Reviewing His Dark Materials Sequence V - Is Philip Pullman Really So Anti-Christian, and Why Do I Care?

Previously…

There are two hearts in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials sequence. There is the heart the story that attacks organized religion in general and Christianity in particular. Though this heart is at the foundation of the story, it ends up detracting from it, weighing down the narrative with lecture and alienating a number of readers.

Then there is the heart of the story that builds something very interesting. The most perplexing thing about the Dark Materials sequence is that, in practice, not much differentiates the ideals that Philip Pullman aspires to, and that of the silent majority of Christians observe.

Philip Pullman expresses his viewpoint very well in the following quote:

“We’re used to the kingdom of heaven; but you can tell from the general thrust of the book that I’m of the devil’s party, like Milton. And I think it’s time we thought about a republic of heaven instead of the kingdom of heaven. The king is dead. That’s to say I believe that the king is dead. I’m an atheist. But we need heaven nonetheless, we need all the things that heaven meant, 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 that the kingdom of heaven used to promise us but failed to deliver. And, furthermore, we need it in this world where we do exist— not elsewhere, because there ain’t no elsewhere.”

Correction: Milton wasn’t for the Devil’s Party. He just gave him the coolest lines.

“We mustn’t have another king. Worshipping the wrong thing is going to lead to trouble, so we have to have a republic, by which I mean that we ourselves in this world here in the physical universe where we know we live have got to make it as much like the traditional idea of heaven as we can. By which I mean it’s a place where we’re connected to other people by love and joy and delight in the universe and the physical world. And we have to use all the qualities we have— our imagination, our intelligence, our scientific understanding, our appreciation of art, our love for each other and so on— we have to work to use those things, to make the world a better place, which it sorely needs making.”

Phillip is basically saying that we should not need to have God looking over our shoulders in order for us to do what is right. But any good Christian would tell you the same thing. The Buddhists have it listed explicitly in their teachings: we do what is right not out of fear of punishment or in expectation of reward, but simply because it is right. The “devil made me do it” dodge and its corollary “God wants me to do the opposite” subverts free will and dampens good and evil almost as effectively as the concept of predestination, taken literally.

Philip Pullman also makes an admission that I find frankly telling. In his words: “When it was possible to have a belief about God and heaven, it represented something we all desired. It had a profound meaning in human life+ But when it no longer became possible to believe, a lot of people felt despair. What was the meaning of life? It seems that our nature is so formed that we need a feeling of connectedness with the universe. If there is no longer a king, or a kingdom of heaven, it will have to be a republic in which we are free citizens. We ourselves as citizens have to build the republic of heaven.”

This, folks, is the central message of his trilogy. It is his acknowledgment that Atheism can be a religion of despair and that throwing out Heaven with God is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This, combined with the statement that we should look after ourselves and not expect help from above to take care of everything, gives the Dark Materials sequence a strong heart. That heart is, believe it or not, in the right place.

Philip Pullman is fighting for something that most Christians already believe in: live with a sense of balance, and love one another as ourselves. Phillip visualizes a God that does not exist; I visualize a God that cannot be conceived. Though there is still plenty to disagree on, in practice, our lives will be lived in much the same manner.

Fine, you say, Philip Pullman isn’t attacking me, he’s attacking the flaws in my faith that I’ve already admitted exists. Why spend five very long articles in my journal detailing my disagreements with Philip Pullman’s vision? Why am I taking this so personally?

In 1998, Erin and I were preparing for our marriage by attending marriage preparation classes organized by the local diocese of the Catholic Church. Erin’s Catholic, but I’m an Anglican. Our wedding was to be within the Catholic Church. Despite this difference, the local diocese saw no problems with us getting married. Other than having us attend a special session on “mixed marriages”, I didn’t have to receive a “disparity of cult” dispensation, that I would have had to receive if I was Jewish, Muslim or any faith other than Christian. In the view of the Ontario dioceses of the Catholic Church, I was Christian enough.

But the wedding was held in Omaha, Nebraska, a different diocese altogether.

Two days before the wedding was to take place (the evening of that day, in fact), Erin received a call from one of the people who had taught the marriage preparation course back in Ontario. That teacher was in a state, because the Omaha diocese of the Catholic Church was asking for the paperwork showing that the disparity of cult dispensation had been granted. If they didn’t get that paper, they weren’t going to allow the wedding to take place.

The Ontario crew, and the priest who was to perform the wedding, scrambled to get the paperwork in place and signed by 5 p.m. Friday, the day before the ceremony. We are grateful for their hard work, but the whole episode still upsets us. In the view of the Omaha diocese of the Catholic Church, I wasn’t Catholic enough. Indeed, I wasn’t Christian. I beg to differ.

Nebraska houses some of the more conservative elements of the Catholic Church. The Lincoln Diocese is one of the very few North American dioceses that still excommunicate. Their favoured targets: women who are actively campaigning for the ordination of women.

One would think that, in the face of such narrow-minded bigotry, these women would give up and walk away from the Catholic Church. Most do not. They see Catholicism as a part of themselves, and rather than vacate a religion due to the activity of a powerful few, they choose to stay and fight. It’s this sort of mentality that explains why I can’t stand aside and say “Philip Pullman is simply attacking Christianity for its bad elements”. For one thing, he’s not. His attacks land squarely on all Christianity, not just on bad Christians. I know that narrow minded and evil people have corrupted my faith, but it is still my faith. I will not vacate it because of those elements of corruption. I will defend it and point out that it is still full of good people and good ideas.

Conclusions

Philip Pullman wrote the three books of the His Dark Materials sequence because he had a story to tell about a little girl and Dust. He also wrote it because he had things to say about the corruption of the Church, and the need for Atheists to have a Heaven of their own. He’s gotten this off of his chest, and I think he feels better having done it. He’s given me and a lot of readers a lot to think about. He’s challenged and ultimately strengthened my own beliefs, and kicked apart those beliefs of myself and others that were too weak to stand.

Philip Pullman is hardly part of a conspiracy to bring about an anti-Christian world. The truth is, he stands for values not too different from our own. He acknowledges humanity’s flaws and accepts them, as God would. He believes firmly in humanity’s free will, as God, in my opinion, does. Interviews with him show him to be a pleasant man, who wouldn’t hold my Christianity against me, in person.

I wish more could have been said about his trilogy.

I would have appreciated it if he had opened his war against the Authority to Christians fighting for their God of Love, but this is his book series, not mine. His Dark Materials is still destined to be one of the classics of modern fantasy literature, standing alongside The Lord of the Rings and The Narnia Chronicles. It would have stood above them had these flaws not been in place.


I am generally not to be found on online Christian websites. Too many of these evangelize too much, or are just too right-wing (it’s possible to be a left-wing Christian, you know!). However, this document compiling Jeffrey Overstreet’s column on the upcoming His Dark Materials movie trilogy says much of what I’ve said. The reader responses are also interesting.

blog comments powered by Disqus