Dark Material: The Gospel of Philip Pullman

Image ©HBO from the trailer

Next month, HBO will release its new adaptation of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” (HDM) fantasy books. This new series is a second bite at the cherry after the commercial failure of “The GoldenCompass” movie (2007).

The trailer looks greatThe series will most likely stir up similar controversy it did when it was published. And, for those reasons and others, it will probably be a hit—a daunting prospect because HDM, as Pullman wrote it, was, and remains, an unabashed piece of anti-Christian propaganda.

It will probably be a hit, which is a daunting prospect because HDM, as Pullman wrote it, was, and remains, an unabashed piece of anti-Christian propaganda.

For those who haven’t caught up with it before (the original books came out twenty years ago, but he is currently publishing more) Pullman’s trilogy features talking animals, brave children and travel to parallel-worlds: all the elements we might associate with the work of another Oxford scholar. But this is no Narnia. Pullman uses his Lewis-like erudition and imagination to create a cosmos where there is no higher purpose, and where the climax is a triumphant war against the forces allied with an imposter angel known as “God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty.”

Pullman, boasting that he belongs to the Devil’s party, has attempted to write a sort of steampunk Paradise Lost where Satan wins the day and where sexual awakening is the gateway to the knowledge of good and evil (no, not your conventional children’s literature). In between its plot beats, the series treats us to endless preachy passages like this:

I know whom we must fight. It is the Magisterium, the Church. For all its history … it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can’t control them, it cuts them out. (The Subtle Knife, 50)

There are two great powers … and they’ve been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit. (The Subtle Knife, 320)

Guess which side the Christians are on?

Popular Appeal, Big Ideas

I will not waste your time by telling you about all the things I disliked about this series. Others have done a better job of pointing out its plot-holes, contrivances and dramatic shortcomings (see, for example, Alan Jacobs’ excellent review here).

In any case, such objections are beside the point. The millions of readers who have loved the books—and the millions more who will shortly discover the HBO adaptation—will not change their opinions for our sakes. They will go on loving Pullman’s feisty heroine, Lyra and the wondrous multiverse she inhabits with its dirigibles, flocks of witches, armies of gypsies, occult devices and armoured bears. They will still be drawn to the huge canvas and ideological sophistication of Pullman’s vision.

And, in the last instance at least, I can see the attraction. Pullman’s high-concept, symbol-rich fiction is a welcome alternative to much contemporary writing which limits itself to plot, character and worldbuilding. Pullman invokes far greater things: Milton, Dante, Blake, Nietzsche, Greek myths and Scripture itself. He wants to talk about what the universe is made of; whence free will, and how we can live in the shadow of our own deaths.

The fact that Pullman’s treatment of these matters might seem weak (or downright obnoxious) to us Christians shouldn’t stop us from appreciating his project. Rather, it should challenge us to make the most of the opportunities his work creates for us.

Pullman’s Program

To this end, one of the most bracing books I’ve read this year was a collection of Pullman’s essays and speeches called Dæmon Voices. In the final (and, I believe, most important) essay of the collection “The Republic of Heaven ”[1], he reveals his ideological program.

The “Republic” of the title of this essay is the world without God the King. While Christians like Lewis—whom he makes the paragon—look beyond this world to a “gaseous realm far away”, the heirs of atheism must learn to live for this world:

Using Narnia as our moral compass [for what’s wrong], we can take it as axiomatic that in the Republic of Heaven, people do not regard life in this world as so worthless and contemptible that they leave it with pleasure and relief, and a railway accident is not an end-of-term treat … This world is where the things are that matter.

But if we are to train children to live successfully in this world—and for this world alone—Pullman says that we need new myths to take the place of Christianity. We need to actively cultivate a sense that we’re …

…connected to the universe … Religion, the religion that’s now dead, did give us that, in full measure: we were part of a huge cosmic drama, involving a Creation and a Fall and a Redemption, and Heaven and Hell, and (not least) a Millennium. What we did mattered, because God saw everything, even the fall of a sparrow.

We also, he goes to say, need a myth to help us deal with death:

If the Republic of Heaven is here, on this earth, in our lives, then what happens when we die? Is that all? Is that the end of everything for us? That’s hard to accept; for some people it’s the hardest thing of all. Well, our myth must talk about death in terms that are as true as they can be to what we know of the facts, and it must do what the Christian myth did, and provide some son of hope. The myth must give us a way of accepting death, when it comes, of seeing what it means and accepting it; not shrinking from it with terror, or pretending that it’ll be like the school holidays. We cannot live so; we cannot die so. We need a myth—we need a story—because it’s no good persuading people to commit themselves to an idea on the grounds that it’s reasonable. We can learn from religion: Christians, for example, have always known the importance of emotional, imaginative engagement.

Reading this stuff feels like eavesdropping on Screwtape or standing at the back of the Satanic council at the start of Paradise Lost (Pullman would, unwisely, like this comparison better). We see that he has been paying attention to us and actively trying to counter our influence. We see with absolute clarity that he is not just telling interesting stories, his mythology is an attempt to smuggle atheism into young minds.

