Philip Pullman on giving a damn about offending people and the Satan within Jesus and all of us.
QWhy have you written a book like The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ? What was the intention? Plus, even in fictive terms, the story of Jesus has been dealt with earlier (Norman Mailer in The Gospel According to the Son). What was your prompt?
A The prompt, as always, was the urging of my own imagination. I haven’t read Mailer’s Jesus book; when the idea came to me, I consciously avoided other people’s treatment of the story. I’ve found before with other books that if I read too widely around the theme I’m treating, I can easily get sidetracked or even held up completely. I make myself remember that my imagination is more important than someone else’s research.
QAre you prepared for a backlash from certain quarters (read conservative Christians) about the book? Why do you want to run the risk of offending sentiments? Or, do you enjoy offending certain people’s no-go areas?
A I don’t think about the audience for a single second. The views of potential readers or critics are not of the slightest concern to me. If anyone is offended, then they have to remember that no one has the right to live without ever being offended. I am myself greatly offended from time to time by things that are said or written by others, including members of one religion or another. I have to put up with it. And so should they.
QWhere does your atheism come from? Is it from a sense of having once believed in God and having found out He doesn’t exist? Or is it due to a belief in rational thought? Also, are you an agitated angry atheist or a passive atheist?
A I hope I’m not agitated, and I hope I’m not passive. My atheism comes firstly from my own sense that there is nothing there outside the world of our senses—nothing holy, nothing spiritual, nothing supernatural. I have never had any sense of the presence of God. And it comes secondly from reason; I am persuaded by science that everything that exists can be explained ultimately by scientific examination.
QDo you think splitting Jesus into good and Christ bad is itself a bit of a simplification of the complexity of the man? Isn’t it a bit too neat?
A That’s not for me to say. And if a critic said it, I wouldn’t argue; I don’t believe in telling my critics that they are wrong or right about anything at all. But this story is a fable, in which things are deliberately simplified in order to make the moral issues clearer.
QAre you a closet God believer? Is that why you wrote a book on the ‘son of God’?
A There is no God in my closet!
QSatan doesn’t get much mention. In the book, Christ himself does a good job of evil. But what do you make of Satan as such. Is the evil in him stereotyped?
A Satan is a personification of evil, and in popular art and literature is depicted with horns and a tail. Ludicrous, of course. But take the temptation scene: in the New Testament, Satan comes to Jesus and tests him with various temptations. But think about it a little, and you realise that temptation has to use our own minds against us. That scene in the New Testament could be read as one part of Jesus’ mind presenting him with some interesting ideas, which are then rejected by another part of the same mind. Since I’d split Jesus away from Christ, it made dramatic sense for the temptations to come from Christ. And in fact those temptations could be regarded as perfectly reasonable attempts to get a prophet to behave reasonably—an attempt doomed to fail, since prophets are unreasonable by their nature.
QIn the end, are all forms of authority, be it the church or the government, repulsive and dictatorial? Do you believe there’s any scope for dissent within those systems?
A There is scope for dissent when the dictatorship is lazy and incompetent, or when the system has a degree of democracy in it. Completely totalitarian systems, of course, punish dissent with great force and with no mercy.
QYour own writing is a form of dissent. Don’t you think you’re lucky that the environment in which you have written has allowed you to be yourself no matter what its flaws?
A Absolutely. I am profoundly grateful, and so should we all be, for the courage and the integrity of those men and women who worked and died for the sake of freedom of speech. They are great heroes, and we should celebrate them and teach children about them and put up statues to them and never forget their indomitable bravery. I’m thinking of such people as William Tyndale, the first man to translate the Bible into English directly from the Hebrew and Greek original texts, who was pursued and captured by agents of the church and burned at the stake in 1536. We should never forget such great champions of our freedom. We should never take our freedom of speech for granted.
QIf you were to meet Jesus Christ or Satan, what would be the one question you ask them?
A I’d like to ask if they’d let me take a photograph of them.