A Press Release for Pullman

When I stumbled across this story, I’ll admit my first thought was — “Just in time for Holy Week!”:

Pullman Risks Christian Anger With Jesus Novel

Now I’ll admit that despite the annoying trend of “contrarian” Christian stories around the time of Holy Week, I’m not entirely sure that’s what is going on here. The Pullman in question is Philip Pullman, author of the controversial His Dark Materials series of children’s books. Despite the controversy over the books’ anti-Christian themes, they sold lots and lots of copies. So if Pullman has a new book coming out, it’s news. Also, perhaps Pullman himself is launching the book near Holy Week to generate maximum controversy. In any event, it sounds like this book will also be controversial:

Bestselling British author Philip Pullman risks offending Christians with his latest book, a fictional account of the “good man Jesus” and the “scoundrel Christ.”

The 63-year-old, an outspoken atheist, angered some members of the Catholic Church with a thinly veiled attack on organized religion in his hugely successful “His Dark Materials” trilogy, the first of which was turned into a Hollywood blockbuster.

But “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” is a far more direct exploration of the foundations of Christianity and the church as well as an examination of the fascination and power of storytelling.

In the novel, Jesus has a twin brother called Christ who secretly records and embellishes his brother’s teachings.

Speaking about the book to an audience in Oxford on Sunday, Pullman acknowledged that it was likely to cause offence.

I have to say in an era of Dawkins, Harris, et al., this sort of thing doesn’t make me outraged so much as tempted to yawn, though I can see where this might be catnip to journalists. However, the supposition that Pullman “risks Christian anger” and “risks offending Christians” in the headline and the lede is, well, an awfully leading thing thing to hang the article on. Pullman doesn’t risk offense — he’s aiming for it. Or at least that’s what he says:

When one man said Christians would be upset to hear Christ referred to as a “scoundrel,” Pullman replied:

“I knew it was a shocking thing to say, but no one has the right to live without being shocked. Nobody has to read this book … and no one has the right to stop me writing this book.”

In fairness, the article does report this:

Pullman, who has received angry letters from people accusing him of blasphemy even before the short novel hits the shelves, was accompanied by security guards to the Oxford event to publicize his book.

It isn’t exactly surprising that Pullman would receive angry letters or that they’d accuse him of impiety or irreverence. But it’s also an undocumented assertion from Pullman and a far cry from a Rushdie-esque fatwa. It’s a bit much to be putting this all on supposedly angry Christians without producing any of them or explaining the need for security. Or, for that matter, balancing the story by talking to some Christian leaders or scholars and asking them what they think about Pullman’s work. In fact, the only outside perspective in the entire article is the “one man [in the Oxford audience that] said Christians would be upset to hear Christ referred to as a ‘scoundrel.’”

Without any outside perspective and the loaded language about allegedly offended and angry Christians, the article simply reads far too much like a “just in time for Holy Week” press release.

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  • http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/dec/06/lesbian-elected-episcopal-bishop-in-los-angeles/ Julia Duin

    SO wish ABC would do the minimal research. The first film of the trilogy was not a “Hollywood blockbuster.” It bombed at the box office.

  • http://www.millennialstar.org/ Ivan Wolfe

    Imagine if they interviewed some “person on the street” Christian-types like me. My answer would be “well, despite the clear anti-religion themes, I found the first two books in his trilogy enjoyable, but it all fell apart when the third book became too preachy. Whatever is in this book, I doubt it will be anything like Gore Vidal’s “Live from Golgotha” – which I found tedious. Pullman is welcome to his views; It doesn’t mean I have to care.”

    But reporters hate that kind of stuff, it seems. I might get quoted if I said something like “Pullman should be pulled from the libraries of every right thinking American community!” But since that ain’t gonna happen, the reporters just decide to pretend controversy exists where it doesn’t. Or something.

  • Bob Smietana

    The BBC and the Guardian both have informative stories on Pullman.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Julia beat me to it. The film version of “The Golden Compass” had a production budget of $180 million and grossed only $70 million in the U.S. It did better outside the U.S., grossing $302 million, but was no blockbuster by anyone’s definition, except apparently ABC’s.

  • Jerry

    this might be catnip to journalists

    Those who thrive on sensationalism are attracted to each other. Reporters crave those who provide exciting things to write about. Those who crave attention love to provide it to those looking for it. It’s a mutual benefit society.

    Those who are looking to understand what is really going on in the world look elsewhere for real news instead of “news”.

  • Mark V.

    I read an excerpt on one of the news websites and found it to be drivel. It would need a lot of work to even approach mediocrity. What a sad little man to think he can fight against the Lord of Sabaoth.

  • mark

    Ok, this is everybody’s first warning. Keep the comments related to the journalism — not what you might think of Pullman.

  • Bob Smietana

    Pullman and the Archbishop of Canterbury had a fascinating conversation about religion and the Golden Compass back in 2004.

