Monday, 29 March 2010

Myths and science

Philip Pullman has written his own take on the gospels in a new work entitled. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. In it he reworks the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus Christ who becomes twins: Jesus, the charismatic talker, and Christ, the dark brother who infiltrates his own teaching into Jesus's teaching. Why such a story? Well, Pullman told The Times last year:

“For every man or woman who has been led to goodness by a church, and I know there have been many, there has been another who has been inspired by the same church to a rancid and fanatical bigotry for which the only fitting word is evil.”

In other words Jesus must have had some monstrous double, which explains why some Christians are nice and some nasty. The story makes sense of the confused picture. To Pullman at least.

There are several things which are really fascinating about this, but perhaps the central one is that Pullman is doing exactly what he accuses religion of doing: generating a myth to explain something that he does not understand. Something else myths do is to explain away hostility. Which is of course exactly what this Pullmanian myth does too. After all, he doesn't want to be angry with Jesus the Good Man; but Christ the Scoundrel can take a good hiding. It's okay to hate Christianity when it is separated from Jesusism (of whatever Jesus's religion without Christ could be callled).

This function of a myth also allows you not only to veil violence, it also has the benefit of making you appear virtuous. Those who drive out the scapegoat have an aura of benevolent power. It doesn't matter that Pullman's animus feeds on some mythical division of Christians into fifty-fifty bigots and saints. I've met a lot of mediocre Christians; they're the biggest proportion. What is all this fifty-fifty stuff doing? Well, mythically justifying Pullman's hostility, I suppose ...

I just read Pullman's response to Stephen Hawkings's 2006 Oxford lecture on the origins of the universe. Therein, he reduces all creation thinking to the same level as the myths of the Boshongo story whose god, Bumba, is said to have vomited the sun, moon, stars, world and humans from his own belly. What is interesting here is that Pullman gives himself away not as an enlightened man but as a scientific fundamentalist. Having assigned to all talk of creation the rank of metaphor or allegory, he says this odd thing:

The delight for me in the account Professor Hawking gave us tonight, and has given us in his marvellous book A Brief History of Time, is that we can both listen to it with wonder and take it literally.

Take it literally? Well, yes and no. This is the problem. Pullman looks benignly on englightened thought but places on it a heavier burden than it can bear. Scientific theories are not literal truths; they are working models or best-fit descriptions. Oddly enough, to confuse them with literal truth is arguably to fall into the same trap as thinking that the physical account of the universe found in the Bible must be true in the same way that Revelation about God is true. Pullman isn't free of fundamentalism; he has simply swapped one fundamentalism for another because it has better material credentials.

Pullman has said that if people don't like his new book, then they don't have to read it, or they can write their own book about it. Somewhere I hope there is a Christian with a sense of humour who writes a book entitled Isaac the Good Man and Newton the Scoundrel. Isaac will be known for his brilliant scientific mind and wise understanding of science's limits; he will always be aware of science's contingency, and will allow other disciplines to explain things in their own order. Newton, his evil twin, on the other hand will represent everything that is hubristic about scientism; he will lampoon any doubts about science as fundamentalism and will embrace the latest theories, even those that lead unwittingly towards genocide and mass destruction.

But then again, maybe not. Myth making is the stuff of human culture when it is sub-Christian. It took the cross to unveil the self-veiling violence of the human being; Pullman ought only to be met with that truth, and with a fully committed Christian rationality.


  1. Innocent, I'm sure that you would do an excellent job writing a book on the lines that you suggest - and I mean it! What about one page of the book for every post on your web-site. It might take a little time, but we can wait, and it would be well worth it.

  2. I'm too busy trying to find a job, umble!