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Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy on HBO/BBC – atheism versus Christianity?

BBC HBO His Dark Materials

Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy on HBO/BBC – atheism versus Christianity?

The BBC and HBO have released the third season of the Bad Wolf/New Line Productions dramatisation of Philip Pullman’s acclaimed ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy. The trilogy is lauded as a modern, atheist option for parents who quibble with the explicit Christian allegory in the classic Narnia Chronicles by CS Lewis.

What are Christians to make of these books, and the TV series?

Spoiler alert

Various parts of the story will be revealed in what follows. It is not possible to review the books effectively without doing that. Sorry about that!

Background

“Northern Lights” is the first of three books in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy by the English author Philip Pullman. Volume two is called “The Subtle Knife” and volume three “The Amber Spyglass”. All three novels are award-winning literary fiction for older children and have sold in vast numbers because they have crossover appeal, like the Harry Potter books, to adults. It is highly likely that many teenagers who are into reading will have heard of, or read, these novels. (“His Dark Materials” is a quote from the English poet and political activist, John Milton).

Bad Wolf and New Line Productions adapted this for television and have now released three seasons. HBO stream these in the States and have international rights. The BBC has the rights in the UK.

Previously, in 2007, there was a Hollywood adaptation of the first book called “The Golden Compass”. It was a box office flop, and no sequels were made.

His Dark Materials
His Dark Materials

The concern for Christians is that these books preach an anti-church message

I read all three books in this trilogy during 2007. While there’s no doubt that Pullman has had very bad experiences of Christianity and the church (which comes out most in the second two novels in the trilogy) we Christians must recognise that he only expresses what many people feel and think. Reading the books is, therefore, educational if you have lived in a Christian bubble.

Stories are powerful, as the Bible shows. That’s why the majority of the Bible is in narrative form. Human beings are hard-wired to be storied. For that very reason we must attend to what stories we expose ourselves to. Just as there is fake news, there are fake stories. We have need to learn discernment. This is NOT about banning bookings, in my opinion. I’ve read The Book Thief and Fahrenheit 451 — two excellent novels where book burnings are central themes — and I do not think the church, at her best, has ever been served by banning books.

Rather than banning books, our efforts are much better directed to the task of educating powers of discernment. I love to read. I read far and wide. I read, for example, both Jane Austen and David Baldacci. I enjoy both — but why do I consider Jane Austen’s works to be far superior to David Baldacci’s? That’s for another blog post. Back to Philip Pullman…

Christians need to have discernment when approaching Pullman’s books — just as they do about the worldview behind most films, books, television shows, television documentaries, medical procedures, economic theories, business practices, educational theories, psychological therapies, etc. that are widely consumed via terrestrial, free-to-air TV stations, and also through streaming services.

Parents, you may need to develop the discernment in your children by giving them information about the books. Each parent will need to assess their child’s need of this help. The books are unlikely to appeal to under 10s. As with Harry Potter books, Star Wars films, and David Attenborough commentaries, (etc.) children being brought up by Christians need help to look behind the words, the story, and the visual appeal, to the underlying worldview. And we do this so we can love people better. Philip Pullman is our neighbour and, in terms of literary fiction, he’s up there with the better writers! I also understand that he’s a good man to spend time with.

Over the many years since these books were published some Christians have written some inaccurate reviews of these books. I think it is very unjust for Christians to make inaccurate attacks on Pullman. I go further, readers of the book will find that inaccurate reactions to the Pullman books by Christians only serve to confirm that Pullman has described Christianity correctly in his books. Those Christians who react to Pullman’s works with nastiness and defensiveness, are reacting in exactly the same way as the ‘church’ does in his books. How ironic is that! Such commentators prove that Pullman’s analysis is correct — the church can be a bigoted and nasty group of people. Please let’s stop this!

As a Christian grandparent I want to raise confident, faith-filled, adventurous children who are more confident in Jesus than in the devil, and more ready to take risks for God’s kingdom of love than to be cowered into fear. I want to see children equipped to love their generation, not run away from it.

This paper is mainly a response to the text of the three “His Dark Materials” novels

I have not studied Philip Pullman’s other writings — though I did refer to his official web site in 2007.

