The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

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Philip Pullman, Canongate, £14.99

The story of Jesus of Nazareth has been retold so many times that most of us forget that the four gospels of the New Testament tell completely different stories about a religious teacher and his followers. The stories differ because Jesus meant different things to the group that spawned the story. So he is the great miracle worker, or the fulfilment of scripture, or part of god's original plan for creation and so on.

Philip Pullman retells the story because of what it means to him. There's no Judas, only Jesus, his twin brother Christ, who is a bit weedy and the more aesthetic of the two, and his bemused parents. Pullman retells parables, those improving moral stories, and explains away miracles, which misses the point. If I'm going to leave home and everything for the kingdom of heaven, I'm going to do it for the son of god who can raise the dead and feed the multitude with a packed lunch, not some bloke who can get us all to share our snacks.

He also includes a story from the gnostic gospels, which never made it into the canon because they're even odder than the ones that did or because women played too central a role.

What begins as sweet and funny gets suffused with a longing as strong as religion itself. Surely somewhere underneath the hierarchy and bureaucracy of official religion there must be an actual human Jesus, who never meant any of this to happen - the riches, the authoritarianism, collusion with the Nazis, the genocide in Rwanda, the worldwide abuse of children, homophobia; who did not envisage the Catholic church in Ireland acting as the slapping hand of the state to punish the most vulnerable members of a working class that had the temerity to rise against poverty and occupation.

There is a deep disappointment at Christianity here which is odd from an atheist. We make god in our own image and so of course our religions and religious institutions reflect the best and worst of our societies. Interviewed recently, Pullman said that he hoped the Catholic church would just fade away. For that to happen, the conditions that spawned it must fade away too. As Marx said, religious suffering is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. In the age of the "war on terror" religious symbols such as wearing the hijab can also be emblems of solidarity and freedom. But Pullman is not a bigot so this is not window dressing for a swipe at Muslims, but another sigh for a world where we are all safe and free.