Posts Tagged ‘the Republic of Heaven’

Philip Pullman: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

June 7, 2021

     For some reason, despite being a great admirer of Philip Pullman, I’d deliberately avoided this novel when it was published; a chance encounter with a pristine copy in a secondhand bookshop was an impulse buy…

Mary has twins in this version of the story: Jesus and Christ, which did feel like a very clumsy device. Jesus is the human Jesus we would probably recognise, Christ a background figure who at times overlaps with the Tempter/Satan figure, and who is initially manipulated by a mysterious stranger – some kind of angel – who encourages Christ to see the future potential of Jesus’ story and message, if only it is recorded and used correctly… you can see pretty early on where Pullman is going with this, and it’s not very subtle at all. He’s doing what many have done over the ages, exploring the contrast between the original Jesus and what Christianity has become over the centuries, while recognising that unravelling the deliberate obfuscations of the past is pretty impossible. And, as an avowed materialist, Pullman is having none of the miracles nonsense.

It’s a roman à thèse, didactic, what have you. Christ starts out following the stranger’s instructions faithfully to record Jesus’ sayings and actions but soon realises that he can embellish for a more effective future purpose. And yet Pullman is a very skilled and experienced novelist, and his Christ character is not as baldly presented as this: he does have a character of his own, doubts and concerns about what he’s been drawn into, feelings and weaknesses that are gradually revealed. But in the end he does what is asked of him, and allows the obvious fraud of the resurrection to be perpetrated – you saw this coming a mile off, after all.

You can see why traditional Christians either avoided this novel like the plague, or attacked it roundly. So, what was Pullman trying to achieve? Obviously, to rattle his readers, to make them question what they may long have accepted as ‘the truth’. There is the idea that realpolitik ruins everything: for Pullman, it elides Christ and Judas at times, and he dares to offer a slightly sympathetic picture of Caiaphas, too. And there is the recently translated Gospel of Judas, which dared to suggest that Judas’ betrayal was a necessary part of the entire Christian redemption story, and therefore offered a judgement of Judas rather different from the traditional one: that Gospel died almost without a trace, too.

Pullman is clear that two millennia later we have no chance of separating truth from invention, and that too much is invested in the ‘accepted’ narrative. His Afterword is very interesting, perhaps the most interesting part, reflecting on his own journey and his motivations. His Jesus, in the novel, is abandoned or ignored by any existing God the Father figure. I think we have to go back to the end of His Dark Materials, to the idea that we must get on, by ourselves, and build the Republic of Heaven here on Earth, for ourselves, etsi Deus non daretur (as if there were no god) as it has been succinctly put.

An interesting read, and a challenging one if you are a traditional Christian. But then, your faith is strong enough to stand up to challenge.

Philip Pullman: The Secret Commonwealth revisited

April 4, 2021

     It was time to revisit The Secret Commonwealth, which was published a year and a half ago; I’m looking forward to the next and possibly final novel, which may come out in the autumn, if Philip Pullman and his publishers stick to the existing schedule…

This time around, I was struck by just how much this book is about daemons, the relationships between humans and their daemons, and, for those of us living in the world without them – at least without the separate, visible companions – quite deep reflection on what the daemon may symbolise. In Lyra’s world, as she grows older, it becomes apparent/ she learns that quite a number of humans can separate/ be separated, voluntarily and involuntarily, from their daemons: we are a long way from the horrors of Bolvangar in the first volume of His Dark Materials. Lyra and Pan have fallen out; she changes as she grows older, becomes more cautious, less adventurous, and he leaves her, to try and find and bring back her imagination…

Lyra has read a novel set in a world in which humans have no daemons (and yet, curiously, she does not seem to make a clear connection with Will’s – ie our world), and she has read a philosophical work which argues that daemons are a figment of the imagination; in my terms, she’s struggling with the relationship between the material and the spiritual, a struggle which many manage completely to avoid in our world. But the secret commonwealth, a sense of hidden but real connection in mysterious ways between all sorts of beings and creatures, which does not exist on a rational level, keeps impinging on her as she pursues her adventures.

We’re also engaging with Pullman’s view of our own world, as reflected at one remove in Lyra’s. Pullman clearly does not like many things about the ways we live – and I’m happy to agree with him there – and we see characters engaging in that struggle for the Republic of Heaven that was formulated at the end of His Dark Materials, working beneath the surface of society in numerous ways for decency, and a sane and sensible attitude to life for everyone, against superstition and power games. Pullman’s message is a subversive one, especially as he engages with the blurring of the lines between truth and lies which is going on even as I write. For Pullman, the rational approach alone is not sufficient, and furthermore seems to be being used to reassure people that it’s OK to be selfish… which it’s not (within limits).

I’d have expected the cataclysmic events at the end of His Dark Materials to have made more of a difference to Lyra’s world even ten years later, than they actually seem to have done; the Magisterium and its religious fanaticism seem as strong as ever.

I think Pullman is also writing about what happens to us as we grow up, grow older, hopefully mature, certainly as we become adults. Lyra’s journey isn’t an easy one, as she reads and argues, and tries out new ideas for size. Many people do this, and are perhaps radically transformed, or develop along quite unexpected paths; her conflict with her daemon is at one level an obvious externalisation of a process a good number of us experience internally as we grow older. Pullman wants his readers to stop and reflect, I feel: back with Socrates’ idea of the unexamined life not being worth living. And beneath it all are the important values of decency in our own behaviour, and care for the less able or less fortunate than ourselves, very Christian values expounded by an author who at the same time is ferociously challenging the mind-controlling structures of established religion. Subversive, as I said before, and very good stuff.

You may feel I’ve said precious little about the novel itself. True, and I invite you to read what I wrote first time around, here.

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