People were surprised when a hardened atheist wrote a book about Jesus Christ. Some of my correspondents are sure that my intention is evil, and that I will meet my judgment before the Great White Throne. Be that as it may, and I think it won’t, I know from my experience with previous books that many readers do have an honest curiosity about the author’s point of view. So they sometimes ask me: ‘What do you really believe? What does your book mean? How should we understand it?’
Some writers – apparently William Golding was one – are firmly of the opinion that there is a correct way to read their books and they argue strongly with readers who, they think, have got them wrong. My view is the opposite. Readers may make of my work whatever they please. Some people, indeed, have seen things – connections and patterns and implications – I had no idea were there. If such readers want to persuade others of their interpretation, however, they have to do so fairly and honestly, by reference to the text and not to any pretended secret key or private knowledge.
The problem with my telling people what I think it means is that my interpretation seems to have some extra authority and that sometimes shuts down debate: if the author himself has said it means X, then it can’t mean Y. Believing as I do in the democracy of reading, I don’t like the sort of totalitarian silence that descends when there is one authoritative reading of any text.
So in general, I prefer not to discuss the meaning of my work. But the book I’ve just published, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, is different from the sort of books I’ve published before. Its protagonist belongs not just to me but to the history and the culture of the past 2,000 years, and the story is not just any story but the foundation story of the Christian religion. It is too important to too many people for me to take my usual line. This time I have to say something about my story and explain, so to speak, where I’m coming from.
Christianity formed my mind. I wasn’t an unusually pious child, but I did firmly believe in the God I was told about and I did believe everything I said in the Apostles’ Creed every Sunday. My grandfather, a man I loved and revered, was an Anglican clergyman, and his own example showed me what belief looked like from the outside; he was certain of his own salvation, and of mine too, but entirely without self-righteousness or hardness of heart.
07 April 2010