The summary of my response is this:

  • His Dark Materials uses lots of religious (and some Biblical language) with negative connotation. That means it can subtly undermine genuine religious faith among those whose acquaintance with Christianity is slight or under-developed.
  • Children who have read the books would benefit from being able to talk about them with an informed adult — so we can show how the good aspirations of the characters in the books could only truly be fulfilled in Christ.
  • We can also query what people reckon about the ‘salvation’ offered in these books. On any assessment the salvation offered is lame!

The rest of this paper goes into much more detail about the books and gives some specific guidance. You need only read on if you want to understand the detailed reasons for my conclusions.

HisDarkMaterialsBBCCharacters

The genre

The books are fantasy adventure stories with children as heroes in a style similar to the Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis, though without any sense of allegory.

In His Dark Materials, as in Narnia, the authors imagine multiple parallel universes and the possibility to travel between those occasionally. And the journeys that are made into those parallel universes are not journeys of scientific discovery. They are journeys which allow us to see our home universe through fresh eyes. Ironically, religious insight is the outcome of Pullman’s, as well as of Lewis’ fiction.

The existence of human ‘spirits’

In the Pullman books there are multiple parallel universes — just like in Narnia, and just like in many science fiction films and series. Furthermore, in many of these parallel universes creatures have evolved to varying degrees of intelligence, and some have ‘spirits’ — what Pullman calls ‘daemons’. In some of the universes these daemons are visibly separate from the person themselves. The existence of the ‘spirit’ side of our personality is, by this means, made very explicit in some of Pullman’s universes.

His use of the label ‘daemon’ is clearly troubling to Christians, but what Pullman means by the label is something Christians would readily recognise as the truth that human beings are not merely material bodies. Any children reading the book or seeing the film would need this explaining to them clearly.

The ‘daemons’ in the Pullman books are not separate identities that ‘possess’ people — but part of each person’s own personality and essence. The daemons of Pullman’s books seem to be akin to a Christian understanding of human spirits — but made visible/material. The daemons are not akin to the evil spirits or demons referenced in the Bible.

The daemon then is an integral part of each person such that cutting the person from their daemon causes death. This is closely analogous to the Christian view of physical death. Just as in our own world, so also in some of Pullman’s universes, people can be unaware of their own ‘spirit’. Christians would probably agree that Biblical teaching is somewhat similar to Pullman’s imagined reality on this point! Many people in our world are ignorant of the existence of their human spirit.

The affirmation of material existence and adulthood

Some sites make much of how negative Pullman has been about CS Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia. Indeed, there are evangelical Christians who consider the Chronicles of Narnia to be dangerous books!

As I understand it from Pullman’s official website his critique of the Narnia books is as follows. He alleges that Lewis celebrates childhood innocence and promotes the idea that adulthood is a falling away from God’s intentions for humanity. Further, Pullman associates this idealisation and idolisation of childhood innocence with what he sees as the church’s discomfort with sexuality and with our bodily existence.

Again, we must accept that Pullman has fastened upon an area where the church has sometimes clouded God’s truth. The church has sometimes been more influenced by Greek philosophy than the Hebrew mindset, and has resorted to a dualism that the spiritual is good and the material is bad. First and Second Corinthians take this theme up repeatedly as Paul resists the early signs of Gnosticism that had taken root in Corinth. This dualism often leads to an eschatology that looks towards a spiritualised existence in heaven whereas the Bible continually promises the recreation of the material earth and heavens. The church needs to work harder at correcting these errors which have tended to produce a prudish, legalistic, negative, life-denying ethos in many churches. Sadly, we have created a big target for Pullman to shoot at here. We need to get our house in order.

The ‘god’ figure and organised religion

In the His Dark Materials story people stumble across portals that allow them to move between the imagined parallel universes in a way that is not dissimilar to what happens in the Chronicles of Narnia. And, just as in the Narnia books, there is understood to be one ‘god’ figure who goes by different names in the varying universes. Furthermore, each of the universes visited has some variation of an organised religion. Pullman himself states that the organised religion in these books is quasi-Christian because that is what he knows and experienced — he was brought up by his grandfather who was an Anglican clergyman. He adds that if he had been brought up as a Jew then the religious references would have been Jewish instead. (See Pullman’s official website).

