His Dark Materials…Again

I read my friend Michelle’s post about HDM, and almost left a post-length comment there. Rather than do that, I thought it might be worthwhile to post my remarks here.

I sympathize with a key point she makes: that Christian folks should be more informed about things that are “unChristian” before beginning a crusade against them. Similarly, I wish said Christian folks should actually use their brains to process discovered (i.e., Googled) information before launching said crusade. Finally, and most importantly, I wish that Christian folks didn’t wait for the movie to get interested in what children are reading.

Because Pullman’s books do present problems. While I’m not sure you can call him the anti-Lewis with a straight face, he is a very fine writer (when he doesn’t get caught up in philosophizing and sermonizing). HDM is extremely well-imagined, original, and engaging. And Pullman has done what few children’s writers have been willing to do for some time: He engages with metaphysical issues that are at the core of the human experience. Here are a few of the issues and the questions Pullman seems to ask and answer.

1. God. Is anyone driving this crazy universe? If so, can he or she be anything but a sadist? If he or she is a sadist, shouldn’t we do everything in our power to overthrow him?

2. Good and evil. What are they? And what do they have to do with human beings?

3. Humanity. Who are we as human beings? Why are we here? How are we meant to live?

4. Sin. Does sin exist, and if it does, what’s it like? What would human beings be like if sin didn’t exist?

5. Virtue. What emotions/actions are virtuous, or honorable?

6. Original sin/the Fall. Could we really be tainted by one person’s sin? What if we were given a second chance in Eden?

7. The soul. What is the soul? What relationship does it have to us and to the spiritual realm?

8. Salvation. Does “redemption” exist? How does one go about getting it?

9. The church. If “God” is evil, then what are we to think of his followers?

Now that’s quite a list, and it’s a far cry from what you’ll find in the standard kids’ fare. Even Potter, which does get at some worldview issues, doesn’t get close to this level. And though Pullman is writing for young adults, younger children (especially smart ones) might be drawn to it. (I might mention here that though Narnia asks and answers a couple of these, most of them find expression and exploration in Lewis’s too-little read Space Trilogy.)

Pullman’s answers to the above questions are not altogether orthodox, as you might expect. For his “God” bears more than a passing resemblance to Satan (see this article for a bit more on this). And good and evil certainly exist, but good and the human will are intertwined more than I would like. And what the church calls sin is actually only humanness (which is more orthodox than Pullman knows), and to be desired and cherished, not forgiven and expunged (which is not at all orthodox). And the Fall was a good thing, because it’s what made humans humans. And the church, even a caricatured one like Pullman’s, is an evil institution because it presumes to know God and his purposes, and to protect them, and it infringes on the highest good–the human will.

[Aside: I need to say that I’m not defending Pullman’s god or his church. Neither am I defending its leadership (called “The Magisterium”) or its enforcers (the “General Oblation Board”). I am saying that they have little to do with the real church as Jesus defined it, and a whole lot to do with the darkest scenes from Christian history (the Inquisition(s), the Salem witch trials, the German church’s complicity with the Third Reich).]

While Moloney might partly be right that Pullman has written a Christian novel in spite of himself (see the article above), he’s also wrong. While books cannot unseat the Ancient of Days, they can harden hearts to him. And while God’s purposes in salvation will not be defeated, human action can harm or hinder other human beings.

In short, I don’t think God’s afraid of Pullman or “His Dark Materials.” But parents should exercise great care where these (and all!) books are concerned, since we have a responsibility to raise our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, to teach them to love God’s standard, to instill holiness.


3 thoughts on “His Dark Materials…Again”

  1. I knew you had read the trilogy and hoped you would read my post and respond…so thanks for that. I like the way you enumerated the issues Pullman deals with in the book(s). I have put off reading them simply because I’ve had others on my reading list that were more interesting to me personally. However, if this is really going to become an issue that Christians are engaging with pop culture over, I’m going to need to brush up.

    A related question I have for a person whose read the material: Pullman seems to be pretty open (at least in the interview I linked to in my post) with the fact that he despises organized religion based on his personal experience with said organization. In reading the books, do you think he’s coming from a strictly historical perspective or is it obvious that personal feelings are creeping into the story? I don’t think it’s necessarily important (or maybe even possible) for an author to separate themselves completely from whatever story they’re telling, but I find it interesting when a person’s personal agenda comes through in an obvious way.

    Also (and completely unrelated to the spiritual discussion), as an author, what did you think about his description of the story coming to him, that he was just the medium through which this story was told? Is that just artsy-fartsy talk or is there some truth to that, do you think? Are there stories floating around looking for a person worthy to tell them? It’s just kind of an interesting idea to me.

    It’s times like these I hate the fact that we all live so far from each other now! When are you coming to visit? 🙂

  2. Hey Jamie, long time no talk. I’ve been lurking.

    Three points:

    1. I’ve received one email previous to this post, and one of its main points in protest of the movie was what Michelle alluded to in her post: they dumbed the movies down to make them more accessible, which will in fact end up cause people to read the books and be exposed to its darker themes (the horror!)

    I find this kind of funny, as it indicates some sort of conspiracy to get believers to read the books, when in actuality I think it was just an exec producer saying, “this is complicated. it’s gonna go over joe homeowners head. make it simpler, screenplay dude. we’re not gonna break 10 million in the box office unless you bring the IQ to ‘get it’ down in to the 60ish range.”

    2. Any publicity is good publicity, especially when it comes to something that sells. I didn’t have any idea about this becoming a movie until the email I got about its bad-ness, which leads me to the third point…

    3. The trailer looks awesome! I looked it up online because of this email, and its like… airships, armored talking polar bears? heck yes. Steampunk? love it. Fantasy? love it.

  3. Eric,

    Three counterpoints:

    1. That may have been part of it. I can also imagine the producer (or the studio) saying, “I want to make a lot of money from kids and families, and I don’t want the family-values set to be mad at me.”

    2. True dat. But the marketing hasn’t been aimed at you.

    3. It does look awesome, and as I’ve said repeatedly, the first book is pretty fantastic. The storyline, apart from the “Hey, let’s kill God!” is actually very inventive.

    3a. Love both steampunk and fantasy too. But the “It’s just entertainment!” line can get us in pretty hot water. It’s certainly happened before.

    Kind of reminds me of the old “This Is Your Brain” anti-drug campaign. “This is your brain on another worldview.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s