Holy Smoke: Philip Pullman Talks to Jonathan Derbyshire about His Bestsellers, the "Genius of Jesus" and Why He Is Hoping for a Hung Parliament
Pullman, Philip, New Statesman (1996)
"We've been living through the last twilight of the Enlightenment," the writer Philip Pullman tells me. "There was a period for a couple of hundred years when we were free to say what we wanted. But that age is drawing to a close, because people are now far more ready to take offence. Christians in this country today say they aren't being respected. But the idea of demanding respect seems to me a profoundly un-Jesus-like thing to do."
Pullman is talking to me in a cafe close to Broadcasting House in London, where he has just done an interview. As we sit down, Mark Thompson, the director general of the BBC, enters the (rather more expensive) restaurant next door. Pullman, an avuncular 63-year-old whose face usually suggests a kind of amused curiosity, shoots me a vaguely disapproving look.
One imagines he'd have pulled a similar face when, in 2002, the conservative commentator Peter Hitchens used his column in the Mail on Sunday to anoint Pullman "the most dangerous author in Britain". The Amber Spyglass, the final instalment of his trilogy of children's novels His Dark Materials, had just won the Whit-bread Book of the Year Award. For Hitchens, these books, set in an alternate universe administered by a gruesomely authoritarian church, were just "moral propaganda".
Yet not all Anglicans are so quick to take offence at Pullman's work. In 2004, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, joined him in discussion at the National Theatre, where Nicholas Wright's stage adaptation of His Dark Materials was playing to packed houses. Williams had previously hailed the production as a "near-miraculous triumph", but also insisted that His Dark Materials was much more than simple "anti-Christian polemic". This was the archbishop's way of acknowledging that Pullman's atheism is shaped more by a preoccupation with the depredations of arbitrary ecclesiastical power than by theism's claims about the existence of a supernatural being. As he put it in his conversation with Pullman, His Dark Materials is "entirely about control".
The church depicted in the trilogy appears wholly lacking in redemption. What, wondered Williams, had happened to Jesus? Pullman pointed out that he is mentioned once in His Dark Materials, "in the context of this notion of wisdom that works secretly and quietly, not in the great courts and palaces of the earth, but among ordinary people". He promised he would return to the "teaching of Jesus" in his next book. For some time, Pullman's fans had assumed that this would be a novel, tentatively entitled The Book of Dust.
That book has yet to materialise, but now he has got round to paying closer attention to the figure of Jesus in a new work of fiction, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. The book strenuously advertises its status as fable: the legend "THIS IS A STORY" is embossed in gold letters on the back of the jacket. And it begins with the proposition that Mary gave birth to twins--a charismatic social teacher and visionary named Jesus, and his tormented and self-conscious brother, Christ, architect of the church that would eventually be built in his sibling's name.
The whole thing is a provocation, naturally. But Pullman is sanguine about what he dismisses as the "pre-emptive offence" some have already taken against him and the work. "Admittedly, the tide is provocative, but then the function of a book title is really a double one: it has to say something about what the book's about and it has to attract attention. I'm not ashamed of that. But people have taken offence and have written to me telling me that my life is an affront to God and that I'm going to hell."
Pullman has good reason to be relaxed: threats of eternal damnation, to which he has been exposed ever since the publication in 1995 of Northern Lights, the first in the His Dark Materials series, haven't dented his sales. …