It was Palm Sunday today, and off I went to the hallows of the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford to see the first full talk by Philip Pullman on his new book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which is published tomorrow. It’s the latest volume in the Canongate Myths series, but tackles one of the most controversial stories there is in the life of Jesus.
The press have been ‘bigging up’ this appearance by Pullman at the Oxford Literary Festival, so I arrived at the Sheldonian expecting protestors, even egg-throwers – but in the event there were none. He did have a security guard though, who sat in the corner with his earpiece and didn’t exactly seem to be scanning the audience. Unfortunately all these shenanigans also meant no signing afterwards, and no chance of a photo either without being ejected. But pre-signed copies were on sale, and I snaffled two. One for me and one for one of you.
The Sunday Times’ Literary Editor Peter Kemp joined Pullman in the discussion. First he asked how Pullman came to write the book. Pullman explained that while growing up with his clergyman grandfather, all the bible stories became “greatly ingrained” in him, but that he’d grown up to treat them as myth not scripture. In a previous platform discussion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams had asked him why there was no mention of Jesus in His Dark Materials? Pullman replied that he’d do it in a later book, and when the opportunity came to join in the Myths series he decided the time was right.
He was then asked about his research. Pullman told us that we’re used to hearing little bits and pieces from the Gospels, and that we rarely read them all the way through as books, and in doing this he was shown how different John is compared to Matthew, Luke and Mark. He read some of the apocrypha, but most of them are not very good, compared with the Gospels and Paul’s letters. He said he’d not read many theological texts in support, sticking to the main story itself. Asked about the writing process, he said that finding a voice to tell the story was the critical thing – equivalent to a film director saying ‘Where do I put the camera?’ He didn’t want to produce a ‘fake gospel’. He wanted spareness and clarity in the scenesetting and he quoted the first verses of the old ballad Sir Patrick Spens as near perfect …
The King sits in Dunfermline town,
Drinking the blood-red wine;
“O where shall I get a skeely skipper
To sail this ship o mine?”
Then up and spake an eldern knight,
Sat at the King’s right knee:
“Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor
That ever sailed the sea.”
He also told us how he decided not to be overdescriptive in landscape and weather etc, wanting to be as neutral and uninflected as possible. However he wanted to make clear the political situation of a colonised space with a puppet King under Roman rule. He told us that he’d write sixteen first chapters of Northern Lights before he discovered that Lyra had a daemon and that gave him the way in. In the new book, the basic way in occurs in the very first sentence …
This is the story of Jesus and his brother Christ, of how they were born, of how they lived and of how one of them died.
Pullman had been very struck that in the Gospels, Jesus is Jesus, but in Paul’s letters he is mostly called Christ. This gave him the idea of having twins, “the visionary teacher healer Jesus” and the “thoughtful and self-conscious” Christ; Jesus being a real man, and Christ his mythical shadow self, always an observer. There is much tension between the brothers and Jesus starts out as a goody-goody and Christ is more of a devil’s advocate egging him on, however things do change. Pullman said that in writing their story “I came to like Christ a great deal and dislike Jesus more than I thought I did.” The novel’s title shows a more stark contrast between the characters than the book suggests, but you have to attract attention somehow he quipped. The conversation then turned towards the miracles and the resurrection. Pullman said it wasn’t too hard to find explanations that worked both ways for the miracles, however the resurrection was much harder. He appreciated the subtle way that the gospels left much open space in their narrative for speculation.
Then there was time for Q&A. Pullman was asked whether the writing of the book had changed his atheist views. He said he saw no evidence of any divine power and still called himself an atheist, although strictly that stance is agnostic. In response to another question, he replied that “it was an unspeakable pity that Jesus didn’t live longer to perhaps write something”, as we only have re-tellings of Jesus’ words in the parables and Beatitudes. The only note of real discord came with the final question when an elderly gentleman politely upbraded him for writing the book. Pullman replied with forceful eloquence that it was his right to write it and it is your right to choose not to read it!
The hour went all too quickly. I hung around outside for a bit in case I could get a shot of him leaving, but the press photographers all went back into the building – presumably for the full press release, so I toddled off home. Not having seen Pullman before I was very impressed and was also glad that he had a good sense of humour. After dinner, I shall be starting to read the book.
Here is a clip from his talk that day. At the end of the clip, you can see yours truly in the audience – centre, stripy top. Scary!
This post was republished into its original place in my blog’s timeline from my lost posts archive