I have just finished reading 'The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ' by Philip Pullman. I really reccommend it if you have a couple of hours (it's that short). Knowing that Mr. Pullman is famous for his atheistic view point I was perhaps a little wary, but he is also a gentleman and doesn't seem into the point-scoring that other books have aimed for in the last few years. He also doesn't pretend that it is a text book - it is a piece of creative writing, even if it is his view point. The book is a re-telling of the gospels where Jesus and Christ are twins with conflicting personalities and it's a poweful and fascinating read.
Having said that, there are obviously things that Christians are not going to agree with (not that that justifies the hate mail that has been sent to him in any way - shame on the "Christians" who sent it). The clear suggestion is that Jesus was created into a Messiah by those who wrote the history afterwards and the question is raised as to why a loving God wouldn't make more effort to communicate with His people.
But it is not these things that stick with me (after all, most Christians will have struggled with these issues and worked through them at some point if their faith has deep roots). It is the Jesus that Philip Pullman portrayed that sticks with me. For he is not just the nice teacher that he is often made out to be. This Jesus is more like the Jesus of the bible than almost any other I've read about: controversial, radical, uncompromising. He tells people to give away their possessions and to love unconditionally and he means it. He is a man with enormous spiritual authority. And some of the things he says about church we would all do well to listen to.
The Jesus of this book does not want a church that builds fine buildings and creates a priesthood that somehow has privileged access to the scriptures. He is frightened that the church will end up killing people for their beliefs, declaring war on other nations and covering up atrocities committed agaisnt children and the weak. He fears that people will be told what to believe by priests and that the church will become a web of secrecy and fear. The image he creates of how church should be instead is something entirely different - not something perfect, but something that tries to reflect a better Kingdom by loving unconditionally. So I'll finish with my favourite bit of the book:
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 not condemn, but only forgive. That it should not be like a palace with marble walls and polished floors, and guards standing at the door, but like a tree with it's 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.