Lots of literary references in Pullman's books - which was something that drew me to read them. (He titled His Dark Materials after a line from Milton's Paradise Lost.) I loved the trilogy. My favorite of the three was book 1, The Golden Compass.(Which became a disappointing movie, even with my beloved Nicole Kidman in it.)
It still seems odd to me that the book was promoted as a fantasy for children because there is so much that kids would not get without some guidance. Of course, that's true of many books in that genre from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter. I share Pullman's dislike of another classic in that genre - C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia.
Pullman's books are blatantly anti-church and scientifically atheist and he is no fan of Lewis' equally pro-Christian allegorical messages. I read a few of the Narnia books when I was in seventh grade and I don't think I noticed the allegory (despite being raised Catholic). I just didn't like the stories.
I heard a segment with Pullman on NPR (here is a print version which includes an excerpt from the book). If the trilogy was a kind of response inspired by Narnia, then the new book was inspired by the Archbishop of Canterbury. In a conversation, the Archbishop asked where Jesus (who is not in the trilogy) fits in Pullman's alternative world, and The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is the result.
In Pullman's version novel, Jesus has a twin brother named Christ. In that NPR story, Pullman says:
"I was intrigued, you see, by the difference between the two parts of the name Jesus Christ that we commonly use interchangeably. So I thought, 'Well, maybe there is a difference. Maybe there are two beings here, not one.' "This new novel will probably bring Pullman even more criticism than the trilogy. I don't recommend putting it on your middle school reading list.
Phillip Pullman's official site http://www.philip-pullman.com