Few issues have exercised the artistic, legal and religious communities in recent years as the vexed question of freedom of speech and in particular its problematic relationship with religion. In conversation to discuss the apparent opposition between the two were Philip Pullman, recently named among the 50 greatest British writers since 1945, and former Bishop of Oxford, Professor Lord Harries.
Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, briefly introduced the speakers, describing Pullman as a ‘great ally’ on issues of free speech and civil liberties. Author of the His Dark Materials Trilogy, a combination of ‘storytelling and philosophical speculation’, Pullman projects a despairing vision of the unchecked power of the church, a view which powerfully informs his latest novel. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ has sparked controversy among the chattering classes and the religious community alike. Richard Harries’ recent book, Faith in Politics?, also addresses issues of free speech and religion, examining pre-Enlightenment approaches to rights and democracy.
Brought up as a Christian himself, Pullman readily admits that the Bible was a powerful influence upon his early life, and that this partially motivated him to rewrite one of the foundational stories of Western culture. ‘The rhythms of the language of the King James Bible were very much part of my understanding of it’, Pullman says, but he struggled to find a way to address this in fiction. The eureka moment came when he conceived the idea of twins: Jesus the man, and Christ, the son of God and exalted vision embraced by the developing church. ‘There is something a little uncanny about twinship’, comments Pullman, especially in literature – though Christ is a far more nuanced and conflicted character than his forbear Mr. Hyde. It is Christ’s eyes we are lent to witness the unfolding events of the New Testament, and whose motivations we become acutely aware of: torn between being a faithful chronicler, or adapting the story to, in Pullman’s wryly understated terms, ‘make it more useful’. In many ways, he continues, Christ confronts the ‘moral dilemma of the storyteller’, torn between a messy truth and a more structured artistic creation. ‘Storytellers are rogues’, Pullman argues, drawn in by the neatness of what they’re doing – to the effacement of their own reality, it seems, as Christ begins to fade away and become a real fiction.
Joining the discussion, Richard Harries praised Pullman’s novel as ‘a very ambitious book – first of all because for many the story in the Bible is a big switch off’. In Harries’ opinion The Good Man Jesus is ‘more satisfactory than the His Dark Materials trilogy’, articulating more fully the ‘proper ambiguity of human behaviour’ and bringing out more resonantly the mixed motives of the characters. Harries admits that the book is more than just a good story, reflecting a widely held point of view that there is a troublesome gulf between Jesus as a figure to be admired, and what the church has subsequently made of him. Pullman’s ‘solution’ is to separate the two faces of the Janus-Christ and reveal their terrible symmetry: portraying Jesus as a revolutionary, anti-institutional figure, and Christ as the architect of one of the most powerful institutions in the world. The central tension between freedom and constriction is clearly articulated throughout the novel, most notably in Pullman’s rendering of the temptation scene, where Christ tempts Jesus with the prospect of an established church. The exchange exemplifies the ‘difference between the radical, visionary revolutionary who expected the kingdom to come soon, and the more realistic Christ, who realises that the kingdom will not come soon and if Jesus is to be remembered at all, a church is needed to do the work for us’. This ‘terrible paradox’ is not unique to Christianity, Pullman contends, but may be seen in other organisations where the ‘original visionary charismatic figure is eclipsed by bureaucracy’.
Responding to Pullman’s comments, Richard Harries questioned whether there was in fact such an unbridgeable gulf between the two identities of Christ. While Jesus did not come explicitly to found a church, Harries points out that he did, after all, gather disciples around him, carrying his ministry out to include all those whom society excluded. While he may not have intended the strict hierarchy of the established church, he clearly envisioned ‘a renewed human community’, with the rule of god not merely imminent, but immanent and present – breaking into human affairs even through Jesus’ words and actions. However, Pullman is quick to point out that the Church has never shirked the mantle of political power, and that ‘power wielded in the name of an authority that may not be questioned is the most dangerous of all’. Pullman suggests that one of the most comparable and thoroughgoing examples of a theocracy in recent history is Soviet Russia, under which the Party assumed a quasi-hieratic status, subscribing to a teleological view of history according to which all opponents were heretics and a social structure of denunciation, betrayal and trial was used to control the population.
Harries agreed that ‘an ideal church would be as inclusive as possible, with an absolute minimum of formal exclusivity and wielding of power’, but urged that, despite organisational constraints, the Christian church has thrown up radically reforming movements over the centuries, notably the Franciscans, and the sects which proliferated in 17th century England. Must all radical movements die out, or must they be institutionalised to survive? Harries suggests that, despite the organisational structures necessary to sustain the church, the original spirit of freedom and inclusivity can remain supple and adaptable, the very nature of generational change contributing to a process of evolution rather than the ossification Pullman fears.
Addressing the issue of free speech more directly, Harries pointed out that the values of equality and liberty are both firmly grounded in Christian faith, and ‘lead to true human community’. Both Milton and Locke, firebrand defenders of individual freedom, were devout Christians – Locke arguing that the essence of faith is freedom: ‘unless it is freely chosen, it cannot be faith’. Harries suggested that the most serious challenge to free speech in the modern context is represented by radical Islam, pointing to the Danish cartoon protests, and the fatwah issued against Salman Rushdie. ‘We need to take seriously their sense of affront’ he urged, in contrast to the comparatively liberal approach adopted in the West. Pullman is quick to remind the audience that these reactions may be part of a shared continuum – 600 years ago, when the Church was terrified of the laity being able to read the Bible, men such as Tyndale died horrible deaths in the name of their faith. Since then, he concedes the church has become more relaxed: turning briefly to the current legal position on religion, the outmoded laws relating to blasphemy were recently repealed, and provisions covering new offences of incitement to religious hatred were heavily amended to protect free speech.
Moving to questions, Pullman was asked to consider whether there was a danger inherent in making Jesus in our own postmodern image, and whether he had perhaps simplified the paradox inherent in Christianity by bifurcating its central figure. Pullman responded by emphasising the fictional nature of his retelling: ‘I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man’s’ he asserted, and suggested that, in their meshing of different narrative voices, the gospels themselves invited alternative tellings. However, Richard Harries touched upon and questioned the sharp distinction drawn by Pullman between ‘history’ (reality) and ‘truth’ (story), suggesting that the two were inextricably bound up in each other, and that there was strong evidence for the historical veracity of much of the New Testament.
A second question crystallised an earlier point by suggesting that the ‘routinisation of charisma’ was the key problem that beset the established church, and that a compromise between the opposing poles perceived by Pullman might be something akin to the pre-Constantine church. The church ‘should yield no authority but that of love’, Pullman replied, quoting the book’s concluding ideal vision. Richard Harries agreed that the pre-Theodosian church could well represent a happy medium, but also stressed the importance of Paul’s Epistles in changing perceptions of Jesus, their subtle shift from ‘Jesus’ to ‘Christ’, in many ways working the same transformation Pullman’s novel seeks to illustrate.
‘Writing is discovery rather than invention’, Pullman stressed in conclusion, contrasting his own endeavour with that of ‘Christ’ the storyteller, with his mistaken belief that ‘what should have been is a better servant of the kingdom that what was’. In many ways, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ seeks to debunk the myths set up by Christ as history, and to discover the reality beneath the invented, faulty truths of Christianity. As ever, and as Pullman freely admits, another gloss on the story is rarely more than that, but in his creative interrogation of one of the central narratives of Western thought, he has undoubtedly enlivened the debate regarding faith and freedom of speech.
Report by Lettie Ransley
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/thegoodmanjesusandthesoundrelchrist/