by Dan Glover | 2/7/2014
" In the interests of full disclosure, I will say from the start that I am a Christian who is committed to the historical veracity and authority of the New Testament account of the life of Jesus, the Christ. I realize that this commitment inherently colours my perspective on both the Bible and the book I am currently reviewing but of course no more than Philip Pullman's admitted and overt anti-theism colours his take on the first four books of the New Testament (and the rest for that matter). There is a popular belief out there that says atheists approach religion and the Bible on a rational, objective, neutral basis where as subscribers to the faith are subjective and irrational. The foolishness of this can be seen on the face of it. I readily admit that Christians don't embrace or examine their faith with pure rationalist logic...far from it. However they are not devoid of logic either and the atheist embraces his or her secular-humanism with every bit as much faith as the most devout saint posses.
Also, right off the start, I want to acknowledge that I am aware that the cover of Pullman's book states loud and clear that, "this is a story" as if that disclaimer preemptively answers any criticisms to his reinvention of the gospel narratives. I realize this is a fiction, Pullman's own version. However, since he is presuming to deconstruct and reinvent something as pivotal and as immense as the life of the historical Jesus, he cannot duck out of criticism simply by saying, "hey, I told you this is a story". So...to the book.
Unlike some of the reviews I've read, I was not wowed by the ingenious originality of this tale, mainly because there was very little originality to be found. In fact, much like my experience of The DaVinci Code, as I was reading I couldn't help thinking at least once a chapter how old and tired this all sounded. Like Dan Brown's shameless robbery of the central premise and many of the details of the authors of The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail, Pullman turns the "de-mythologizing", pseudo-scholarship of Liberal theologians of the past two centuries into a fictional account of the life of Jesus Christ and the origins of the Christian religion. In this project he proceeds along the familiar lines of separating the supposed tiny kernel of historical Jesus (just a good Jewish moral teacher) from the vast and distorted post-Christ mythologizations of those who used Jesus as an opportunity to construct a cult to challenge the existing power structures and replace it with their own. Like a one man Jesus Seminar, Pullman seeks to sift out the probable historical events and teachings from all supposed glosses, inventions, edits, and manifold additions of post-Christ church leadership. The literary device he uses to accomplish this in a narrative work is to divide the historical Jesus into twin brothers: Jesus, a human, red-blooded, honest Jewish teacher of the golden rule with a keen perception of human nature, and Christ, his underhanded, lowlife, back stabbing, power-hungry alter-ego of a brother whom one can nevertheless identify with. I think this is the only original part of this book.
Pullman rewrites his way chronologically through the gospel story, systematically attacking one cardinal orthodoxy after another, from the virgin birth (a naÃ¯ve Mary consents to sleep with a town boy because he tells her he is an angel messenger from God and she has been chosen for a special honour), to Jesus' miracles (which are just acts of kindness or bold statements that the growing excitement of the crowds turn into rumours and stories of the miraculous), to the death and resurrection (the body was taken by those who wished to perpetuate the stories of Jesus divinity in order to use them to accomplish their own political ends), and many things in between. Again, nothing particularly new here as the gospels were long ago sifted by those wishing to retain the title `Christian' but were embarrassed by all the super-natural baggage and salvation language that such a handle brought with it.
The true center of this book is the prayer of Jesus in the garden just prior to his arrest and trial. Far from the emotional struggle of the biblical account, where Jesus, knowing his vicarious death was hard upon him, desires in his humanity to avoid the pain and separation, but trusts his heavenly Father and famously declares "nevertheless, not my will but Thine be done", here Jesus' last prayer is an angry outburst of frustration at the silence and indifference of a God he has finally lost faith in. To call this a thinly veiled projection of Pullman's own feelings toward the God of the Bible would be gross understatement. It is yet one more example of the two controlling tenets of atheism: 1) there is no God, and 2) I hate him.
I must take exception to another reviewer's opinion as the prose in this book was anything but lyric and I believe Pullman himself would agree with me. Due to the nature of this story the plain, unadorned prose suited the genre better than flowery description which one never typically finds in mythology or in the Bible (but for the poetic books). From my perspective, however, the style was the only strength of this book and if zero stars was an option on Amazon, that is what I would have rated this book. Strictly considered, I found this to be a well written (from a technical perspective, genre constraints considered) fictionalization of some worn-out secularist liberal theological railings against the historicity of the Bible's accounts of Jesus life and works. That is to say, it was like an incorrectly balanced ledger, where all the numbers and totals are nevertheless written with admirable penmanship. But however aesthetically pleasing the handwriting might be, the sums will leave you in trouble with the tax man when he audits you.
This book is the rebellious attempt to remove redemption from the redemption narrative by a man who refuses to admit his own spiritual bankruptcy and need of the Jesus Christ he is trying to rid history of. But one recalls the age old maxim, that the Christian faith is an anvil that has worn out many hammers. For those wishing to read something from an intelligent pen that takes a very different perspective on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, try Malcolm Muggerige's JESUS: THE MAN WHO LIVES., G.K. Chesterton's EVERLASTING MAN, THE, C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity or, N.T. Wright's Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense orThe Original Jesus: The Life and Vision of a Revolutionary. "