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Christians Lose Their Compass: A Closer Look At Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy

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It is the Church's flexibility, rather than its rigidity that's kept it going when many dozens of empires have risen and fallen. I usually feel that if one is secure in the quality of one's product, one need not fear criticism. When the Catholic Church spends time and resources trying to discredit Hollywood fantasies like DaVinci Code or Golden Compass while, at the same time, evicting nuns onto the street to pay for their child abuse crimes, they reveal how dangerously out whack their priorities are.

As for the rest of Christendom, the current hysteria being generated over Pullman’s work highlights the commensurate skill with which these groups have embraced the politics of victimhood. When you live in a society which embeds the concept of free will and “the pursuit of happiness” in its very constitution, victimization is one of the few hammers which successfully get people to listen. In a “Live and Let Live” society, the fastest way to interfere with people’s lives is convince them they’re actually interfering with you. Everywhere, an evil “they” are assaulting Christians. “They” forbid children to ask Jesus for help on their spelling test. “They” are attempting murder God in His sleep by removing Him from the Pledge of Allegiance.

Now here comes a book that advocates teaching children about the responsible exercise of free will. It also suggests that religion should be kept separate from both government and science. All of these are ideas that these groups have been actively agitating against for several years now, wielding the argument that your free will, secular government and unhampered scientific inquiry is ruining their day.

Pullman's books are overflowing with an awe of the beauty and wonder of the universe, as well as an acknowledgement that there is much about the universe that surpasses human ability to comprehend. But, it is true that the author, Phillip Pullman has admitted that he is an atheist. Yes, it's true! He admitted it in public! It's safe to say that atheism, like socialized medicine, is not viewed with the same hysteria and scorn in Pullman's home country as it is here in the U.S., but for most of the people agitating against the film, this admission is enough to condemn him and his work, even if his work was an impassioned support of Christianity's beneficence.

I think some of what upsets these groups so much about someone like Phillip Pullman is that he’s mastered their game and is using it against them. He’s an atheist who believes that his rights and values are under attack. He resents children’s books which cloak Christian theology within fantastic tales. This to him is sinister, or troubling at the very least. As amazing as the His Dark Materials trilogy is, there are no new ideas expressed in them that have not been contemplated within philosophical and religious circles for thousands of years. Pullman is not forging new ground. Lyra's journey is clearly inspired by everything from Greek myth to Joseph Campbell, whose work The Hero With A Thousand Faces was a direct inspiration for the Star Wars mythology, a fiction which Christian groups have embraced.

As for the movie, well, it's not nearly as elegant as Pullman's exquisite books. Pullman's refusal to simplify things for a young audience may have gained a huge following in book form, but Hollywood isn't there yet. It's a fine adventure film, though, with a plucky female protagonist. I'd take my children, and I'd let them read the books. If it came up, I'd embrace the opportunity to talk to them about God and the universe and what I think about such heady things, and encourage them to come up with their own opinions about the same things. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if they were much more interested in discussing armored polar bears.

About Kati

  • http://gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Well said, incisive. Dangerous stuff, that re-reading thing, but it seems to pay off.

  • http://thunderweasel.blogspot.com/ T.C.

    Lovely analysis on the books. I’ve heard many different views on this, for lack of better terms, “uproar”, but yours have been one of the most well-stated and open-minded.

    And I can’t say I wouldn’t be one of the ones asking more about the armored polar bears than the religious underlay of the books, too. :)

  • Richard W. Fitch

    It’s strikes me that Pullman may be “an atheist” less in the vein of Hawkins and Cutchens; and more in the camp of J.A.T.Robinson and Bishop Spong. It is remarkable how many pietistic “Christians” attempt to defend a straw ‘god’ that doesn’t exist. Wherever and whatever God ‘is’, must be watching this human comedy and perpetually be rolling on the floor with divine laughter —- the SWG can stay on strike – this provides ample entertainment.

  • http://rileycentral.net Damien

    If you’ve already read them, it’s not radical to reread them. The radical thing would be for Christian naysayers to read them. I read them and they are anti God. If you don’t see that, you aren’t a very good reader.

    This is old news. The churchy folk hate the atheists and vice versa. It’s never gonna change. New topic for Blogcritics please. I am getting so bored and tired of people making the same points about this issue.

    btw, I’m a churchy folk and I liked the book and the movie. Now that’s radical.

