Bishop Alan Wilson has an interesting review of Philip Pullman’s new book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which sounds like bad history but interesting fiction. The author is of course a well known atheist.
I haven’t read the book, so I am relying here on the bishop’s review. As far as I can tell from that, Pullman has taken the 19th century speculation about the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith and turned them into two separate people, brothers but very different. Indeed there seem to be elements of the Prodigal Son story mixed in. But it seems that Pullman’s good man Jesus represents the real original man from Nazareth, and his scoundrel Christ is a caricature of what the church has turned Jesus into.
Bishop Alan quotes at length Pullman’s version of Jesus’ prayer in the garden:
Lord, if I thought you were listening, I’d pray for this above all: that any church set up in your name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest. That it should weild no authority except that of love. That it should never cast anyone out. That it should own no property and make no laws. That it should not condemn but only forgive. That it should not be like a palace, with marble walls and polished floors, and guards standing at the door, but like a tree with its roots deep in the soil, that shelters every kind of bird and beast and gives blossom in the spring and shade in the hot sun and fruit in the season, and in time gives up its good sound wood to the carpenter, but that sheds many thousands of seeds so that new trees can grow in its place. Does the tree say to the sparrow “Get out, you don’t belong here?” Does the tree say to the hungry man, “That fruit is not for you?” Does the tree test the loyalty of the beasts before it allows them into the shade?’
So far, so good. But I was disappointed at the Anglican bishop’s response to this:
Amen! This is a rather C of E ecclesology; The Church is anything but perfect, but always in need of necessary reformation. This comes from its interaction with the society it serves, not some infallible magisterium. …
No, Bishop Alan, Pullman’s Jesus is not commending the Church of England. It may not have an “infallible magisterium”. It may have become relatively poor, recently, but not by renouncing riches or giving generously, only by being inept at holding on to its wealth. But it still owns huge amounts of property, and makes its own laws or gets the government to do so for it. Many of its buildings are precisely “like a palace, with marble walls and polished floors”. Its bishops (not Bishop Alan, at least yet) still wield secular authority in the House of Lords. And if its official leaders are no longer quick to condemn, that lack is more than made up for by the pronouncements of some of its clergy and lay people.
If the church wants to show the love of the real Jesus to atheists like Pullman, it won’t do it by boasting that it is not as bad as those Roman Catholics with their “infallible magisterium”, but by doing something about the points which Pullman actually puts on the lips of Jesus. May the church indeed become
like a tree with its roots deep in the soil, that shelters every kind of bird and beast and gives blossom in the spring and shade in the hot sun and fruit in the season, and in time gives up its good sound wood to the carpenter, but that sheds many thousands of seeds so that new trees can grow in its place.