Philip Pullman is a master storyteller. His children’s trilogy “His Dark Materials” portrays a fascinating world where all humans have a daemon – a creature in the form of an animal who stays your side and is a kind of soulmate. I read the books myself some years ago and quite enjoyed them.
I didn’t read them to my young son, aged around 10 at the time. I had a sense that an author who so overtly uses his story to pull down the Christian Church and undermine the belief of those who trust in a loving God might not be an immediate choice of reading for a child I’m hoping will continue to trust in that same loving God.
Pullman was interviewed on Radio 1 this morning about his new book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Myles Dungan on the Pat Kenny Show). The interview was interesting and while I know that Pullman is a humanist who feels that organised religion is cruel, I thought ‘Well – he’s presenting his case in a reasonable and interesting way – I’m all into open debate.’ According to Pullman, one of his motivations for writing the story is that he hopes readers will go and read the Gospels from cover to cover (Great!)… so that they can see all the inherent contradictions and vagueness… (Oh…) Curious, I googled the new book to find out more…
Philip Pullman has realised the potential of story (as did Christ). It is an amazingly powerful way to convey a message – because it is so creative – you’re not restricted to facts or reality. It is like putty in the hands of a master sculptor – it can be anything the author desires. Here’s an extract of Pullman’s current book – see if you can work out what message the author is hoping his readers will come away with:
At that time, Mary was about sixteen years old, and Joseph had never touched her.
One night in her bedroom she heard a whisper through her window.
“Mary, do you know how beautiful you are? You are the most lovely of all women. The Lord must have favoured you especially, to be so sweet and so gracious, to have such eyes and such lips . . .”
She was confused, and said “Who are you?”
“I am an angel,” said the voice. “Let me in and I shall tell you a secret that only you must know.”
She opened the window and let him in. In order not to frighten her, he had assumed the appearance of a young man, just like one of the young men who spoke to her by the well.
“What is the secret?” she said.
“You are going to conceive a child,” said the angel.
Mary was bewildered.
“But my husband is away,” she said.
“Ah, the Lord wants this to happen at once. I have come from him especially to bring it about. Mary, you are blessed among women, that this should come to you! You must give thanks to the Lord.”
And that very night she conceived a child, just as the angel foretold.
In case you haven’t guessed the author’s intent yet, here’s another clue:
Once, in a town Jesus had not visited before and where his followers were little known, Christ got into conversation with a woman. She was one of the prostitutes Jesus made welcome, but she had not gone in to dinner with the rest of them. When she saw Christ on his own, she said “Would you like to come to my house?”
Knowing what sort of woman she was, and realising that no one would see them, he agreed.
He followed her to her house, and went in after her, and waited while she looked in the inner room to see that her children were asleep.
When she lit the lamp and looked at him she was startled, and said “Master, forgive me! The street was dark, and I couldn’t see your face.”
“I’m not Jesus,” said Christ. “I’m his brother.”
“You look so like him. Have you come to me for business?”
He could say nothing, but she understood, and invited him to lie on the bed with her. The business was concluded rapidly, and afterwards Christ felt moved to explain why he had accepted her invitation.
Somehow I’m glad now I didn’t read Pullman’s children’s books to my son…
But my real question is…where are the Christian master storytellers of today whose message is the truth that we Christians believe – writers in the mode of Tolkien and, more overtly, C.S. Lewis? We can’t keep pointing to only those two – we need writers who today craft powerful stories that convey something of the hope that is within us, in the same way that Pullman is crafting stories with a very different message. Know any?
Mark Patrick Hederman, Abbot of Glenstal, may be one. He’s not a novelist (as far as I know) and I haven’t read any of his books yet – but after his interview yesterday morning (Pat Kenny Show again) I’ll be looking for his new book “Underground Cathedrals”. He has an amazing eloquence and spoke about the origins of the whole abuse scandal with a great insight and wisdom. It isn’t a perspective I’ve heard before, and though I haven’t always agreed with Hederman’s views, I really recommend you have a listen: Mark Patrick on Radio 1