This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series: That’s not what I call preaching
I wanted to check a few details about Philip Pullman’s book, ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’. In that book, Pullman imagines ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ were brothers: ‘Jesus’ was godly and moral, but ‘Christ’ was something of a Judas-character, whose physical likeness to ‘Jesus’ led, after the death of his brother, to a belief in the resurrection and the founding of the Christian Church.
I was intrigued to read this transcript of a sermon by the Reverend Robert Reiss, who at the time was Canon in Residence at Westminster Abbey. It was given at matins on 2nd May 2010.
The sermon consists of a review of Pullman’s book, together with some comment on a public conversation held between Pullman and philosopher Marina Warner. Reiss informs us that the author is ‘very intelligent and thoughtful man’, and that his views should be taken seriously, even though he is an atheist. (Well, yes, there are plenty of atheists whose views should be taken seriously).
Reiss makes a passing reference to the Gospels (of which he says it is ‘not at all clear’ where ‘the boundary of where historical truth ends and interpretative story-telling begins’). He gives two fairly lengthy quotes from Pullman’s book: both part of a re-imagining of Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. In Pullman’s imagination, Jesus has at that point lost his faith, and can no longer believe in a God.
Reiss’ main point is that ‘God’, for Pullman is ‘a supernatural being’. But that, says Reiss, ‘is not the only way of looking at what God might be’, and believes ‘it is all too limiting’. Better, perhaps, to think about such matters as truth, goodness and beauty, and see them as pointing to ‘the God who is at the heart of everything’, and also ’embodied and made real in the good man Jesus’. [Try counting up the number of times clergy of this type use the expression ‘at the heart of’ and then try to persuade me that it does not function as a pious-sounding cliche for nothing in particular.]
And the astonishing, life-changing, heaven-storming conclusion to the sermon?
“Pullman’s is a very interesting book, well worth reading.”
That’s not what I call preaching. It’s a travesty. It will never set the world alight. It will not reform a nation. It will not bring people back to God. It will merely leave atheists thinking: ‘some of these Christians are not so bad after all: they believe nearly as little as we do’.