Pullman himself does not believe in God — though he accepts he does not know everything so there could be a god out there beyond the circle of his own knowledge. He has clearly had a negative experience of organised religion and he has concluded that all organised religion is abusive. That is a common conviction among many people in the west, and one for which the church must partly take the blame. While we Christians can accept no criticism of Christ, we can (and should) accept all just criticism of the church. In these books Pullman simply makes explicit the sort of negative view of the church many people have. We should have the humility to admit where the church has got things wrong down through history and show that we have the determination that it should not fail in the same way under our watch. Pullman’s books give us the opportunity to address these matters face on.

However, let us not fall into uncalled for breast-beating about the church

Pullman is excessively negative, and the church in Britain today is showing many signs of being far different to Pullman’s caricature. One commentator called Couchman expresses it well when he wrote:

Pullman paints an equally misleading and dishonest picture of the church. The church does not condone murder and torture. It is not against freedom. It is not against people finding things out. The whole modern scientific enterprise grew out of a Biblical worldview. Around the world the church has built schools and hospitals in places where no-one else bothered. It has campaigned against slavery and child labour. The origins of the Trade Union movement were in the Church’s concern for social justice. And it is not the Church, but various non-Christian religions, that encourage and practice female circumcision. Pullman’s account of the church is a lie — and it is all the more dishonest for being in the form of a story.

I think Couchman could be humbler in accepting that the church has been guilty of abuses over the centuries. While I applaud Couchman’s catalogue of our virtues, we must all admit that some of these virtues have not always been obvious and often needed to be recovered.

Incidentally, the reference to female circumcision is only hinted at in one sentence in the second novel — in a list of the cruelties of the Magisterium. I believe Couchman is correct that no Christian church has ever taught or practised female circumcision — better known as Female Genital Mutilation or FGM.

His Dark Materials Lyra and Will
His Dark Materials Lyra and Will

The rebellion against ‘god’ and his Magisterium

In the second and third books of the trilogy a rebellion is organised against ‘the Authority’ (i.e. ‘god’ in Pullman’s universes). That rebellion is the adult story within which the two child heroes work out their own adventure. The ‘god’ that is rebelled against, however, is not the creator of the universes. This so-called ‘god’ is an arrogant angelic being who has seized power and manipulates people in each universe with evil intentions. Frankly, this ‘god’ is more like ‘the devil’ of Christian theology, and not anything like the God of the Bible.

Pullman’s attack, therefore, is not on a truly Christian understanding of God

Pullman sometimes uses Biblical-sounding language and even, occasionally, Biblical referencing with regard to this ‘god’ — but the ‘god’ of His Dark Materials is nothing like the God of Christian theology. I conclude that Pullman’s books, therefore, reject what I would call bad theology about God. There is no real doctrinal criticism in the books. Jesus and the Spirit are never mentioned — nor is ‘god’ ever given the title ‘Father’ as far as I can remember. Some other Old Testament titles for the true God are sometimes used with respect to the ‘god’ of Pullman’s universes.

I suggest, therefore, that it would be helpful to discuss with any children who read these books about the differences between what is revealed in the Bible about God and what is imagined by Philip Pullman. The differences are stark and clear-cut and mature Christian readers would be unlikely to confuse the two. Children would need instruction about this.

One Christian website alleges that the name ‘Yahweh’ is used in the books for the god figure. I do not remember that and if it does occur then it is not often. The names and titles ‘Father’ and ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ are not used at all.

The film that was brought out in December 2007 is based on only the first of the three books and Pullman’s theme of a cruel god and abusive religion is not developed much in the first volume — it’s merely hinted at so you spot it if you know it’s coming. This American-made children’s film has fudged the explicit religious nature of the ‘Magisterium’ which is oppressing people in each universe — so much so that some of Pullman’s fans have complained that the film has diluted this theme.

A distorted view of organised religions

In the novels the Magisterium is described using words that sound like Roman Catholic terms — the Oblation Board, the Consistorial Court, etc. My observation is that the main negative thrust of these novels is directed towards a distorted view of the traditional church and its hierarchy.

In repeated passages Pullman describes the Magisterium’s misuse of power, its bigotry and intolerance, its desire to control people, and the consequent nastiness that occurs. This comes across as the main focus of the ‘preachiness’ in the books, rather than the focus being against ‘god’ himself (the same is true of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code). Frankly, many modern Christians rail against the abuses and faults of some church organisations, and against the bad ideas about God and his nature that have been perpetuated in error. You might say that true Christians want to fight the same battles as Philip Pullman — but with the aim to recover lost purity.

