Byline: Emily Lambert
PHILIP Pullman is no stranger to controversy and has already been told he'll burn in hell just for the title of his new book, The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ.
The award-winning author, who wrote the trilogy His Dark Materials, one of which was made into the film The Golden Compass, received a flurry of angry letters condemning his alternative story of the gospels even before it was published.
He may have caused an unholy row among Christian groups, but Pullman, 63, is unrepentant.
"I've been getting letters for donkey's years about my wickedness and my evils and the fact that I will certainly go to hell and should stop writing dreadful books. It's nothing new," he shrugs.
He plays down the extra security he had while promoting his new book at the recent Oxford literary festival, saying he wasn't sure if it was necessary.
The story, Pullman's take on the gospels, sees Mary give birth to twins, Jesus, and his brother, Christ.
Jesus is charismatic and passionate but ultimately flawed. He preaches the imminence of God's kingdom and demands the impossible, such as people giving away all their possessions and abandoning their families.
"When you read the gospels, you find that Jesus does some unlikeable things," says Pullman, who grew up in Harlech, Gwynedd.
"The dislikeable qualities are there."
His brother Christ is an anxious, more likeable character who follows his preaching brother around recording his teachings and is then persuaded by a "stranger" to exaggerate the happenings to make a better story. This doctored version is the official one upon which the Church is founded. It is not Jesus's version, but that of St Paul.
The great gold letters on the back of the book confirm "This Is A Story", just in case anyone is under any illusion.
"What I was trying to say there was that the institution of the Church wouldn't exist at all if it wasn't for the death of Jesus. The symbol of the Church is the cross on which he died so the Church depended on the death of Jesus and I wonder, if we went back in time, how many popes and bishops would save Jesus if they could or say, well, better not, just in case."
Pullman, who studied English at Oxford, was a teacher for 12 years, but has been writing all his life.
He used to write school plays, which is how he began writing novels for children. He lives near Oxford with his wife Jude, who was also a teacher. They have two grown-up sons and three grandchildren.
Success came late - he was in his 40s by the time His Dark Materials was published. …