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Sermon Given at Matins on Sunday 2 May 2010

The Reverend Robert Reiss Canon in Residence

Sunday, 2nd May 2010 at 10:00 AM

Reading: Psalm 48

At the end of the series I gave at matins in January on believing in God I said I would use this month to consider what we can realistically believe about Jesus. I did not know at the time that about a month before this series started a new book on Jesus would be published with the rather provocative title ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’. It is written by Philip Pullman, the very successful author of the series of children’s books called ‘His Dark Materials’, and I attended a public conversation he had with the philosopher Marina Warner on the South Bank last month about the book.

I think the first thing to say about that book and about Philip Pullman is that he is clearly a very intelligent and thoughtful man who should be taken seriously and not merely dismissed as another spokesman of the current atheistic agenda. He is an atheist, as I shall discuss later, but he is a thoughtful and respectful one. He described the book in that conversation as a fable: he certainly does not in any sense suggest that it is historically accurate, but like any novelist he thinks that truth can be explored through what is clearly fiction. At the heart of his book there is the notion, obviously made up in his imagination, that Jesus was a twin, and his younger brother, whom Pullman calls Christ, was both respectful yet in a way jealous of his brother’s success as a preacher. Christ, in the novel, then fulfils the role of Judas Iscariot in betraying Jesus, but then, because as a twin he looks similar to Jesus, becomes the reason for the belief in the Resurrection after Jesus’ death.

Now Pullman is completely clear that this is a novel, indeed on the back of the book there is printed in large letters ‘This is A Story’, and he defended in his South Bank discussion, clearly and cogently, why it is appropriate to explore issues through the use of such fables, with I suppose his main point being that the Christian Church has followed Christ rather than Jesus, continuing the betrayal of Jesus.

I have to say that personally I have some difficulty with that way of dealing with an obviously historical figure like Jesus. I suppose there is enough of the historian in me to agree with the former editor of the Manchester Guardian, C P Scott, who famously once said that ‘opinion is free, but facts are sacred.’ I believe that, for all the inconvenience of it, the search for what actually happened is a serious one, and at least at one level of truth it should take precedence over the fictional representation of truth; that is no doubt one of many reasons why I am not a novelist. But that personal conviction on my part must, I believe, go hand in hand with the recognition that even in the gospels themselves the boundary of where historical truth ends and interpretative story-telling begins is not at all clear, and the gospel writers themselves did not follow the policy suggested by Scott. They were not modern day historians or newspaper writers, on which matter I shall dwell at greater length in a subsequent sermon in this series.

But Pullman’s way of approaching the gospels does produce some interesting and powerful writing. He retells some of the stories about Jesus in thought provoking ways, and there is no doubt that the Jesus he presents is a good man; indeed Pullman spoke very warmly and positively about the historical figure at the South Bank discussion, ending up by encouraging his audience to read carefully and hence to engage seriously with the Gospels to see the different pictures of Jesus they present. His is far from being the usual atheistic agenda.

But in the book in the Garden of Gethsemane he puts into Jesus’ mouth a soliloquy which he admitted in the discussion is really a statement of his own loss of faith. Pullman acknowledged that he owed much to his grandfather, who was a church minister, but Pullman himself has clearly lost the faith that he had as a child and his Jesus presents that loss of faith in a powerful piece of writing. The prayer in the Garden becomes a prayer offered to a silent God who does not respond, and it and that chapter ends with the fictional Jesus saying

‘From time to time we’ll remember you, like a grandfather who was loved once, but who has died, and we’ll tell stories about you; and we’ll feed the lambs and reap the corn and press the wine, and sit under the tree in the cool of the evening, and welcome the stranger and look after the children, and nurse the sick and comfort the dying, and then lie down when our time comes, without a pang, without a fear, and go back to the earth. ‘And let the silence talk to itself…’ Jesus stopped. There was nothing else he wanted to say.’

That, of course, represents Pullman, not the historical Jesus as Pullman fully admits. But the difficulty there, as it seems to me, lies in Pullman’s notion of God. Earlier in that soliloquy he has Jesus reflecting on the apparent silence of God and saying

‘I can imagine some philosophical smartarse of a priest in years to come pulling the wool over his poor followers’ eyes; “God’s great absence is, of course, the very sign of his presence”, or some such drivel. The people will hear his words, and think how clever he is to say such things, and they’ll try and believe it; and they’ll go home puzzled and hungry, because it makes no sense at all. The priest is worse than the fool in the psalm, who at least is an honest man. When the fool prays to you and gets no answer, he decides that God’s great absence means he’s not…there.’

But in the South Bank discussion Pullman said what he meant by God is what he described as ‘a supernatural being’. But that is not the only way of looking at what God might be, and indeed personally I believe it is all too limiting. It is possible to reflect on such matters as truth, and goodness, and maybe even beauty, and to ask whether they are simply human constructions, notions that we humans have somehow created for ourselves, or whether they are things that are somehow more deeply rooted in the way the world and the universe is. Personally I believe they are, goodness, and truth and beauty are not merely human constructions and as such I believe they point to the God who is at the heart of everything, and who is far more than ‘a supernatural being’. And goodness, and truth and beauty are not always silent. And, more than that, I think I would also say that such a notion of God is what was embodied and made real in the good man Jesus.

But Pullman’s is a very interesting book, well worth reading, but, as I am sure he himself would want, read it with a critical mind.

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