Friday, October 17, 2008

Conversing and Arguing with the Theology of Philip Pullman

Going through some old magazines this afternoon, I came across a number of fascinating articles about controversial British writer Philip Pullman, author of the series of books that collectively are known as His Dark Materials.

The first in this series of books, The Golden Compass (Northern Lights in Britain), was made into a film in 2007, starring Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, and Daniel Craig.

Pullman’s books have been condemned by various Christian individuals and groups for their “anti-Christian” message. Some Roman Catholics, in particular, are mightily peeved with Pullman for having the evil entity of his series be a murderous institution known as both “the Magisterium” and “the Holy Church.”

Yet as the following excerpt from Hanna Rosin’s December 2007 Atlantic article shows, it’s actually more a certain expression of Christianity that the atheist Pullman has concerns with. (And it should be noted that they are concerns shared by many Christians.)

One of Pullman’s favorite subjects is the moral power of stories, and he can sound preacher-like when he addresses it. “ ‘Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart,” he once wrote. Pullman’s books are full of mysticism and grandeur often associated with religion, which is no doubt part of their appeal. “We need joy, we need a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives, we need a connection with the universe, we need all the things the Kingdom of Heaven used to promise us but failed to deliver,” he said in a 2000 speech.

When pressed, Pullman grants that he’s not really trying to kill God, but rather the outdated idea of God as an old guy with a beard in the sky. In his novels, he replaces the idea of God with “Dust,” made up of invisible particles that begin to cluster around people when they hit puberty. The Church believes Dust to be the physical evidence of original sin and hopes to eradicate it. But over the course of the series, Pullman reveals it to be the opposite: evidence of human consciousness, a kind of godlike energy that surrounds everyone. People accumulate Dust by “thinking and feeling and reflecting, by gaining wisdom and passing it on,” It starts to build up around puberty because, for Pullman, sexual awakening triggers the beginning of self-knowledge and intellectual curiosity. To him, the loss of sexual innocence is not a tragedy; it’s the springboard to a productive and virtuous adulthood

. . . “This is exactly what happens in the Garden of Eden,” Pullman told me. “They become aware of sexuality, of the power of the body has to attract attention from someone else. This is not only natural, but a wonderful thing! To be celebrated! Why the Christian Church has spent 2,000 years condemning this glorious moment, well, that’s a mystery. I want to confront that, I suppose, by telling a story that this so-called original sin is anything but. It’s the thing that makes us fully human.”

Pullman gets annoyed whenever he recalls a passage in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia: In the final book of the series, Lewis excludes Susan Pevensie, the oldest sister, from what is essentially Paradise because she is “interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.” Pullman, in an essay called “The Dark Side of Narnia,” cites this as evidence that Lewis disliked women and sexuality and was “frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up.”

The Narnia series, in his view, embraces a worldview that comes close to “life-hating ideology” – punishing, misogynistic, racist, and death-obsessed. By contrast, his own books are filled with a kind of warmth, an exuberance for finding utopia in this life. When he loses patience with his Christian critics, he lists the values he promotes in his own stories: tolerance, love, kindness, courage, duty, individual freedom over blind obedience.

The series ends with [the main character] Lyra realizing she has to return to her world and separate from [her beloved] Will. She is heartbroken, but accepts that this is the only way she can fulfill her ultimate destiny, which is to help build the “Republic of Heaven.” She understands this to be a paradise on Earth where she can rely on her own knowledge and wisdom, not the mandates of God or the Magisterium.


The January 15, 2008 issue of The Christian Century has two articles on Philip Pullman. In “Stories to Live By,” Stephanie Paulsell makes the case that “despite their differences, Pullman and [C.S.] Lewis have similar visions of children being fully alive.”

Writes Paulsell:

The release of the film version of Philip Pullman’s novel The Golden Compass has reinvigorated the controversy over his trilogy, His Dark Materials. Proclaimed “worthy of the bonfire” when first published, Pullman’s books have evoked from some Christians the kind of response that one might expect from the church as described in the trilogy itself. Pullman also has Christian defenders, however, most notably Catholic theologian Donna Freitas, who makes an interesting case for him as a liberation theologian manqué in Killing the Imposter God. It is a false god who dies in His Dark Materials, Freitas argues, and Dust, the mysterious substance at the heart of Pullman’s story, is the real divine presence in the world.

Whether or not he understands himself as a theologian, Pullman acknowledges that he wanted to provoke a theological argument with his trilogy, most notably with C.S. Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia, which he sees as shot through with a theologically derived disdain for embodied life.

For all their much-discussed differences, however, Pullman and Lewis give us remarkably similar visions of what they desire for children: that they be, in the words of both authors, “alive and awake” to themselves and to the world.

. . . [And when] we are alive and awake to the mystery of ourselves and others, the greater will be our desire to act with compassion and courage in response to stories that are not our own.


And then there’s Edward Higgins and Tom Johnson’s insightful article, “The Enemy Church,” in the same issue of The Christian Century as Stephanie Paulsell’s article highlighted above.

