C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia is a much loved work of literature — but not universally loved. The author Philip Pullman is one of its best-known detractors. An atheist, Pullman despised the messages embedded in Lewis' Christian allegory, so he wrote his own trilogy in response, titled His Dark Materials after a line from Milton's Paradise Lost.
The His Dark Materials trilogy made Pullman famous — the first book was made into the special-effects-heavy film The Golden Compass starring Nicole Kidman — and was widely recognized as an attack on religion, so Pullman's inspiration for his new book came from an unlikely source: the archbishop of Canterbury. It happened one evening when the two were appearing together to discuss His Dark Materials.
"He pointed out that although I dealt with organized religion in that novel, His Dark Materials, I hadn't actually mentioned Jesus," Pullman says. Instead, the archbishop asked Pullman, "Now where did he fit into my ... alternative world?"
Pullman resolved at that moment that he would write a book about Jesus. Some years later, the result is The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.
In Pullman's version of the story, Jesus has a twin brother named Christ.
"I was intrigued, you see, by the difference between the two parts of the name Jesus Christ that we commonly use interchangeably," Pullman says. "So I thought, 'Well, maybe there is a difference. Maybe there are two beings here, not one.' "
Christ, his mother's favorite, is weaker than Jesus both physically and emotionally. Jesus takes up his father's trade, but early in his life he asserts his independence from his family: He becomes an itinerant preacher, attracting big crowds with his charismatic personality. Christ follows his brother, watching from the sidelines and writing down what he does, and then embellishing the truth, even reporting miracles when there were none. Pullman says his Jesus tracks closely with the Jesus described in the New Testament, but Christ is his own invention.
"Christ is this complicated character, and I call him a 'scoundrel' in the title but we soon come to see he not so much of a scoundrel as a confused man. Christ is like a figure in a novel," Pullman says. "He's the only figure in the story who is like a figure in a novel, because he is the only one who is made up."
Another fictional character lurks on the pages of Pullman's book, known only as "the stranger." He appears to Christ from time to time, encouraging him to continue writing down his version of what Jesus does and says, giving the impression that Jesus is more than just an ordinary man. It is important, the stranger tells Christ, to interpret what Jesus means for his future followers. For a long time, Christ thinks the stranger is an angel, but Pullman keeps his identity a mystery.
"I wanted the reader to wonder about it. And I hope people will talk about it and wonder who this could be," the author says. "If I had to name the stranger — which I try not to do throughout the book and whenever Christ seeks to know his name, the stranger asks him a question or evades it in some way — but if I was pinned to the spot and forced to say what he was, I would say he was the spirit of the church, really."
Eventually Christ betrays Jesus and stages his resurrection. As Christ begins to realize that what he is doing will lead to the creation of a church based on untruths, the stranger argues that the deception is worth it:
"Think of a sick man wracked with pain and fear. Think of a dying woman terrified by the coming darkness. there will be hands reaching out to comfort them and feed them and warm them."
Pullman says that the Jesus who emerges from this story is a real person, a man the author admires for his strength and conviction, not to mention his gift for storytelling. But this Jesus is no god; if anything, he is all too human.
"He's abrupt, he's scornful of his brother's arguments, and yet he's genuinely capable of tenderness and care," Pullman says. "In the only passage where he speaks at length, towards the end of the book in the garden of Gethsemane, he really gives voice to what I feel and think about these big questions."
As Pullman imagines Jesus in the hours before his crucifixion, there is no reprieve from despair, only anger at a God who does not hear his prayers:
"You're making a liar out of me, you realize that. I don't want to tell lies. I want to tell the truth. But I tell them you're a loving father watching over them all and you're not. You're blind as well as deaf as far as I can tell."
Pullman knows that his interpretation of the life of Jesus could draw the ire of some Christians; at one early public appearance extra security was added in case of protests. But Pullman says he doesn't really expect to encounter angry mobs. And he says he doesn't care if people don't like the book, as long as they really read it and remember one thing.
"This is a story among other stories, it doesn't make any claims to be the truth about anything," he says.
Pullman says he hopes his book will send readers back to one of the other versions of this story: the Bible. He believes they might be surprised by some of the inconsistencies they find there.