He enraged America's religious right with his portrayal of God as a senile old man in the His Dark Materials trilogy, and now Philip Pullman is set to court more Christian controversy – this time with a novel about "the Scoundrel Christ".
The book will provide a new account of the life of Jesus, challenging the gospels and arguing that the version in the New Testament was shaped by the apostle Paul. "By the time the gospels were being written, Paul had already begun to transform the story of Jesus into something altogether new and extraordinary, and some of his version influenced what the gospel writers put in theirs," said Pullman, who last year pronounced himself delighted that the His Dark Materials trilogy was one of the most "challenged" series in America's libraries, boasting the most requests for removal from the shelves because of its "religious viewpoint".
His new book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, will be published next Easter as part of Scottish independent press Canongate's Myths series, which has also seen Margaret Atwood tackle The Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus's wife Penelope, Jeanette Winterson retell the myth of Atlas and Heracles and Michel Faber take on Prometheus with a modern retelling which sees an academic discover a fifth gospel. In Faber's version, Jesus's last words on the cross are "please, somebody, please finish me", and one of his last actions is to urinate on the head of the gospel's author.
"Paul was a literary and imaginative genius of the first order who has probably had more influence on the history of the world than any other human being, Jesus certainly included. I believe this is a pity," said Pullman. "The story I tell comes out of the tension within the dual nature of Jesus Christ, but what I do with it is my responsibility alone. Parts of it read like a novel, parts like a history, and parts like a fairy tale; I wanted it to be like that because it is, among other things, a story about how stories become stories."
Publisher Jamie Byng said that Pullman's contribution to the series "strips Christianity bare and exposes the gospels to a new light". "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ throws down a challenge and does what all great books do: make the reader ask questions," he added.
From his website, Pullman adds:
About six years ago, i had a conversation on the stage of the National Theatre with Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the course of talking about "His Dark Materials", he said that he was curious to know why, although the story was plainly about a form of the Christian church, there was nothing about Jesus in the book.
I said that he was right, there wasn't, and that I'd deal with Jesus later in another book.
Well, the time has come. "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ" will be published next April by Canongate as part of their Myths series. I've always been fascinated by the two parts of the name of Jesus Christ, and by the difference between them. Another thing that's interested me for a long time is the way in which the Christian church began to formulate its beliefs and establish a canon of scripture: there were many more gospels than four, but why were those four chosen and others left out? When did Paul begin to write his epistles? Was what he said different from what the gospels say? Do the gospels even agree with one another? Was there a difference between Jesus and Christ?
My version of the Jesus story doesn't attempt to solve these questions, but I hope readers will find it interesting. There will be various events and readings connected with the publication and I'll let you know all about them when the dates are settled.
Publishing date April, 2010
The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ, Philip Pullman