Pulling the other one on the life of Jesus
The latest in the endless string of novels about Jesus has just been published in the UK (due out here in May). It comes from the pen of Philip Pullman, the author of the fantasy series His Dark Materials (a film was made of the first novel in the series, The Golden Compass, starring Nicole Kidman alongside a polar bear).
Pullman has already stated that it’s a novel, and needs to be kept in the category of imaginative retelling. But I recall that Dan Brown said the same thing about The Da Vinci Code, and it didn’t stop millions of people revising their view of Christian history as a result of its wildly entertaining (and historically ridiculous) reconstructions of the life of Jesus.
I feel it is fair to speculate that Pullman likely hopes people will revise their view of Jesus as a result of reading his novel.
It is hard to see why an author would be drawn to such a task other than a sense that the Christian story needs rewriting, that something in it needs correcting or modifying, in order to bring it up to date.
So what are Pullman’s options?They fall into at least three categories.
1. The D. H. Lawrence approach. Lawrence informed a genre of storytelling about Jesus when in 1929 he wrote his novella, The Man Who Died (also called ‘The Escaped Cock’, but that proved a difficult title to promote). In this story, as passionate and swollen as anything Lawrence wrote, his Jesus faces a crisis: Will I fulfil the will of God, or will I give myself to the Earth? Will I seek something beyond this world, or will I relish the things of the flesh: sex, children, food, worldly delights? Lawrence inspired the Jesus of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel and Scorcese’s film, The Last Temptation of Christ, and paved the way for novels which focus on the humanity of Jesus.
2. The Jeffrey Archer approach. Archer recently wrote The Gospel According to Judas (2007), in which Jesus is not the most interesting character in the story. New Zealand author, C.K. Stead, did the same thing in the same year in My Name Is Judas. He needs a ‘dark side’, a doppleganger or a shadow-self, in whom the reader finds something more real than the perfect goodness that characterises Jesus. Judas-types are filled with ambiguous desires—they want the things of heaven, but they are jealous, ambitious, uncertain and unstable. They make for interesting characters!
3. The Dan Brown approach. This approach makes the most of the fact that the biblical Gospels don’t record the entirety of Jesus’ life (unlike today’s biographies, where every breakfast from birth to death seems to be recorded). This is a very ancient technique, one employed by some of the ‘other Gospels’ that get talked about now and then (such as ‘The Gospel of Philip’). Novelists from Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code to Robert Graves’ more thoughtful but equally contrived effort in King Jesus (1946), have relished this opportunity. It’s a ‘fill-in-the-gaps’ storytelling, which allows the author to emphasise things other than those emphasized in the biblical Gospels (in all four of them, the three-year period of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection take up most space; there is almost nothing about his childhood or early adult years).
Perhaps Pullman has something new for his readers. Perhaps he has found some new angle on Jesus, some 21st Century lens through which we can re-visit Western history’s central figure. We’ll see.
Or perhaps he will suffer the fate of Norman Mailer, whose attempt to ‘write a better Jesus’ in his 1997 novel, The Gospel According to the Son, was panned as pompous by critics.
The real question is: will people remember Pullman is giving us a novel, and that the best history we have about Jesus of Nazareth is actually found within the pages of the Bibles you can pick up in any bookshop in Australia?
I’ve always found it a bit annoying that the ease with which you can buy a Bible, with a dark, hard cover and that strange cigarette paper inside, masks the fact that this is a startling collection of very ancient documents, pored over by scholars and meticulously documented. It’s annoying because people forget they are reading the best history available on Jesus, manuscripts dug up from the ancient sands of the Middle East. And when you open a Gospel—such as the historically-driven Gospel of Luke—you are getting as close to the historical reality of Jesus as you can get.
Novels about Jesus might stimulate us to think more about this remarkable person, but they shouldn’t substitute for the best historical information we have. That would be like trying to understand polar bears by watching The Golden Compass.
Greg Clarke is Director of the Centre for Public Christianity (www.publicchristianity.org)
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