The most famous novels by Philip Pullman (b. 1946, Norwich, UK) relating to the use of the Bible are his three-part story ostensibly for children, His Dark Materials (consisting of The Northern Lights [1995; US: The Golden Compass], The Subtle Knife [1997], and The Amber Spyglass [2000]), and his treatment of Jesus, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010). Notable and clear influences on his most prominent fiction were his childhood discovery of Milton’s Paradise Lost, his association with the University of Oxford, and the Anglicanism of his fondly remembered grandfather (an Anglican priest) (e.g., BBC 2013). As he would claim, “I am a Church of England atheist, and a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist, because that’s the tradition I was brought up in” (Miller 2005), which partly explains the echoes of the language of the King James Bible that permeates His Dark Materials. Though he has challenged labels relating to belief, Pullman also rose to fame as part of a pre- (and post-) September 11 wave of prominent British atheists, including Richard Dawkins (a fellow “Church of England atheist”) and Christopher Hitchens, who would come to be a prominent part of New Atheism. His Dark Materials was the focus of high profile controversies about religion, Christianity, and blasphemy in the UK, though former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams became a critical admirer (Pullman and Williams 2004).

His Dark Materials

Williams’ sympathetic reading is partly due to Pullman’s use of the Bible and its various receptions as worthy cultural resources, a typical move in English public discourse (Crossley 2016). His Dark Materials contains both specific (and numerous) biblical references or allusions and an alternative narrative to certain biblical and Christian myths, much of which is refracted through Blake and (especially) Milton (Shohet 2005). Indeed, the importance of Milton’s biblical epic is signaled from the beginning in the epigraph to Northern Lights, which is from Paradise Lost (II.910–920) and includes the phrase used for the title of the three-part story (“His dark materials to create more Worlds”). In terms of biblical references and quasi-biblical language, and indeed extra-biblical references from related ancient Jewish and “Gnostic” sources, we might mention, among others, concepts (e.g., Kingdom of Heaven, clouded mountain, Dust, Original Sin, angelic rebellion, cosmic battles) and names (Asriel, Boreal, Balthamos, Baruch), including the various names given to the Authority (e.g., God, Creator, Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, King, Father, Almighty, Ancient of Days).

Crucial to Pullman’s plot are prophecies of a second Eve, a second serpent, and thus a second Fall. As this might suggest, the Bible itself, like Lyra’s universe, is familiar-but-different, as former nun Mary Malone points out when she compares with Paul’s ideas about spirit, soul, and body. In Lyra’s universe, dæmons are explained in Genesis 3 where the story of Adam and Eve includes the revelation of the true form of the adult dæmon. But general similarities abound. Asriel and Lyra also have an exchange foundational to plenty of debates about reading the Bible in our world, namely whether such texts should be read “literally,” “metaphorically,” or, rather, in the same way as a fairy tale. There are other familiar stories from the history of reception, such as the casting out of Lucifier being retold in the story of Xaphania being cast out of the kingdom of heaven. More direct still is the retelling of the Jewish story of the “two powers in heaven” where Metatron is enthroned and deemed “the lesser Yahweh” but which led one rabbi to claim controversially that there were two powers in heaven (3 Enoch 2–16; b. Hagigah 15a). The version in His Dark Materials takes up the idea that Metatron—regent of the kingdom and usurper in Pullman’s retelling—is a development of the story of Enoch in Genesis 5.