In exploring and articulating the “agenda” in Pullman’s series of books, Higgins and Johnson note the following:

Pullman’s depiction of Christianity is reductive. For him, the Church embodies anti-human forces. The Church’s Magisterium and its Consistorial Court of Discipline are reminiscent of the Inquisition. This is not, in short, the church that produced St. Francis, Julian of Norwich, Oscar Romero and Mother Teresa. Pullman’s version of Christianity is a fairly common straw man: the oppressiveness of organized religion.

Yet when [the character of] Mary Malone says that “the Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake,” she has not stopped believing in the power of good and evil. She remains a compassionate, selfless servant to others. Like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter novels, and C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Pullman’s novels contain archetypal themes: the loss of innocence, the journey-quest, loyalty, and the struggle against evil. In the end, Lyra serves as a prophet, even a Christ figure, who harrows the Land of the Dead to free hapless souls.

Near the end of The Amber Spyglass [the third novel in Pullman’s trilogy], Lyra articulates her alternative religion: “No one can build the Republic of Heaven if they put themselves first. We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and patient, and we’ve got to study and think and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds.” The values that the main characters embody – love, kindness, justice, loyalty, hope – are consistent with Christian values, with a feisty overlay of adolescent rebellion tossed in.

A major voice of the atheological themes in the novels is the witch-queen Serafina Pekkala. In her view – a classically Romantic one – human beings are fundamentally good and should be free to grow and develop in knowledge and wisdom. How or why they are good is a question she leaves unexplored. Various authorities, especially organized religions, seek to control and ultimately kill all that is good in human life. The Authority thinks that human beings have become dangerously independent. All of human history, observes Serafina, has been “a struggle between wisdom and stupidity.” The trilogy’s rebel angels and her witches have been the followers of wisdom (Sophia), she tells Mary Malone, and “have always tried to open minds; the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep them closed.”

While the novels are moral, they are not particularly morally complex. The agents of the Church are all cruel, vengeful, violent, and vicious. The Church has spies in every world, a veritable Gestapo combing the land for heresy and rebellion. Its God, the Authority, hates Lyra. A Church-commissioned assassin, Father Gomez, has done “preemptive penance” for a sin not yet committed and is therefore granted “absolution in advance” for stalking and killing Lyra.

While Pullman claims to have a different worldview from that of Tolkien or Lewis, his evil Church is akin to Tolkien’s Mordor and the evil Sauron, and to Lewis’s White Witch of Narnia. Without bad guys (often cast in a quasi-religious guise) to combat, what’s the point of the hero’s journey?

If the Church depicted in the Magisterium is not the Christian church, likewise the god who dies in the third novel of the trilogy is not God. While Pullman’s god holds some of the names of the biblical God, the virtues that most Christians think derive from God are embodied in the Authority’s enemies.

When we finally see the Authority up close in Book III, he has grown so old and decrepit that he is powerless and has to be carried about on a crystal litter. This wasted and demented “ancient of days” pitiably dies in a cold wind when rescued from his crystal cell by Lyra and Will, “blinking in wonder [with] a sigh of the most profound and exhausted relief.” This is an amusing post-modern portrayal of Death of God theology, perhaps, but finally it’s the death of a false god.

. . . [Pullmen’s] books are a gripping account of a story that is familiar in our culture: organized religion is bad and dangerous, self-reliance and heroic work are good and redemptive. For many readers, this story will ring true. Many other readers will realize that Pullman’s God is not the God of the Bible, who “abounds in steadfast love” and insists on justice for the poor. These are not reasons to censor or shun Pullman’s powerful, enjoyable, and imaginatively rich series, but they are reasons to argue with it.


Following is the music video for “Lyra,” the theme song from The Golden Compass. It features the beautiful vocals of British singer/songwriter Kate Bush, along with various scenes from the film. Enjoy!

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Golden Compass: Pointing Beyond Authoritarianism
Pan’s Labyrinth: Critiquing the Cult of Unquestioning Obedience
Reflections on the Overlooked Children of Men
Reflections on Babel and the “Borders Within”
What the Vatican Can Learn from the X-Men
The New Superman: Not Necessarily Gay but Definitely Queer
Revisting a Groovy Jesus (and a Dysfunctional Theology)
Christian Diaz’s Critique of Brokeback Mountain
Frank D. Myer’s “Long Hard Look” at Brokeback Mountain
Alexander’s Great Love
Reflections on The Da Vinci Code Controversy
Thoughts on The Da Vinci Code
Casanova-inspired Reflections on Papal Power – at 30,000 Ft.

1 comment:

Mark Andrews said...

The movie adaptation didn't do the books any favors. There were so many ideas - some great, some good, some interesting, some not - it seemed the filmmakers tried to cram everything in. Talking bears, flying witches, dark matter, trans-dimensional transport, over-bearing magisteriums, free thinking professors, an under-used cast, a caste society, and I haven't even included everything. After a while the movie became impenetrable.

As for a gripe with the Catholic Church, I'll just read Candide again.