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.