Pullman leaves the Christian reader with a genuine paradox to ponder, and he doesn't – to his credit – suggest that the arguments are not serious. The sinister stranger in the book – who stands for all philosophical system-makers who want to improve on history by importing eternal truths at the expense of ordinary truthfulness – insists to "Christ" that Jesus's message can only survive clothed in the language of miracle and power. It is very much the argument we find in the mouth of Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor – that Jesus was too radical for ordinary human consumption, and for his memory to survive at all, you will have to lie about him. But what Pullman doesn't fully allow, I think, is the degree to which the New Testament itself is already aware of the dangers. Mark's gospel, in particular, presents a Jesus who insistently refuses to use his own miracles to prove his status, and a company of disciples who are chronically incapable of understanding Jesus's challenges. It seems to recognise the irony that the more you say about Jesus the more you risk getting it wrong.
And through the Christian centuries, these unresolved tensions and deliberate ironies in the Bible have gone on prompting people to resist the lure of Pullman's "Christ" and his anxious religiosity – a Francis of Assisi, a Bonhoeffer; an Óscar Romero, murdered 30 years ago last week for his resistance to state terror in El Salvador. They have seen through the surface froth of religion and heard the voice Pullman himself obviously finds so compelling. That should make us pause before deciding that the New Testament is quite as successful in sanitising an uncomfortable history through religiously convenient "truth" as Pullman implies. It is aware of its own temptations. It trains its readers in self-questioning.
Thursday, May 6, 2010
Rowan Williams on Pullman and the Gospels
For the full review go here, (HT and links to other reviews RB)