Pullman, in common with other liberal British atheists of his generation (e.g., Dawkins, Hitchens, Jonathan Meades), puts this biblical and quasi-biblical language to use in a construction of religion and monotheism as totalitarian, authoritarian, tyrannical, dictatorial, intolerant, etc., and as an attack on the perceived need for an afterlife. Death is rethought as part of the normative biological cycle, though it is a concept arguably unresolved in the three-part story (Mills 2009, 95–100). Nevertheless, not even the Authority is immune as his extremely aged form is loosened and dissolved as he gratefully receives his freedom from Metatron’s entrapment and excessive existence courtesy of Will and Lyra. As this suggests, Pullman uses biblical language and associated categories to create an alternative myth that inverts the construction of religion as dictatorial, as well as Pullman’s assumptions about the Bible and Christianity. The Authority is not the creator God that orthodox Christian tradition might have us believe but the first angel who invented such ideas and maintained power through the kingdom of heaven and ecclesiastical authorities. In Lyra’s universe, the Magisterium is presented as sinister (including acts such as kidnapping children for brutal experimentation) and has political control, which extends to policing the body and sexual feeling. The replacement to all this will be the republic of heaven, and the authoritarianism of the kingdom of heaven and the ecclesiastical structures are undermined and subverted in the process. If we were to rethink conventional postcolonial mimicry, we might even claim that His Dark Materials re-inscribes colonial power as it critiques it. After all, the three-part story concludes with Lyra’s resolve to build the republic of heaven. Likewise in such postcolonial readings, mimicry is not exactly the same as the mimicked oppressor, and this new republic is, at least in the idealized rhetorical implications we might glean from Lyra and the ideological tendencies of His Dark Materials, more democratic, tolerant, inquisitive, life-affirming, compassionate, sustainable, etc. (cf. Hodgson 2005), though quite how Asriel’s version might have looked is moot.

The received myths cannot escape the use of biblical language as they are re-inscribed and rethought. Perhaps the most prominent reversal and re-inscription is the rethinking of Eden. The second Fall inverts the idea of Original Sin and sees Lyra’s developing sexuality (significantly edited in American versions of The Amber Spyglass), and her later reacquisition of knowledge-through-training in understanding the alethiometer, as something positive and indeed normative in the maturing process. In some ways, as certain critics have pointed out (e.g., Hitchens 2003), His Dark Materials can be understood as counter to C. S. Lewis and Narnia. In terms of Lyra’s developing sexuality, we might compare Pullman’s own criticism of Narnia and Lewis. Pullman criticized Lewis’ Susan turning away from the Stable (“which stands for salvation”) because the reason given is that she is now interested in “nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up” (Lewis, The Last Battle). For Pullman, this is Susan “undergoing a transition from one phase of her life to another,” which Lewis did not like. Indeed, Pullman adds, Lewis “didn't like women in general, or sexuality at all, at least at the stage in his life when he wrote the Narnia books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up. Susan, who did want to grow up, and who might have been the most interesting character in the whole cycle if she’d been allowed to” (Pullman 1999).

The Good Man Jesus

There is, however, an influential qualification to this popular construction of religion as theocratic and despotic: Jesus, or rather Jesus constructed as antithetical to the allegedly corrupt “church,” “religion,” etc. Jesus is a notable biblical character who does not appear, at least overtly, in His Dark Materials (cf. Pullman and Williams 2004). This is particularly noteworthy as Pullman would devote an entire book to the figure, or rather figures, of Jesus. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is a retelling of the Gospel and New Testament stories with Mary giving birth to twins, Jesus and Christ, and contains a convenient Afterword where Pullman explains some of his ideas. Put crudely, the two figures in the book represent the old scholarly dichotomy of the Jesus of History (i.e., Jesus reconstructed as a figure behind the Gospel embellishments) and the Christ of Faith (i.e., the Christ proclaimed by the Church and in the Gospel embellishments), as the title more colorfully implies. As Diarmaid MacCulloch pointed out in his review of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, “Pullman knows his biblical scholarship. Virtually everything in his novella, except for the storyteller’s brilliant restructuring of the tale as of two brothers, is foreshadowed in what Protestant professors have been saying in Tübingen and Berlin over the last two centuries” (MacCulloch 2010). We might add that this point applies to scholarship beyond German borders, where scholarly reconstructions of historical Jesuses and contrasting Gospel theologies continue to thrive, even if not always as bluntly as certain German predecessors or Pullman. While Pullman was emphatic in claiming that the novel really was fiction, he did claim (of the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins) that “I think my version is much closer to what Jesus would have said. The version in the Gospels is so different from what he said usually” (Higgins 2010). Indeed, the Afterword to The Good Man Jesus tries to explain precisely this principle, as well as laying down a challenge to Christians.

