The great writer Philip Pullman was interviewed on the Jeremy Vine Show this afternoon (BBC Radio 2) and the piece can only be listened to for the next seven days – unfortunately. Pullman’s new book is published tomorrow and is called The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Obviously, I haven’t read it, but I have read and heard enough to make me want to read it.

According to the interview, the novel basically attempts to distinguish between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Christ appropriated by the Church: the former was a good bloke, but the latter went astray and got it all wrong. Several things can be said about this:

1. This isn’t new thinking. Many twentieth-century theologians tried to make a similar distinction between the ‘Jesus of history’ and the ‘Christ of faith’. Of course, the distinction was arbitrary and often a convenient way of dealing with the difficult or inconvenient bits of the New Testament. So, the reaction by some Christians to the idea of Pullman’s book simply demonstrates that they are a bit behind on their theology.

2. The Church should not feel the need to hide from its history and especially from its mistakes. Pullman and others often do us a service by shining a light on us that can only be directed from outside the Church – illuminating our weaknesses and inconsistencies. What is the problem with this? The Church has a good theology of failure (and redemption) and shouldn’t be scared of being seen as it is and as it has been. OK, Pullman is a bit preoccupied with it and not all his critiques stand much scrutiny, but some of it does.

The interview was interesting, dealing with the nature of the Gospels, the status of the Bible and the mindset of those nutters who threaten Pullman with death. Pullman respects the Gospels and the biblical text, but sees them as works of human inventiveness. What disturbs him is not the witness they bear, but the use made of them (for reasons of power) by subsequent generations of Christians. He acknowledges the apologetic power of the inconsistencies in the Gospels – particularly in relation to the resurrection accounts – and recognises that unified narratives would have been the product of propaganda.

However, the subtleties of biblical literature are clearly lost on some of those who then called in to comment on these matters (as, again, George Pitcher points out):

  • ‘The Bible is just fiction’ demonstrates a stupid ignorance of both (a) what fiction is and (b) what the Bible is. The Bible is made up of a range of different genres of literature and (as one example) poetry cannot be read in the same way as prophecy or a New Testament letter. To write off the whole ‘book’ as ‘fiction’ just proves that the contributor hasn’t bothered to read it as it is written.
  • ‘The Bible cannot be questioned or re-written’ is simply sad. I agree that it can’t be re-written (it is what it is) any more than Hamlet can be re-written without it becoming a different play. But if the Bible has to be protected from scrutiny, debate, argument or challenge, then it isn’t worth reading in the first place. Pullman stated that ‘the Gospels do not belong to the Church’ – and he is right. Jesus made it clear anyway that he was for the world, fulfilling what had always been the vocation of Israel: to live and give his life in order that the world might see who and how God is (and respond accordingly). The Bible must be able to stand in the marketplace or it cannot be what it claims to be. Jesus (and the Gospels) cannot be caged by the Church.
  • ‘We wouldn’t do this to the Quran’ simply exasperates me. Do we really think Christians should consider emulating the worst of Muslim extremism? As George Pitcher admirably and clearly explained in yesterday’s Telegraph, we shouldn’t confuse the woeful (and often silly) ignorance of secularists and some atheists with some bizarre and inappropriate notion of ‘persecution’.

Christians are in danger of saying by their defensiveness that Christian faith and the Bible itself are so vulnerable that they must not be challenged and must be protected. As I have remarked in an article in the Easter edition of the Radio Times (no link available), we have no reason to be afraid of challenge or scrutiny – Christians need to be a little more confident and a little more intelligent in articulating their faith and their understanding of the story told by the Scriptures. As Pullman pointed out, a Christian notion of ‘inspiration’ is not the same as an Islamic one – but plenty of Christians treat the Bible as if it were.

The answer to Pullman is to write something better and more convincing – not to threaten him. Pullman is at least able and willing to have a reasonable and informed conversation with Christians – unlike some of the New Atheists he is often lumped in with.

Bishop Alan Wilson has an interesting ‘take’ on the interface between Christians and atheists in his comment on Peter Tatchell. Worth a look in conjunction with these observations on Christian confidence when in engagement with writers like Philip Pullman.