Much-awarded and controversial British author Philip Pullman, whose trilogy His Dark Materials has been published in 39 langauges, is back at what he does best – critiquing the Church. If his previous trilogy was attacked by many Christian groups for its strong criticism of institutionalised religion, even as the first of it was made into a successful Hollywood film titled The Golden Compass, in his latest book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, he has tried to give a new take to the life story of Jesus Christ. Even though the book’s back cover mentions in bold letters that “THIS IS A STORY”, Pullman uses it as a medium to again raise questions about religion and the Church. In a long-distance interview, Pullman, a believer-turned-atheist who has proposed in his book that Jesus had a twin named Christ, tells Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari about the genesis of the story
You have been a critic of institutionalised religion. Is your new book an exploration of how religion is misused by some?
Yes, I think it is. If I sound tentative here, it’s because I really don’t like to say authoritatively what any of my books mean or say or are. To have the author interpreting the meaning for the reader limits any possible response. I hope the book is about many things; your suggestion may well be one of them.
Were you not apprehensive that it might attract controversies? Did you add the legend “This is a Story” on the back cover to avoid any, marking very clearly that it is a work of fiction? And are you surprised that there has not been any till now?
The author owns the inside of the book – the publisher own the outside. That was the publisher’s idea, not mine. I thought it was a good idea to remind people of the story-ness not only of this, but also of the Bible itself, but I’m not the originator of it. As for controversy, my work always attracts people who want to be offended. There is no shortage of those people in the world, unfortunately.
You have spoken about people not reading the Bible deeply, and more or less going by what the Church tells them about what it contains. Is that how people, whatever religion they may belong to, get misled about religious scriptures by religious leaders who have vested interests in keeping it that way?
I wouldn’t be surprised. I’m no expert in the history of religion, but simply looking at my own case and that of people I know, I believe it to be true: we don’t examine stories closely until we have some urgent professional or personal reason for doing so. It’s simply too much trouble. Most of the time we accept what we half-remember, and make do with that. Authorities of every kind, of course, and not just religious ones, have a vested interest in ‘owning’ the stories by which we live. That’s why they need to be challenged.
What are your views on religious fiction? Do you agree that writing fiction based onreligious figures is a risky business in today’s world?
In today’s world, religion seems to be taking a turn for the pugnacious. This, of course, is a matter for regret. Some religions are more trigger-happy than others. That’s a matter for regret also.
Are the twins in your book symbolic of what could have been the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides of Jesus Christ?
Yes, in a way, but each is more complicated than that. We all – even children – know that good people can do bad things, and bad people can do good things.
Is this book in a way a continuation of the idea behind “His Dark Materials” series, where the world is ruled by an authoritarian Church? Or a prequel to that series, in a sense that it sets the pitch for what is to come in future?
His Dark Materials is a fantasy, of course, set in an imagined world, and The Good Man Jesus is a fantasy of a different sort, set in this world. But the impulse behind each of them is the same: to point out the dangers and drawbacks of allowing religion to get its hands on political power.
You refuse to explain the “meaning” of your stories, and say that you are not in the “message business” but in the “once upon a time” business. Would you elaborate on it?
What I mean is that when you allow a story to be hijacked by a cause, then the story suffers. My critics would say that I allow that too often; I would say in response that they are quite happy to see fiction that supports causes they like. The poet W B Yeats spoke of the dangers of letting the will do the work of the imagination, and I remember that whenever I’m tempted to ‘preach’.
You are a self-proclaimed “Church of England atheist”. How does your atheist status help you in writing about subjects that has a religious or religion-related backdrop? And what made you disbelieve in God in the first place?
I can write about Christianity because of my Christian background; I wouldn’t presume to write about Judaism, or Islam, or Hinduism, because I know very little about those worlds, and my imagination has nothing to work on. As for what made me disbelieve in God, it was mainly the fact that I could see no evidence for his presence in the world. He may be somewhere else, but he is not in this universe, and as far as I can tell there is no other.
How much do you think this book would interest people following other religions?
Of course, I hope it will interest many people whatever their religious background. I also hope that it will make people want to read the Gospels in the New Testament, and see what they actually say, as opposed to what they think they say.