And nothing else. No summary, no praise for His Dark Materials, just those words and the little publisher's logo and UPC bar code modestly tucked away at the bottom. That pretty much said it all, really. A retelling of the life of Jesus in a manner that will most undoubtedly draw a deluge of stiff letters from pious, God-fearing people who'd never actually consider reading this book, and who'd need to be told repeatedly to at the very least pay attention to the four little words on the back.
It's written in a very simple style, similar to the NIV Bible itself, with short, unembellished sentences collected in a series of bite-size chapters. For the most part, it adheres to the story as told in the New Testament, with a very significant difference, being that here Mary gave birth to twins, named Jesus and Christ.
The stark simplicity of the text leaves much room for the reader to colour it with his own interpretation. Being as atheist as I am, I see in this book the story of Jesus as an outspoken, simple man of lofty principles and good intentions and his brother Christ, timid, scholarly and full of love for his brother, and how the story of their lives were raised far beyond the reality by a mixture of the hopes of the people around them, Chinese whispers and careful manipulation of history.
Having witnessed any number of silver-tongued individuals attain positions of power with little more than the gift of the gab and a sufficiently ignorant, unquestioning audience, this book tells quite a lot of how gods, prophets and messiahs are constructed out of a dash of good intentions, a truckload of false hope and a pinch of deception. I read it and I see an old story repeated, one of good intentions, born of the noblest part of the human spirit, twisted and corrupted into something far beyond the expectations of the initiator, both in the best and worst possible ways. It is much akin to planting a mysterious seed in a garden in the hope it will bear fruit or flowers, then finding the garden overrun with vicious, thorny creepers punctuated with stunningly beautiful blossoms.
That aside, there is much food for thought to be found in certain chapters, such as Christ posing the questions (usually attributed to Satan in the New Testament) to Jesus in the wilderness, and Jesus' confrontation (With God? Or his own faith?) in the Garden of Gethsemane. Here's an excerpt from Jesus' time in the garden:
'You're not listening,' he whispered. 'I've been speaking to you all my life and all I've heard back is silence. Where are you? Are you busy making another world, perhaps, because you're sick of this one? You've gone away, haven't you, you've abandoned us.
'You're making a liar out of me, you realise that. I don't want to tell lies. I try to tell the truth. But I tell them you're a loving father watching over them all, and you're not; you're blind as well as deaf, as far as I can tell. You can't see, or you just don't want to look? Which is it?'
And so on and so forth. Go on, guess who shows up after that... If the Dark Materials trilogy is any indication, Pullman also makes known his opinion of organized religion during the Gethsemane monologue.
Anyway, I won't spoil it for you. It is not a long book, easily wolfed down in a single sitting and it does what any good piece of writing should do, which is make the reader think. I sense it is as likely to offend as it is to enlighten, depending on the mind reading it, but whatever the case may be, perhaps the most important thing to bear in mind is what has been written on the back cover: This is a STORY.