Stories and motivation

10 Sep

Oh brother. At the risk of looking like a reactionary religious nut… I read today that Oxford’s own Philip Pullman is publishing a new ‘novel’ called ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ (ouch). Apparently he is exploring the revolutionary new idea that ‘it was Paul who in later years created the story of Jesus as divine, which then influenced the gospel writers’.

I hate it when people rant about books they haven’t even read yet, but I feel too irritated by this to shut up. The reason for my irritation is that here is a man trying to sensationalise an ‘exciting new idea’ which has in fact been around for centuries. It’s been discussed and dismissed plenty of times by theologians, historians and scholars, by both Christians and non-believers. He did not think this up himself.

Anybody who has ever read the Bible whilst engaging half a brain cell could tell you that this ‘invention of Paul’ thing is just impossible. Since Pullman believes Paul existed, he knows that he began as a very strict Pharisee, persecuting Christians for their heresy – the heresy being that they claimed Jesus was God. Ergo, there were Christians making this claim long before Paul even became a Christian. Perhaps more fundamentally – he also believes Jesus existed (some nice fluffy version, apparently). Roman records and several other contemporary historical sources outside the Bible record that Jesus was crucified. He was executed for a crime. What crime? Heresy. He claimed to be the Messiah, the Christ – i.e. the Son of God. Really, even if I didn’t believe any of this, I just don’t see how the Paul-made-it-up theory could possibly work.

And I assume Pullman also knows this is a lame duck – surely? What annoys and worries me is that he is deliberately misleading people who have never really thought about these issues before, including kids. I worry that they might take him at his word and not bother to think it through for themselves.

But please engage your brain. Why on earth would anyone – Paul, the disciples, the other early Christians – choose to leave comfort and live a life of persecution for something they knew was a lie? Perhaps they might if they were deluded – but if Paul made the story up for some reason, he knew the truth. So check out how his life panned out:

“Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” 2 Corinthians 12

… and in the end he was beheaded. For someone who was advancing very well up the Pharisee ladder, it wasn’t a very good career move to invent a heretical new religion. His actual motivation? I think it had to be this:

“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.” Philippians 3

So what is Pullman’s motivation, I wonder?

“For every man or woman who has been led to goodness by a church, and I know there have been many, there has been another who has been inspired by the same church to a rancid and fanatical bigotry for which the only fitting word is evil,” Pullman, in an interview about the book.

I’m willing to bet this poor man has been badly hurt by a church in his youth. And that makes me sad and angry too. But it was the church who hurt him, not Paul and not Jesus. Critiques of the church are more than welcome to me. They are warning signs and kicks up the backside that keep us from sliding away from the gospel and into hypocrisy. I guess I feel like he is shooting at the wrong target here.

Reader beware: if you want your opinions about the most vital questions of life to be shaped, please don’t go running to an author who writes with a massive chip on his shoulder. Read the book if you like – it might be a good novel – but turn your brain on first. Thanks.


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