The good man Jesus is charismatic, just, fair, and expects the imminent kingdom of God. This Jesus (with much in common with plenty of scholarly historical Jesuses) is, as we might expect, the antithesis of the construction of what is conventionally labeled “organized religion” and a bureaucratic development of a church that will inevitably bring about hierarchies and abuse of power as it tries to distract people from their miseries. The darker character of Christ, of course, represents Gospel embellishment and the establishment of church authority and power. Such ideas are not entirely absent from His Dark Materials. The republic of heaven has a lot in common with some of the decaffeinated and clichéd liberal kingdoms in scholarly reconstructions of Jesus. It was the potential for the “corrupt church” that also contributed to Rowan Williams’ sympathetic engagement with His Dark Materials. He claimed that Pullman challenges “institutional religion” and an understanding of dark gods that a believer ought not to follow (Williams 2004). In this respect, it is striking that in her interview with Pullman, Laura Miller claimed that, in the light of Pullman’s work, theocracy and an inability to read stories imaginatively belongs to the category of “fundamentalist” which assumes a non-fundamentalist understanding of “religion.” In the same interview Pullman further constructs a “purer” Christianity in his critique of assumed sullying by C. S. Lewis and Narnia. Pullman claimed that Lewis failed to live up to what a Christian ought to be. “Here’s a simple test,” he suggested, “What is the greatest Christian virtue? Well, it’s charity, isn’t it? It’s love. If somebody who knew nothing about Christian doctrine, and who had been told that Lewis was a great Christian teacher, read all the way through those books, would he get that message? No” (Miller 2005).

The construction of the good man Jesus and the idea of a distortion of a better form of Christianity is part of a long tradition, certainly in western reconstructions of Jesus and Christianity and post-Enlightenment understandings of religion. Moreover, such uses of Jesus can be typically seen as a cipher for certain values and exclusion of others (Arnal 2005). Pullman’s book stands in a long line of reconstructions that single out Jesus as a figure who had been misunderstood not only by the Church but even by the New Testament and Gospel writers. In fact, this construction of Jesus has a fairly precise ideological match with Pullman’s presentation of the good man Jesus in that this Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment Jesus has been a way for those who identify as “atheist” or “agnostic,” or those who are hostile to what is perceived to be “organized religion,” to reclaim a Jesus for more liberal or politically radical sensibilities (Crossley 2016, 29–32).

Pullman’s Jesus stands comfortably in a liberal tradition of Jesuses that is associated with likeminded Oxbridge-connected liberal thinkers (and here I use “liberal” in the sense of socially liberal and sympathetic, as Pullman has been, with the British centrist political party: the Liberal Democrats). Dawkins, for instance, has had similar things to say about Jesus. If Jesus existed, Dawkins argues, his morals were “a huge improvement over the cruel ogre of the Old Testament” and “surely one of the great ethical innovators of history. The Sermon on the Mount is way ahead of its time” (Dawkins 2006, 250; cf. Dawkins 2005). A close friend of Dawkins and another with ties to the Liberal Democrats (especially their precursors, the Liberal Party) is the late sci-fi writer Douglas Adams. Adams, who also openly identified as atheist, produced a similar take on Jesus in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) where it is mentioned that two thousand years ago, a man was nailed to a tree for saying that people should be nice to one another. While Pullman’s Jesus (and purer Christianity) may be part of a broad, Enlightenment-inspired tradition, he is also a product of the English liberal middle class with Oxbridge connections (cf. Eagleton 2006; Eagleton 2009) and which, particularly in the form of New Atheism, has produced some of the most high-profile critiques of their constructed opposite: religion and its assumed extreme manifestation, fundamentalism.


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James Crossley