|Written by Peter Johnston|
|Sunday, 21 August 2011 15:15|
During this morning's sermon I mentioned an interview I had listened to from 2010 with the author and self-avowed atheist, Philip Pullman, after the publication of his fable on the gospel stories: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. As I said during the service, I was very much intrigued by Pullman's story about Jesus when I read it (actually, I listened to it as an audio book on a long overnight drive to Cornwall!).
Of course, Pullman is not writing an account of what he thinks actually happened, he is writing a fable to stimulate everyone to think about Jesus and our proclamation of him as Christ. This is all very apt for today's theme of Peter's confession that Jesus is the Messiah (Matthew 16:13-20).
I'd encourage anyone to read Pullman's book to make you think about what you may take for granted. Please also read the full interview with him, it is fascinating. [There's more...]
Justin Brierley: In both His Dark Materials and The Good Man Jesus you paint a view of the church as a sinister organisation that seeks to control and manipulate people. Most Christians wouldn’t recognise that view of the church.
Philip Pullman: No, but go back four or five hundred years and that’s exactly what it was. The church has had a very interesting and changeable history. At the moment the Christian church, in Western Europe at least, has reached a point where it doesn’t have much political power any more. It has to work by persuasion, tradition and exhortation – it’s more or less politically harmless. But there was a time when it was not politically harmless, when what you believed made the difference between whether you’d be allowed to live or be tortured to death.
It’s no different to the history of a state like Soviet Russia, which was also a theocracy. Anybody that wields an authority in the name of a power that may not be challenged is desperately dangerous. Marxist teaching was the power that could not be challenged, the communist party was its priesthood, and there was a teleological view of history – that it was moving towards a particular end and they knew what it was. Anyone who helped this on its way was good; anybody who didn’t was a heretic and had to be destroyed. There are many similarities between a God-believing theocracy and an atheistic theocracy. The danger is not the God belief but the theocracy – political power wielded in the name of an authority that may not be challenged.
Martin Saunders: I agree with much of what you say and am actually encouraged by your concerns. But given that the church is not going to die out anytime soon, what would you like it to be?
PP: Let me quote a passage from the book. Jesus prays in Gethsemane: “That any church set up in your name should remain poor and powerless and modest. That it should wield no authority except that of love. That it should never cast anyone out. That it should own no property and make no laws. That it should not condemn, but only forgive. That it should not be like a palace, with marble walls and polished floors, and guards standing at the door, but like a tree with its roots deep in the soil, that shelters every kind of bird and beast and gives blossom in the spring and shade in the hot sun and fruit in the season, and in time gives up its good sound wood for the carpenter, but that sheds many thousands of seeds so that new tress can grow up in its place.”
That’s what I would like to see the church being like. Churches that serve the poor and pay no heed to the bullying of the rich – that’s the church I’d like to see. It does exist and I celebrate it.
When asked specifically about Jesus, Pullman goes on to say that while he will never be a Christian, he could be called a Jesus-ite. He says he is "very pro-Jesus".
There is no doubt in my mind that some of the issues that Pullman raises about the ecclesial structure that is the church are concerns that we should share, particularly when it comes to abuse of power and exclusive tendencies.
Note that the interview (which is also available to listen to) is from Premier Christian Radio's 'Unbelievable?' series which you can get as a podcast via iTunes or direct from the webpage. It is well worth scanning through as there are some fascinating discussions with some real big names contributing.