OXFORD, England (Reuters) - Bestselling British author Philip Pullman risks offending Christians with his latest book, a fictional account of the "good man Jesus" and the "scoundrel Christ."
The 63-year-old, an outspoken atheist, angered some members of the Catholic Church with a thinly veiled attack on organized religion in his hugely successful "His Dark Materials" trilogy, the first of which was turned into a Hollywood blockbuster.
But "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ" is a far more direct exploration of the foundations of Christianity and the church as well as an examination of the fascination and power of storytelling.
In the novel, Jesus has a twin brother called Christ who secretly records and embellishes his brother's teachings.
Speaking about the book to an audience in Oxford on Sunday, Pullman acknowledged that it was likely to cause offence.
When one man said Christians would be upset to hear Christ referred to as a "scoundrel," Pullman replied:
"I knew it was a shocking thing to say, but no one has the right to live without being shocked. Nobody has to read this book ... and no one has the right to stop me writing this book."
In the book, Christ is lured into betraying Jesus by a mysterious stranger who wants to use the controversial preacher and his beliefs as a focal point for a new religion preserved and controlled by a powerful and wealthy body called the church.
Christ is attracted to the idea of embellishing and manipulating the truth at the same time as realizing he is undermining Jesus' most fundamental beliefs in doing so.
"This is the tragedy," Christ reflects at the end of the novel. "Without the story, there will be no church, and without the church, Jesus will be forgotten."
Pullman, who has received angry letters from people accusing him of blasphemy even before the short novel hits the shelves, was accompanied by security guards to the Oxford event to publicize his book.
"The world is a strange place and getting stranger," he told reporters afterwards when asked about the security measures. "These are the times we live in and it's very regrettable."
Pullman said he sympathized with Jesus more than Christ in his story, although the latter shared his passion for stories.
And Jesus spoke for the author when he said "the devil would rub his hands with glee" if the church came into being.
"It isn't long before they start drawing up lists of punishments for all kinds of innocent activities, sentencing people to be flogged or stoned in the name of God for wearing this or eating that or believing the other," Jesus mused.
Pullman read various versions of the Bible when researching the book, as well as Paul's epistles and some gospels that are not part of the Biblical canon.
"It didn't change my mind," he said. "I am an atheist. The difference between Jesus and Christ in my story is that Jesus was real and Christ was a fiction," he added.
He did not find it difficult to "find an explanation that could work two ways for most of the miracles," he said, adding that the accounts of Jesus' resurrection left "a great deal of room for the speculation that has been there for 2,000 years."
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is published next month by Canongate as part of its Myths Series for which it has invited writers like Ali Smith and Margaret Atwood to rework favorite legends.
Editing by Dominic Evans