"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Friday, December 07, 2007

'His Dark Materials': deist, not atheist

I'm on a break from blogging at the moment, so I'll keep this brief.

'The Golden Compass' (based on book 1 of Phillip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy) has just been released in cinemas worldwide, attended by considerable controversy about its alleged "anti-religion" / "pro-atheist" arguments.

As someone who has (unlike, it seems, most commentators on the subject) actually read the books, I thought I'd add my tuppence worth on the subject. While they're far from perfect (I have some issues with the third one), much of the criticism (and some of the praise) has been seriously misguided.

(NOTE: Although I've tried to keep the following free of any major plot details, it does go into the background mythology of the books, which isn't really developed until the second and third).

The most important point to make is that the mythology of the books is deist rather than atheist in nature: God (in the traditional sense) created the universe(s) and then retired for some unknown reason, though I rather suspect it has something to do with the concept of free will.

The target of criticism in the books is not this being, but rather the "Authority", an angel (self-formed) who has set himself up as overlord of the universe(s) through lies and tyranny (sound familiar?). The allies of this being are the power-hungry and the close-minded - who seek to maintain their power through shutting down individual inquiry into the nature of the universe(s).

The fact that so many describe the above as "anti-religious" is quite telling.

The concept of the soul also features heavily in the books - though whether it is material or non-material is questionable. It is, however, quite capable of surviving the death of the physical body, and the characters of the books enjoy an afterlife which (arguably) is quite compatible with Christian notions (the world of the dead = purgatory, oneness with the universe = the traditional idea of heaven?) if a certain amount of poetic license is allowed.

There are, though, two (that I can remember) specific mentions of traditional Christianity that are quite negative: The first is in the recasting of the fall of man in more positive tones - Pullman argues that knowledge of good and evil is an integral part of what makes us human, and that life pre-fall was of a lesser kind. What most Christians will make of this I can't say, though I suspect that there are some (perhaps many) that would agree with it. The second is the description of Christianity as a "mistake" by the character of Mary Malone, a former nun. For me, this is simply the opinion of one person in the books, and given that her Christianity (which denied basic human pleasures, such as love) was of a particular repressive kind, it's arguable that her problem was only with the debased version of religious belief rejected by a large number of believers. Neither, it seems to me, should be particularly troublesome for liberal Christians.

In summary: The books aren't so much anti-religious as they are pro- freedom of thought and freedom of religion.

(They also have talking, armour-plated polar bears. One of which, in the film, is voiced by the great Ian McKellen. How cool is that?)

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Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

I think the problem isn't so much the content of the book (although the depiction of God in the last book is apparently not flattering) but the outspoken views of the author. I haven't read the transcript for the full interview to get the context of the statement, but Pullman did appear to claim that a serious motivation of his writing the books was to "kill God".

I agree,though, the books don't appear remotely atheistic in tone from the descriptions I've read. If anything it's alternative theology in the same vein as "The Last Temptation of Christ".

8:27 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

Damn, I was originally going to title this post 'Judging a book by its author', but forgot.

I doubt that 'His Dark Materials' will shake anyone's belief (no matter what the author's intent) - unless it was already shaken in the first place. It's far more about thinking for yourself and challenging authority than attacking any particular theology.

I've never managed to find that famous interview, if you have links I'd appreciate it.

8:41 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

From a quick google search, it looks as though "Killing God" is taken out of context from this:

"I've been surprised by how little criticism I've got. Harry Potter's been taking all the flak. I'm a great fan of J.K. Rowling, but the people - mainly from America's Bible Belt - who complain that Harry Potter promotes Satanism or witchcraft obviously haven't got enough in their lives. Meanwhile, I've been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God."


I think it's pretty clear that a) he's being glib, and b) he means that his books are about characters trying to kill (what they believe is) God - although it turns out to be an impostor.

9:04 AM

Blogger Timmo said...


Thanks for the interesting post. I was listening to a gentleman on the radio just yesterday denouncing the Golden Compass film as a bit of wicked atheism that will corrupt "the children". I worry about the hysterical reaction provoked by children's fantasy stories, as when Harry Potter books were burned en masse in 2001. It hardly needs to be stated that literature and the arts are an excellent way to explore existential, moral, and religious themes. Just as Gyges' ring (from Plato) is a vehicle for raising profound ethical questions, magic wands and alethiometers have something to teach us as well.

I look forward to seeing the film.

9:57 PM

Blogger Matt M said...

Thanks, Timmo.

Although they don't get as much publicity as the book burners, it's been great to see a number of religious commentators actually getting to grips with the theology of the books and using them to spark wider discussions about the real world.

This is just one of them:

The book's concept of God, in fact, is what makes Pullman's work so threatening. His trilogy is not filled with attacks on Christianity, but with attacks on authorities who claim access to one true interpretation of a religion. Pullman's work is filled with the feminist and liberation strands of Catholic theology that have sustained my own faith, and which threaten the power structure of the church. Pullman's work is not anti-Christian, but anti-orthodox.

There are others, just as stimulating and heartening to read.

(PS - I haven't seen the film yet, but from what I've heard it isn't a patch on the book. A lot of the ideas get mashed or sacrificed. So try to pick up the novel, if you've got the time.)

5:28 AM


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