiobooks have a full cast and are quite well done. Perhaps I will have a go at that.


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