Sadly, Philip Pullman has accepted the caricature of God painted by some religious people — but that is partly the fault of Christians, isn’t it?

In response to Pullman we can affirm how right he is to reject a ‘god’ like the one imagined in the His Dark Materials trilogy — and, follow on by explaining the truth about God in Scripture and in our experience. And we can ask people what their experience has been of organised religion — and suggest they come along to our churches to see what it can really be like when the true and living God is involved.

Some have made much of Pullman’s claim to be trying to “kill the idea of God among children”

Frankly, I think the church is also trying to kill this distorted idea of God among children and adults. Of course, in the Pullman books the ‘god’ who is killed is merely an arrogant angel who has set himself up as ‘god’. The devil has often posed as an angel of light. Pullman’s books may give us an opportunity to set the record straight if we can get into a positive conversation with adults who have read his books.

Incidentally, some Christian websites allege that the children set out to kill ‘god’ and succeed in so doing. That is not accurate. What happens is that in the third novel of the children end up killing this arrogant angel who is called ‘god’ — but this happens inadvertently. The children never actually realise what they have done. What happens is that the angel who has set himself up as ‘god’ has grown old and is in some kind of life-support capsule. While being flown to safety during a battle the capsule is dropped to the ground and the children happen across it. Seeing that the person inside is in trouble they seek to help — but their misguided assistance means that life support stops and ‘god’ dies. They realise they have failed to help but in the confusion of battle they are soon carried off to other matters. No more is made of the death by the children.

The Biblical idea of who God is makes this scenario laughable. Children, however, would benefit from discussing this if they have read this book so that the Biblical testimony can be set alongside Pullman’s. Pullman’s ideas are nothing more than the product of his imagination. As a Christian, I believe that the testimony of Scripture has the validation of the resurrection to support it.

Incidentally, a figure called Metatron, one of the lieutenants of ‘god’, has already taken over effective leadership of the Magisterium and the kingdom of heaven from ‘god’ by the time of his death. Metatron also gets killed but that was deliberately achieved by two grown up characters. Frankly, any reader would celebrate this destruction of Metatron. It is like getting rid of the devil!

The ex-nun, Mary Malone, who is from our universe

In the Amber Spyglass there are several quite preachy bits to contend with which many readers have found off-putting. In one of these the scientist, Mary Malone, explains to the children why she abandoned the Christian religion (which sounds specifically like Catholicism). She tells the children:

“I thought physics could be done to the glory of God, till I saw there wasn’t any God at all and that physics was more interesting anyway…The Christian Religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake. That’s all.” (P. 464)

In the following pages Malone explains why she fell away from her faith. What we find is that she has fallen away from legalistic religion. She has repudiated a religion that required her to be scared of the world, scared of her sexuality and scared of adventure. What is repudiated, therefore, is simply a caricature of the true knowledge of God. Malone even admits on page 473 that without God there is no meaning or purpose in life.

I think this section is one of the most biased and inexcusable sections of the book — but again it provides us with an opportunity to tell people what the difference is between mere religiosity and true faith in Christ. Let’s take it!

And it invites us to reflect on whether we are really seekers after truth, enjoying the adventure of walking in the Spirit, or whether we ourselves are simply propping up a system because our security lies in it. That is the path into abuse and mindless restriction. In Pullman’s story the church is involved with keeping people from opening their eyes or their minds (page 506), whereas I find that God has called me to open my eyes and mind to his liberating truth, and to help others to do the same.

The republic of heaven versus the kingdom of heaven

As I have already said, the adult story behind the children’s adventure is the organisation of a rebellion against ‘the Authority’. This is developed in the second and third novels. This gives rise to the ambition to create a ‘republic of heaven’ to replace the hideous cruelty of the ‘kingdom of heaven’. Once again we find Biblical terminology hijacked for Pullman’s purpose. Child readers would need to be alerted to this. You can read my better account of the ‘kingdom of heaven’ in this post about the kingdom of God.

This conflict is based on Pullman’s negative characterisation of the kingdom of heaven. It is difficult for a Christian to feel anything other than negative about this hijacking of Biblical terms. One positive aspect to this is that in Pullman’s books the aspirations are remarkably similar to those of Christians. While Pullman is consistently negative about there being any personal supreme being who is creating the kingdom of heaven, the novels are still driven by the aspiration to construct heaven.

