Sunday, 6 June 2010



On the back side of the book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, it is mentioned that This is a Story. Indeed it is, in which bestselling British author Philip Pullman has looked into the life of Jesus and how he was betrayed.

“I suppose this story is a progression from the trilogy His Dark Materials, in that having castigated organised religion, I thought I should examine the character of the person... man or god... who was responsible for Christianity,” Pullman tells me from Oxford in England.

In Pullman’s story, Jesus and Christ are twin brothers. Jesus is boisterous; Christ is much quieter, more of a well-read boy who often comes to Jesus’s rescue. Gradually, Jesus begins to preach about the imminent advent of god’s Kingdom. A stranger then influences Christ to record all of Jesus’s preachings, and later persuades Christ to betray his brother for the sake of organised religion of the faithful.

How should readers react to this story? “Well, I hope they’ll go to the Bible and read it carefully to see what I’ve got wrong,” Pullman replies. “Many people, who claim to believe the doctrines of the Christian church, have never actually read the gospels or the epistles carefully and thoughtfully, comparing the different stories, wondering how such contradictory accounts can all be true. I hope this book will encourage them to do just that.”

If the church goes, then what will stand to give an image to faith? Or is it that we don't need any image at all, I ask him. To this, Pullman says that he “personally doesn’t require any image to depict faith”. If at all he needs any, then he shall find it “in the literature and in folktales... in every sort of narrative”.

He rubbishes the idea that non-believers have no morality. “This is nonsense. Morality has quite another origin. Religious people are just as likely to be wicked, and non-believing people just as likely to be good,” Pullman maintains. Faith, he adds, “is no recommendation of any kind” for which a 'faithful' can claim any privilege. “Give any sort of power to religion, and bad things result,” he reiterates. “Our recent Prime Minister Tony Blair thought very differently. For him, faith was a great thing, and those who claimed to have it should be given privileges and respect. I do not agree”.

How can an ordinary faithful confront the wrongdoings of religious leadership? I ask Pullman referring to the recent reported news on Papal shield that covered up the abuses by the priests. 'There are numerous such incidents across the religions...' I tell him. “The recent unhappy revelations about the Catholic Church only confirm what I've always said: give any sort of power to religion, and bad things result,” he replies.

“I'm sure many faithful people will be unhappy and disappointed by what they've heard and seen recently. If it helps them see the flaws in the structures of religious power, then it can only be a good thing,” he adds.

The author looks at the controversies over his books 'with interest and satisfaction'. On a lighter note, he says that such controversies will mean “more copies are sold”.

I ask him whether he would prefer to argue with his critics. “An interesting question! It depends on two things: on how intelligent they are, and whether we are in private or in public,” he replies. “If someone is not very bright, and their mind is closed, there is no point in arguing. Similarly, if we are in private, I often don’t want to argue,” he adds.

Argument, according to him, is a “public activity” that demands a “neutral audience, and a firm chairman”. But the purpose of the event is not to change the mind of the opponent, Pullman says. The “aim of the exercise” is to win over the “undecided audience”.

To write this book, Pullman “began with the four gospels in the New Testament, as the fullest sources for the life of Jesus”. He then read “as many of the apocryphal gospels, as I could bear... some of them are very poor as literature, and bare of any psychological or narrative interest. Pullman informs. “Apart from that I read The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, by David Strauss which was the first great critical examination of the story from a non-engaged point of view” he says. Among the modern scholars, he read Geza Vermes, “whose knowledge of the life and times of Jesus is unmatched.”

Apart from that he didn't read anything because he found “from long experience that you can easily become misled, or waylaid, or beguiled by this scholar or that theory, and forget the main point of your study,” he informs. And the point is “always to tell a story as clearly as possible”.

A former schoolteacher, Pullman “always loved” and has been “most interested in” stories both as a listener or a reader, or when he studied literature and also as a storyteller. “Telling a story clearly and without unintentional confusion --- intentional confusion being a different matter --- was the thing I most admired in other writers, and the skill I most wanted to develop. I’m still working at it,” he says.

According to Pullman, “the great thing” about being a storyteller, “as opposed to, say, a footballer or a dancer, is that you can keep on going long after your knees give out or your hips become arthritic”. Besides, he was “no good at football”, Pullman adds jovially. “Dancing is something I only do when my children get married. They are both safely married now, so my dancing days are over”.