Philip Pullman is my kind of atheist. He takes Christianity so seriously that he takes a long, hard look at its texts and its history and writes something that engages with it. He doesn’t start out by assuming that all Christians are either stupid or credulous, but shines a different light on its origins in the light of its later (institutional) development.

I posted a couple of days ago about Pullman’s new book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, having heard him on the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2. That was before I had read it. So, today I read it – it doesn’t take long. And I haven’t changed my mind. But see the excellent reviews by Rowan Williams and Alan Wilson – I won’t repeat them.

Pullman can’t resist being driven by a serious dislike and suspicion of the institutional church. It isn’t hard to understand why. But, I think that in order to grasp his critique, this has to be disconnected from his atheism and rooted in his understanding of Jesus and the Gospels. Although he wants to dismiss the bits of the Gospels he doesn’t like (or are inconvenient to his case), he does manage to shine the sort of light on them that should make Christian readers go back to the text and read them with the freshness that Pullman (the outsider?) brings to his reading. It certainly has its weaknesses, but doesn’t everything?

In fact, I came away from the book smiling at the conceit that forms the framework of the narrative, but pleased that he has done it. It is thoughtful, well-crafted and often moving. But, most of all, it is serious.

It seems to me that Christians ought to read the book and reflect (a) on why they read the Gospels the way they do and (b) why the institutional church can seem to some people so far away from the Jesus of the Gospels.

Atheists might read the book and then go back to the original Gospels to see how Pullman has tackled the narrative and its meaning. I am constantly amazed at how many people I meet who slag off the Bible clearly have never read it. (And, no, I am not lumping every atheist or ‘opponent’ into that category.) An atheist approach to Jesus (as he is depicted and recorded in the Gospels) can be enlightening even if not always compelling.

Pullman and Rowan Williams were on BBC Radio 4 this morning on Andrew Marr’s Start the Week. This sort of intelligent conversation (about a range of matters) lifts the spirit. But it made me realise that the mutual respect between Pullman and Williams is what sets them free to have this sort of conversation in the first place. They could agree that science is limited to descriptions of mechanics and cannot denote ethical imperatives. They understand myth, literature and thought. So, they can start beyond the cat-calling that characterises some debate about theism and atheism (from a ‘scientific’ perspective) – something that I and others can learn from.

(I wonder whether the story about Rowan Williams criticising the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland will still hold up now people have heard the original discussion. He was clearly making a wider point about the problem for the whole of a society posed by the corruption of an institution so woven into its fabric – in other words, it isn’t just  aproblem for the Church, but for the whole of that society. An intelligent point – and one that got completely lost amid the hysteria about ‘credibility’. Intelligent points don’t make for good headlines, however, and Rowan walked through an open ‘media story’ door.)