William Underhill reviews Philip Pullman's new novel re-imagining of the Gospels:
According to Pullman's fable, Mary gives birth not to a single son but to twins: Jesus and Christ. Jesus is a firebrand preacher with a revolutionary message but no time for showy miracles. His brother, who serves as his chronicler, is a darker, more introspective figure, ready to provide a distorted version of events that will lay the basis for the Gospels and eventually lead to the foundation of the church. Those looking to find grounds for offense won't be disappointed: the Annunciation in Pullman's story is, in fact, a seduction; the Resurrection is a stunt. To compound the injury, Pullman suggests that in some respects his words may be closer than the Bible's to what Jesus would have actually said.
One motive in writing the book is to shake the faith of believers. He hopes to send readers back to the Gospels to compare his story with the originals. "They will see for themselves how contradictory, how inconsistent, and different the narratives are," he says. And Pullman is not shy about spelling out what he sees as the pernicious consequences of human institutions like the papacy that assume an unquestionable God-given authority. Among them: the Inquisition, witch-burning, the persecution of the Jews, and child abuse by Catholic priests.