RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
"The Chronicles of Narnia" by C.S. Lewis is a much-loved work of literature, but it is not universally loved. One detractor is the writer Philip Pullman. He's an atheist, who's written his own trilogy in response to Lewis' Christian allegory. Now, in a new book, Philip Pullman re-imagines the story of Jesus.
NPR's Lynn Neary reports.
LYNN NEARY: Pullman was inspired to write a book about Jesus by an unlikely source: The Archbishop of Canterbury. It happened one evening when the two were appearing together to discuss Pullman's trilogy, "His Dark Materials."
Mr. PHILIP PULLMAN (Author, "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ"): He pointed out that although I dealt with organized religion in that novel, "His Dark Materials," I hadn't actually mentioned Jesus. Now, where did he fit into my alternative world?
NEARY: Pullman resolved at that moment that he would write a book about Jesus. Some years later, he got the chance. The result is "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ."
In Pullman's version of the story, Jesus has a twin brother named Christ.
Mr. PULLMAN: I was intrigued, you see, by the difference between the two parts of the name Jesus Christ that we commonly use interchangeably. So I thought, well, maybe there is a difference. Maybe there are two beings here, not one.
NEARY: Christ, his mother's favorite, is weaker than Jesus, both physically and emotionally. Jesus takes up his father's trade, but, early on, asserts his independence from his family. He becomes an itinerant preacher, attracting big crowds with his charismatic personality. Christ follows his brother around, watching from the sidelines and writing down what he does. He begins embellishing the truth, at times reporting miracles when there were none.
Pullman says his Jesus tracks closely to the Jesus described in the New Testament, whereas Christ is his own invention.
Mr. PULLMAN: Christ is this complicated character, and I call him a scoundrel in the title, but, as we soon come to see, he's not so much of a scoundrel as a confused man. Christ is like a figure in a novel. He's the only figure in the story who is like a figure in a novel, because he's the only one who's made up.
NEARY: But there is another fictional character who lurks on the pages of this story. He's known only as The Stranger, and he appears to Christ from time to time, encouraging him to continue writing down his version of what Jesus does and says, giving the impression that Jesus is more than just an ordinary man.
It is important, The Stranger tells Christ, to interpret what Jesus means for his future followers. For a long time, Christ thinks The Stranger is an angel, but Pullman keeps his identity a mystery.
Mr. PULLMAN: I wanted the reader to wonder about it. And I hope people will talk about it and wonder who this could be. If I had to name The Stranger, which I try not to do throughout the book - and whenever Christ seeks to know his name, The Stranger asks him a question or evades it in some way. But if I was pinned to the spot and forced to say what he was, I would say he was the spirit of the church, really.
NEARY: Eventually, Christ not only betrays Jesus, he also stages his resurrection. As Christ begins to realize that what he's doing will lead to the creation of a church based on untruths, The Stranger argues that the deception is worth it.
Mr. PULLMAN: Think of a sick man wracked with pain and fear. Think of a dying woman terrified by the coming darkness. There will be hands reaching out to comfort them and feed them and warm them. There will be voices of kindness and reassurance. There will be soft beds and sweet hymns, and consolation and joy. All those kindly hands and sweet voices will do their work so willingly because they know that one man died and rose again, and that this truth is enough to cancel out all the evil in the world - even if it never happened, said Christ. The angel said nothing.
NEARY: The Jesus who emerges from this story is a real person, a man Pullman admires, a man of strength and conviction with a gift for storytelling. But this Jesus is no God - if anything, he is all too human.
Mr. PULLMAN: He's abrupt. He's scornful of his brother's arguments, and yet he's genuinely capable of tenderness and care. And the only passage where he speaks at length - towards the end of the book in the Garden of Gethsemane - he really gives voice to what I feel and think about these big questions.
NEARY: As Pullman imagines Jesus in the hours before his crucifixion, there is no reprieve from despair. There's only anger at a God who does not hear his prayers.
Mr. PULLMAN: You're making a liar out of me, you realize that? I don't want to tell lies. I try to tell the truth. But I tell them you're a loving father watching over them all, and you're not. You're blind as well as deaf, as far as I can tell. You can't see or you just don't want to look. Which is it? No answer. Not interested.
NEARY: Pullman knows that his interpretation of the life of Jesus could draw the ire of some Christians. At one early public appearance, extra security was added in case of protests. But Pullman says he doesn't really expect to encounter angry mobs. And he says he doesn't care if people don't like the book, as long as they really read it and remember one thing.
Mr. PULLMAN: This is a story among other stories. It doesn't make any claims to be the truth about anything. So it's a story.
NEARY: Pullman says he hopes his book will send readers back to the Bible, because he believes they might be surprised by some of the inconsistencies they find there.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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