    Pardon my sentimentality … I enjoyed your article. Don’t you think Pullman should get a rest now? His points really aren’t on the caliber of Lennon or anything like that.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/diana_hartman Diana Hartman

    as the (fallen catholic) parent of three children who thoroughly enjoyed pullman’s adventures, i sincerely appreciate this article…

    to be sure, denouncing those who denounce what they haven’t read is an old theme, but it’s still a worthy theme because the only thing more repugnant than the opinions of those who haven’t read a given book is the silence of those who have…

  • http://vikk.typepad.com/blog_trek/ Heather Ames

    Excellent article, Kati.

  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Boston.com. Nice work!

  • http://nancyr.blogspot.com/ Nancy

    Um… the Church did not kill Galileo, so I’m pretty sure that it does, in fact, deny that one. It’s hard to give much credence to the rest of your Random Knowledge when you don’t even get something that well known correct.

    Part of the reason there was a recent to-do about the Pullman books was that not that many people – especially adults – were even aware that they existed prior to the movie hype. Unlike the Narnia series, or the Harry Potter books, the Dark Materials series generated relatively modest interest. They just aren’t in the same league, and perhaps for the very reason you indicate – they are pretty dark.

    Moreover, there is nothing wrong with a Church, which is there for the very purpose of guiding its members’ moral lives, actively urging its members to see or not see a movie, to read or not read a book. The Church never suggested that Pullman should be punished for writing the books, just that its members should avoid them. (And that parents and teachers be aware of what they were about, and what Pullman’s stated agenda was. C.S. Lewis is inevitably called a “Christian author,” whereas Pullman is merely referred to as a “British writer.” Why not “Atheist author?”)

    Oh, and by the way, I did read the books.

  • http://www.populucious.blogspot.com Kati

    You are right and I spoke incorrectly. The Catholic Church did not execute Galileo. They did, however, try him for heresy, force him to recant his wackadoo belief that the earth revolves around the sun and, even after he did recant his wackadoo notion, placed him under house arrest for the rest of his life. They banned his works and, when he finally did die, presumably of natural causes, the Church refused to allow him to be buried with the rest of his family in his family crypt.

    So, you are absolutely correct. They didn’t execute him, and a proud day in Vatican history was that I’m sure.

  • David Melnick

    C.S. Lewis was directly related to Nazism. In other words, covered up with Christianity. Chronicles of Narnia does that also & that is also by C.S. Lewis. Coincidence? ;) -lol. Do the math.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    David, I think I speak for everybody when I say that I can honestly think of no math that would make the slightest sense of your comment.

  • brimcmike

    To speak of the His Dark Materials trilogy as atheistic is to miss the point. The story is based largely upon Gnosticism and William Blake’s personal mythopoeia, which is heavily influenced by Gnosticism. For instance, The Authority is clearly patterned after the Demiruge; Metatron clearly patterned after one of the chief Archons, etc.

    Please see: Gnosticism and William Blake’s mythology.

    I think it would be helpful, after familiarizing yourself with these and other related sources, to read the trilogy for the first time, or if you’ve already do so, to at least reconsider, or even to re-read the trilogy.

  • cbraslow

    I loved these books in many ways and I’m an atheist, but there is no denying that these works are fundamentally anti-religious and specifically anti-Judeo-Christian. The Old Testament God himself does in fact die explicitly, after having been accused of lying, treachery and most of mankind’s ills. I am truly astounded that religious leaders haven’t made more of an issue than they have. I hope it’s because they are disarmed by the books’ other virtues (particularly Pan and the mulefa).

  • http://www.austinrepath.com Austin Repath

    For two weeks my tv set and my telephone broke down. Alone in the house, I started reading His Dark Materials and had an amazing response to the book that has since that time transformed my life
    Would like to send you the url of my response to the trilogy, but realize that urls can’t be posted
    Any suggestions
    Austin Repath

  • http://www.EurocriticsMagazine.com Christopher Rose

    Austin, you can post urls here but please format the links properly.

  • ShadowMan

    I read the books, and it’s true, they are NOT anti religious. They are about defeating a very old “angel” creature, who pretends that he was the creator, but not everyone believed him. I’m an atheist too btw.

  • pincrete

    Excellent, intelligent review, surprised there are no comments!

  • Shannon Wasie

    Yeah, I love this review! I’ve never read these books, but was curious about them as I slowly build a library for my daughter. :) I like level-headedness, oh so much! Thanks for that!