Listening in on this stuff feels like eavesdropping on Screwtape or standing at the back of the Satanic council at the start of Paradise Lost.

We can scarcely denounce him for that. He’s less covert in this than his bête noire Lewis who first saw that children’s literature might afford an opportunity for “casting [Christian ideas] into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations …[to] steal past those watchful dragons” of hostility and preconception. [2]

Prayerful Response

No, we need better responses than denunciation. Here, instead, are four suggestions for things that we could pray about.

1. We can thank God for a series like HDM that raises such big questions—even in a hostile way (c.f. Phil 1:18). Other-worlds adventures, if they are done well, stir up “desires which nothing in this world can satisfy.” That is a dangerous thing for an atheist to do because the reality he believes in must always be a disappointment after the fantasy. But the gospel says that there really are other realms and entities. It says that we really are part of a cosmic battle between good and evil and that we have a hero worth following. It gives us a great and true story: the historical life of Jesus. Let’s pray that God would use Philip Pullman’s work (despite its author’s intent) to bring light instead of darkness.

2. In view of the last point, we could pray that God would send out workers into his harvest who will be able to interact with this new series both critically and appreciatively. Such an engagement might include asking questions like this:

  • Why doesn’t Pullman interact with real Christianity in his writing? His God-as-an-imposter-angel is a pretty obvious straw man. Even his critical denunciation of Lewis’s platonism gets it wrong.[3] Why does he ignore Jesus and caricature believers?
  • Why, if he wants to adorn the idea that ‘this world is all there is’, does Pullman fill his fiction with a profusion of worlds and exotic beings?
  • How does he explain this longing for other realms that makes him want to write about it (and many others want to read his books)? Tolkien suggested that our attraction to such myths is an attempt to console ourselves in the light of the Fall. What alternative has Pullman got to offer?
  • Why, if this life is all there is, does Pullman feel the need to fudge matters and offer some kind of life after death:

I will love you forever … After I die, and when I find my way out of the land of the dead, I’ll drift about forever, all my atoms, till I find you again … And when we do find each other again, we’ll cling together so tight that nothing and no one’ll ever tear us apart. Every atom of me and every atom of you … We’ll live in birds and flowers and dragonflies and pine trees and in clouds and in those little specks of light you see floating in sunbeams … And when they use our atoms to make new lives, they won’t just be able to take one, they’ll have to take two, one of you and one of me, we’ll be joined so tight … (The Amber Spyglass, 497)

3. We could pray that some Christians would work out a detailed responses to panpsychism. Pullman is not your regular atheist. Like an increasing number of other thinkers (including ANU’s David Chalmers) he attempts to solve the hard problems of free-will, love, beauty and so on by invoking a primal consciousness—a sort of panentheism—that directs the cosmos. In HDM this turns up as particles of magically conscious “Dust” that permeates his multiverse and which somehow or other collects around, or enables (or, you know … something) individual choice and autonomy.

Pullman’s depiction of it is a bit silly. But panpsychism is of growing significance and shows that the lengths that some philosophers will go to to find an alternative to God. There are potentially fruitful conversations to be had about the relationship between such ideas and the Christian doctrines of the life-giving Spirit (Ps 104:30; Gen 6:3) and creation-ordering Logos (John 1:9-10; Col 1:16-17).

4. We could pray that God would help us do what Philip Pullman thinks we’ve already been doing—demonstrating “emotional, imaginative engagement” with the world for the sake of the gospel. Of course, in part, that means that we need new writers and other culture creators who can create new images to help us see the old story with fresh eyes.

We could pray that God would help us do what Philip Pullman thinks we’ve already been doing—demonstrating “emotional, imaginative engagement” with the world for the sake of the gospel.

But it means much more than that. All of us: preachers, teachers, parents, Bible-study leaders, ordinary Christians need to be actively using our imaginations as we speak to ourselves, and each other, and the world. Notice that Pullman’s point isn’t that Christians have succeeded because they have great writers like C.S. Lewis. As he describes it, the Christian worldview and gospel themselves provide that life-empowering sense of meaning. We need to spend more time engaging our hearts, minds and wills so the meaning of Scripture becomes expressed as our lived meaning. We need to discover how to pursue these things in our reading, in our relationships, in our corporate service, in our social engagement. We need to persist and pray until we see their power at work, and pray that the world would see that power too.

That’s more than enough to go on with for now. Let me finish by letting Pullman give us his own call to arms:

If we’re not deadly serious about the republic, we might remember that there are plenty of other people who are deadly serious about the Kingdom … these people are servants of the King, and they want to extend the Kingdom. Those of us who believe in the republic can’t afford to be half-hearted about it, because we have a fight on our hands. (“The Republic of Heaven”)

Amen


[1] An earlier, shorter version is available online.

[2] See “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said” in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Other Stories. Ed. Walter Hooper (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1966)

[3] The problem being that Lewis doesn’t reject the current world for a “gaseous realm”. He delights in the world all the more because he sees it as participating in God’s new and truer creation (and presence).

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