Speaking Volumes: Faith and free speech

(Published in the Business Standard, March 30, 2010)

“As for Jesus, there isn’t any single Jesus. There are Jesuses and Jesuses and Jesuses and Jesuses.”
Harold Bloom, in a 2005 interview for his book, Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine.

Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ is part of Canongate’s excellent Myths series. Pullman is better known as the author of the controversial His Dark Materials trilogy for children, and his sceptic’s view of Christianity and faith have often caused controversy. Before the publication of The Good Man Jesus, he had already attracted hate mail from the faithful.

Strictly speaking, Pullman’s perspective in The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ is that of the heretic, not the blasphemer. His fictionalized rendering of the Gospels creates a twin brother for Jesus—the scoundrel Christ—who tempts Jesus in the wilderness, rewrites and manipulates his story, and will ultimately engineer his betrayal. Not so long ago, Pullman would have been cast out of the Church for his writings; and just a few centuries ago, he would have been introduced to either the stake or the torturer.

The world’s great religions have an ebb and flow in their levels of tolerance. Pullman may be denounced from the modern-day pulpit we call the TV talk show, and his mailbox will probably carry the whiff of brimstone for a while. But he is unlikely to have to face down death threats, permanent bans on his book or howling mobs. If you take a look at how the world’s major religions have handled an author’s right to express his/ her own, possibly even blasphemous, views on faith and religion, it seems that the three major faiths are in very different places.

Christianity: In 1960, when Nikos Kazantzakis published The Last Temptation of Christ, there were still six years to go before the Pope would formally abolish the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. The Church’s official index of prohibited books had last been updated in 1948, and Christianity’s history of relative tolerance is very newly minted indeed. Calls for book bans in the US still come chiefly from the Bible Belt, and Pullman, like Kazantzakis before him, is likely to trigger fierce reactions. The Last Temptation was a narrative of Christ’s life from the perspective of a fallible, human Jesus; it remains one of the great literary works of its time, but was banned on several occasions.

Perhaps no religion has been more strongly involved in the free speech-versus-faith debate than Islam. True believers argue that their religion is often misunderstood and misrepresented, and the debate over who has the right to speak for the faithful is a thorny one. Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was not approved of by many Muslims; but few believers would defend Rushdie’s right to explore the Satanic verses of the Koran in literary form, or his right to create his own version of the Prophet. Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja triggered death threats from Islamic fundamentalists, and sent the author into exile.

The stereotype of the Islamic reaction to any kind of literary or artistic dissection of the faith is exaggerated, especially in the West. But in this century, the fanatic fringe of Islam have been more willing to use violence—mob violence, bombings, death threats and fatwas—than most other believers. In the same period, research into the origins of the Koran has grown—and it seems necessary for modern-day Islam to find and create the space for debate rather than violence, which is ultimately just an extreme refusal to engage in debate.

In 1997, it was still possible for Kiran Nagarkar to write Cuckold—which dissected the relationship between Mirabai and Krishna from the point of view of Mirabai’s cuckolded husband—without attracting consequences more damaging than heated debate. And back in the 1970s, Gore Vidal’s admittedly bizarre Kalki could create a cult leader who claimed to be the final avatar of Vishnu, without consequence. Much of the protests from fanatic Hindus have focused on academic works since then—but there have also been very few works of fiction that question Hindu beliefs. Scholars such as DN Jha, James Laine and Wendy Doniger have been repeatedly attacked by what Ashok Malik calls “a collective of the intellectually inadequate, the professionally frustrated and the plain bigoted”, who “represent the collapse of Hindu politico-intellectual space into a caricature of the very Talibanism it opposes”.

Three religions, three evolving approaches to artistic freedom and tolerance. As the Pullman protests gather force this week, perhaps the path for readers to follow would be the Buddhist path—mindful engagement, an abjuration of violence and an awareness of the impermanence of both skepticism and fanaticism. At least, I can’t remember the last time there was a Buddhist fatwa.





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