Philip Pullman, grandson of a clergyman, admirer of the Gospels as masterpieces of literature, does not have a problem with Jesus, despite what his critics might think. He does have a problem with the churches that have flourished in Christ's name, particularly the one that has its seat in Rome and is currently in a bit of trouble.
"The Catholic church is in crisis, and the old fool who's Pope has no idea how to deal with it," Pullman snorts. "It's ridiculous the way he's tried to push it away as if it's of no importance, just tittle-tattle or gossip. The Vatican is completely out of touch." He is quite gleeful about fellow atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens's headline-grabbing stunt to try to arrest the pope on the grounds of "crimes against humanity" when he visits Britain in September. "I wish them luck," Pullman, 63, says. "I'd love to see it."
The author of more than 20 novels has never shied away from a good smiting. Pullman's bestseller The Golden Compass was pulled off the shelves in some Ontario Catholic schools in 2007, he's been condemned for writing "atheism for kids" and now he's back in a sulphurous cloud with his retelling of the central story of Christianity in a book called The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.
Did I mention that in it, the lamb of God is not actually the messiah but very earthbound twins, one of whom loses his faith before the end of the book? It's not likely to be found on the curriculum of Baptist colleges - not that he'd expect to find it there. Literalist interpreters of scripture, he says, "don't listen, don't think, don't examine their own Bible."
All it says on the back of Pullman's book, in giant letters, is "this is a story," and those are four fighting words as far as many Christians are concerned. Only a story? That theme - historical reality being skewed over time to suit the needs of a powerful institution - is central to The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.
Let's assume, Pullman writes, that Joseph and Mary were blessed with twins. One, Jesus, is a magnetic teacher and a bit of a cold-hearted idealist. His twin brother, Christ, is well-meaning but shifty, easily manipulated into first sacrificing Jesus to the Romans and then aggrandizing his life so that it will echo through history. The loaves and fishes are just a judicious bit of commodity management on Jesus's part, but Christ turns them into a miracle that will resonate through the ages.
In this version, Jesus's agony in the garden of Gethsemane becomes a bitter railing against a silent God: "You're not there," he says angrily. "You've never heard me." This, Pullman cheerfully admits, is actually a representation of his own teenaged journey to atheism, when he'd concluded that his clergyman grandfather's wonderful stories during Sunday sermons were just that - stories.
But if Jesus's life and teaching had not been developed by the Christian church into a world-conquering myth, what would that have meant for art? What would Raphael have painted? What would Milton's subject matter have been? Or for that matter Pullman's, since his bestselling trilogy of young adult novels, His Dark Materials, is a fantastical retelling of Paradise Lost, with the church as the villain and God a decrepit, powerless creature?
"They would have found other subject matter," Pullman says. Then he looks out the window - he is in London, on a day trip from the home in Oxford he shares with his wife - "but that pretty little spire I can see through the trees, that wouldn't be there."
You can think of the inspiration for his new book as a trinity, if that's not too blasphemous. First, he was interested in the idea of St. Paul as the world's first spin doctor, taking the story of fallible Jesus, a generation after the crucifixion, and turning him into the doctrinaire Christ (Greek for "messiah").
Second, Jamie Byng, publisher of Canongate Books, approached him about writing an instalment of his Myths series, in which writers such as Margaret Atwood retell ancient legends. Finally, Pullman found himself on stage at London's National Theatre, where His Dark Materials was being produced as a play, giving a talk with Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury. Williams turned to him, and said, mildly: All very well to go after the church in your books, but why do you never mention Jesus?
So Pullman went and reread the Bible (the New Revised Standard Version, much as he loved the grandeur of the King James scriptures of his youth) and historical records of that turbulent time, and concluded that "Jesus just happened to walk into the wrong place at the wrong time, and he was executed by the Romans for political reasons."
Pullman has received angry letters from believers who don't like to see their saviour reduced to a mere victim of history, and he expects more criticism when the book is published later this month in the United States. As for book bannings, like the one in Ontario, he says, "They never learn. The only effect that has is to make kids think, 'Wow, I must read that,' and they go out and buy it or borrow it from their friends."
When the author leaves to catch a train back to Oxford, where he went to university and taught school for years, he'll walk down the street past a beautiful church that's being turned into an arts centre. "That's what's happening to churches these days," Pullman says, and he doesn't appear to be shedding any tears.