Over my last few commutes, I read Phillip Pullman‘s short and unusual book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. It’s part of the Canongate Myth Series, in which “ancient myths from myriad cultures are reimagined and rewritten by contemporary authors”. The book isn’t easily categorized, but includes a few thought-provoking passages, particularly about how institutions imbued with authority tend toward corruption and abuse.
“As soon as men who believe they’re doing God’s will get hold of power, whether it’s in a household or a village or in Jerusalem or in Rome itself, the devil enters into them. It isn’t long before they start drawing up lists of punishments for all kinds of innocent activities, sentencing people to be flogged or stoned in the name of God for wearing this or eating that or believing the other. And the privileged ones will build great palaces and temples to strut around in, and levy taxes on the poor to pay for their luxuries; and they’ll start keeping the very scriptures secret, saying there are some truths too holy to be revealed to the ordinary people, so that only the priests’ interpretation will be allowed, and they’ll torture and kill anyone who wants to make the word of God clear and plain to all; and with every day that passes they’ll become more and more fearful, because the more power they have the less they’ll trust anyone, so they’ll have spies and betrayals and denunciations and secret tribunals, and put the poor harmless heretics they flush out to horrible public deaths, to terrify the rest into obedience.”
“Lord, if I thought you were listening, I’d pray for this above all: 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 be not 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 trees can grow in its place.”
Perhaps this book is to the New Testament what Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy was to Milton’s Paradise Lost – a fictional re-appraisal with an emphasis on a re-interpretation of certain moral elements.