And if you find the above scenario scandalous, there is more that might be found upsetting: the Annunciation by the Angel to Mary, telling her that she would conceive and bring forth the Saviour of mankind, was a seduction. Worse: in this version of the Gospel story, Jesus does actually die. The business of Him rising again was staged. It was His twin brother Christ who was pressed into service to play the part of the Risen Lord. So you might expect that the Anglican primate of all England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, would not think too highly of this book, on account of its theology. And you'd be correct. Reading between the lines, he doesn't think anything of its theology. It's theology stinks. Yet he commends the book for what its author, Philip Pullman, has achieved in the figure of Jesus. Dr Williams considers him a figure of great spiritual authority. He makes one other point, too, which I confess had escaped me, but is maybe very telling: that the figure of Christ is in fact the figure of Thomas the Doubter. This, as he points out, is never stated in the text, and yet it makes a lot of sense and things do seem to fall into place, emotionally at least - or did for me - once that connection is made.
But leaving that small issue aside, some support is needed, I think, for the contention that the book's Jesus is a figure of great spiritual authority. So back to one who should be able to recognise that attribute when he meets it, Dr Williams again. Among his reasons for so thinking is the account of Jesus's meeting in the synagogue with a man possessed by a devil. In the Gospel account Jesus orders the demon to be silent and come out of him. In the book Jesus addresses, not the demon, but the patient: You can be quiet now. He's gone away. Time to confess, I think: I have used Dr Williams as a witness on the book's behalf, and so he has been, but he is not an unbiased witness in that it was he who prompted Pullman to write it in the first place. Pullman had written about God, but not about Jesus. And Dr Williams asked him why not.
Having hit upon this conceit, that Mary gave birth, not to one child, but to twins, Pullman gives us a chalk and cheese pair. Jesus is the extrovert, always playing up and getting into mischief, Christ is the thinker, the introvert, who time and again gets Jesus out of the trouble he's in. Perhaps not the way round that you might have supposed, but it accords well with everyday experience.
You may know Pullman as the author of The Dark Materials and there is an echo of this in the book's Garden of Gethsemane. This is in large part a long soliloquy by Jesus and is quite unlike any other passage in the book. Jesus is out on his own, there is no answer from Heaven and He is expecting none. Nothing is to be found there. It is a shock that the book does nothing to soften. Jesus having accepted complete responsibility for man's sin and redemption is stuck with it. There is nowhere else to turn. He has Himself made it so.
To that extent the story reminds me very much of Albert Schweitzer's book on The Quest of The Historical Jesus. There are differences. Schweitzer believed, as Pullman seems to, that Jesus was not born The Son of God, not given a divine mandate from birth, but that the role was one he eventually and reluctantly came to accept for himself, the role, in fact, of the Jews' Saving Remnant. First the Jewish race was to achieve man's salvation by its exemplary life and worship, but it proved unworthy and the mantle fell to one tribe. That tribe, too, proved itself unworthy. In time the role fell to the thirteen - Jesus and his disciples. When they proved themselves equally unworthy Jesus took the whole responsibility upon His own shoulders. Schweitzer's book made a profound impression on me as a boy. One difference is that Schweitzer believed Jesus was trying to force God's hand. Pullman, who wears his learning lightly and tells a cracking good tale, seems to think that Jesus did what he did from a state of despair, his belief that God could do nothing.
But if that is the main thrust of the story - the Gospel story retold as it might have been written today - there is at least one other thread: it is a meditation on the nature of truth, myth, falsehood and story-telling. Furthermore it's a cracking good tale. There is a hurdle for some Christians to get over - fundamentalists need not try - but there is much to be gained in the attempt.
Sack him, he'll write books,
a lot of them - Gordon Brown.
(Promise? Or a threat?)