  • Bob Smietana

    Not to nitpick but doesn’t a $180 million budget and $372 million box office take worldwide qualify for blockbuster. It’s not like we’re talking about The Postman here.

  • Martha

    “In the novel, Jesus has a twin brother called Christ who secretly records and embellishes his brother’s teachings.”

    That’s rather like writing a story about a man named John Smith and saying that John has a twin brother named Smith. I mean, he does know that Christ is more of a title than a name, yes?

    Anyways, I’m too old to be shocked, shocked! by the latest “Hey, suppose Jesus was just an ordinary bloke?” notion that strikes a writer as the most original idea ever. I’ve read Michael Moorcock’s “Behold the Man” as a callow and impressionable teenager, and y’know, I’m hardened to these kinds of brilliant original ideas now :-)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behold_the_Man

  • Mark V.

    My comment is indeed about the journalism. The media always trots out this third-rate writer for a brief burst of sensationalism, but never provides a holistic view. I did not see in any of the articles any historical research dealing with this subject. For example, St. Thomas was called the Twin and there have been some speculative theories about his relation to Jesus, especially with regards to the Gnostic writings bearing his name. As Martha says above, no journalist even realized that Christ is a Hellenized version of the Jewish term Messiah, which had many connotations in Second Temple Judaism. I read Moorcock’s “Behold The Man” like Martha over two decades ago, but no journalist knew about the history of such fiction.

  • Christine Doyle

    I wonder if anyone will try and get the Islamic perspective of Jesus somewhere in the coverage. Calling Jesus a scoundrel might make a blip on the fatwa and death threat radar whereas Christians may think he’s just a money-grubbing, attention seeker!

  • Stoo

    “But it’s also an undocumented assertion from Pullman ”

    Wait, what is? He says he knows the book will shock, and is concerned enough to have security guards. But that’s some way from claiming he’ll be subjected to ” a Rushdie-esque fatwa”. There’s a difference between fearing for your life and fearing (for example) rowdy hecklers disrupting a publicity event.

  • joye

    @Bob Smietana: No, it doesn’t.

    For a comparison, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire cost only 150 million and brought in 900 million. THAT is a blockbuster. The Dark Knight, which cost about the same as the Golden Compass, brought in over a billion. THAT is a blockbuster. Shy of $400 million worldwide, on a budget between $180 and $205 million, is not a blockbuster.

    What’s more, New Line cinema had sold the overseas rights to the film, so most of the overseas profits did not go to them at all. It was a loss for the studio, or perhaps at best they broke even.

    But it can all be answered for you with this: if it were a blockbuster, there would be a sequel. There is not even a peep of one.

  • David Rufner

    “The 63-year-old, an outspoken atheist, angered some members of the Catholic Church…”

    I’m astonished that no one has made boo about this phrase in the original reporting. In my reading of the Pullman trilogy I found pullman to be attacking Christianity as a whole and not simply the Catholic Church (large C).

    Yet the author of the article seems to thing that only Catholics took issue with Pullman. It may just be me, but I wonder if the author of the article unfamiliar with the distinctions between Pullman and Dan Brown, has chalked their attacks up to being one and the same! Hence Pullman upsets some in the ‘Catholic church’. I will admit that Dan Brown’s attacks have been against both the RC church and Christendom (and so there is crossover with the authors) but doesn’t it seemly exceedingly narrow to state the the offense of the Pullman trilogy was to ‘some members of the Catholic church’? Poor reporting if you ask me.

  • Passing By

    Since we don’t have The Dallas Morning News religion section to bring us the latest offerings from the Jesus Seminar or Episcopalian Bishop John Spong for our Easter meditations, this will, I suppose, have to do.

    But this construction interests me.

    is a far more direct exploration of the foundations of Christianity and the church

    In the novel, Jesus has a twin brother called Christ

    Perhaps we could call this the DaVinci Gambit, used so effectively by Dan Brown’s publicity machine. The first clause sets the novel up as telling a truth (that Christianity and the Church are a fraud), but when you attempt to answer that claim, it’s (voila!) only a novel. Just an entertainment.

  • Jon in the Nati

    “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” is a far more direct exploration of the foundations of Christianity and the church

    I do wonder about this. In the lede, the book is explicitly referred to as a “fictional account.” However, the nugget in the blockquote would seem to cut the other way, depending on where it came from.

    Is that bit from promotional materials for the book? Is it meant to subtly suggest that there is some truth to Pullman’s story? (which, though I don’t find it particularly compelling, is a somewhat fresh take on the tired “Jesus was just some dude” trope).

  • http://www.nocheapshots.blogspot.com Elizabeth

    Too bad the writer didn’t explore why Pullman continues to choose to react to the Christ and the faithful he finds so offensive. But there are, predictably, Christians who find Pullman offensive (a waste of time, it seems to me) and the writer certainly could have found them to interview.


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