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Jun 15, 2010 at 12:35pm IST

Christ's story incredible, unlikely: novelist

CNN-IBN's Amrita Tripathi interviews Philip Pullman, author of the best-selling His Dark Materials trilogy, on taking on the Church, the child abuse scandal, and his latest work, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

Amrita Tripathi: As an atheist, what for you, is the most fascinating part of the story, or myth, of Jesus Christ?

Philip Pullman: For me, it's the way in which, so soon after his death, a quite fantastical story began to gain currency: a story that this entirely human man from a little town in Palestine became transformed into the Son of God, who had reigned in Heaven since before the creation of the world, and would judge over everyone after their death. An utterly incredible and unlikely story - and yet people swallowed it, and have continued to swallow it, in their millions. For some Christians, of course, this very unlikelihood is proof that it's true. For me, it's another sad confirmation of the infinite gullibility and hopefulness of human beings.

Christ's story incredible, unlikely: novelist

ANYBODY UP THERE? Pullman prepares to deliver a speech at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. (file photo)

Amrita Tripathi: ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ is an incredible book! Where did this idea come from? To have the two brothers, Jesus and Christ and the clash between versions of "truth" and "history"?

Philip Pullman: It came from thinking about the story and wondering how I could dramatise the two different identities of the man and the God, and finally realizing that I could make the two of them different people, but related - brothers, in fact.

As for truth and history, that emerged as I wrote it and discovered the character of the Stranger.

Amrita Tripathi: The readers are almost forced to hold off on any sort of moral judgment. It all becomes rather hazy, because both brothers feel they're doing the right thing, or serving the right interests. Was that deliberate? Especially given the setting -- Biblical times usually come off as an era of moral absolutes.

Philip Pullman: The more I thought about the story the more I realised that it would be wrong to leave the two of them so black and white, if I can put it like that. There is a complicated area of moral grey between the two of them; and certainly I found myself sympathising more and more with Christ as the story went on.

Amrita Tripathi: The brother "Jesus" is adamant that no good could come of an institution like "Christ"'s proposed church. The child abuse scandal - for example – is obliquely referred to. Do you think anyone could have foretold or foreseen the dangers that a Church could bring with it? Is it inherent to the institution?

Philip Pullman: It's inherent and inevitable in any human institution that bases its claims on an authority that may not be challenged. The only true safeguard is democracy; but we haven't tried that for very long.

Amrita Tripathi: In your phenomenal "His Dark Materials" trilogy, the Magisterium is also set up as this dark, conniving, ruthless body -- do you think that holds for any institution with that kind of over-arching authority? Or any body set up along the lines of a church?

Philip Pullman: The problem with churches of any kind, institutions of any religion, is that there is an extra dimension to their authority-claims: the dimension of divinity. How can anyone question that? Only by saying, in effect, "No - you're wrong - God has told ME the truth, and it's quite different from yours." And, of course, being put to death for it.

Amrita Tripathi: There are accusations that the Church scared Hollywood off, so despite the massive success of ‘The Golden Compass’, the studio's canned work on ‘The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass’. Are you disappointed with this sort of backlash from the Church and Christian right-wing groups?

Philip Pullman: Can one be truly disappointed if one is not actually surprised?

Amrita Tripathi: Clearly, it's not something that scares you away from telling a story... Have you already faced any sort of backlash with The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ?

Philip Pullman: No, for the reason that books are less expensive to produce than films, by a factor of a thousand or more. People can protest about books, and they do, but a publisher will still be willing to risk a few thousand pounds on a book whereas no studio will risk several million on a film. Besides, notoriety does sell books in commercial quantities, whereas an audience boycott organised by religious bodies can spell commercial death to a film.

(The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Penguin India, price Rs 499)