His Dark Materials
His Dark Materials

The storyline is driven by the aspiration to construct heaven

There is a strong sense that the world that we inhabit needs reformation — dare we say redemption, salvation, or deliverance! In the His Dark Materials trilogy salvation comes by the discovery of the growingly adult love between the two main child characters. In Pullman’s terms this is an affirmation of the rite of passage to adulthood. However, having rejected the idealisation (even idolisation) of childhood that he sees in CS Lewis, Pullman can only come up with a very lame means of salvation. It just comes down to “all you need is love….”

At bottom what Pullman offers is a call to goodwill, open-mindedness, love, and kindness (page 520) — the same hapless remedy offered by most politicians and people in today’s society. Indeed, most Disney films more or less have that same worldview. “All we need is love….” as The Beatles sang. This is clearly not enough. It assumes that human beings are merely ignorant, whereas the Bible is more truthful with us. It faces us into our wilfulness, but in a very gracious way. More than that God became one of us in Christ, and lived perfectly and died in our place to release a power of forgiveness, mercy, and grace in human experience, which alone can transform us from the inside out.

That gospel may have been distorted into religion far too often, but the particularities of that gospel, the God/man Jesus, the atonement and the resurrection, are the events in time and space which actually introduced a delivering and liberating power that can reform and rebuild our broken humanity. Pullman’s story needs the true gospel to answer the problems it surfaces. Christians can link to the aspirations expressed in the books to point to how Christ fulfils those aspirations in a way that the remedy in the book can never do.

So ultimately Pullman’s books point to something beyond themselves

Salvation or rescue, according to Pullman’s story, is achieved by means of trying to be more loving. The gospel is more honest and teaches us that we fail to be more loving because we need rescuing and changing from the inside out. The gospel offers a way of forgiveness and transformation, not through generalised goodwill and aspiration, but through the particularity of the one true God becoming one of us.

We have something to offer readers of Pullman’s books who are inspired by the aspiration he evokes.

The use of Scriptural language

Pullman claims to be something between an atheist and an agnostic. In this he is no different to most screen-writers responsible for most film scripts and television dramas. I think the reason that Pullman’s books need special care are that he makes such free use of Scriptural allusion, language, and concepts.

Reading His Dark Materials may pollute minds by giving readers bad meanings for good words — such as God, church, etc. It is our calling to live lives that provide people with a true embodiment of the truths of the gospel, and which convey the true meaning of words like church, God, etc.

We should remember that other books and films also reference Biblical words, such as The Matrix films which have a character called Trinity and a place called Zion. Furthermore, the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses also make plentiful use of the Bible in an erroneous way.

We Christians need to equip ourselves and our children to negotiate a world in which there are misguided or ignorant definitions of good words. We train children to be discerning rather than hide them away from any opposing influences. Let us watch television and read books alongside our children and talk through with them the value systems revealed by the story lines and characters. It is also important to guard children from material until they have reached an age to develop this discernment.

His Dark Materials sets forth a moral universe

Positively, the His Dark Materials books describe a universe which assumes that there is good and evil, assumes the reality of a spiritual world (despite the absence of any first-cause god-figure), assumes there is some kind of hell, assumes that there is right and wrong, truth and falsehood, and assumes the need for redemption. Those are all positive assumptions with which Christians would agree. The story is set in a very moral framework. The ‘god’ that is rejected is rejected because of his abusive-ness, his unrighteousness, and his cruelty — and the cruelty and selfishness of those who claim to serve him.

In fact, in several places we see the characters reaching out to others they admire with something akin to worship. On page 307 of The Subtle Knife we read about Will that “whatever human-ness he had left felt the strangest of pleasures: that of offering eager obedience to a stronger power that was wholly right.” That is an excellent impulse and there are many other fine virtues celebrated and described in these books.

More New Age than atheist

While Pullman is admired by atheists the books have a well-developed sense of a spiritual dimension to life — even though there is a clear denial of the existence of a supreme, personal spirit being (i.e. God). The inhabitants of Pullman’s universe have spirits and the books end with a conquering of death. The eternal life envisaged, however, is one in which our spirit returns into a collective unconscious — which is a sort of Buddhist New Age notion. This sense of a collective unconscious is built up steadily throughout the three novels using the concept of ‘Dust’ or ‘dark matter’ — the ‘Dark Materials’ of the series title. I suggest, therefore, that these books do not develop a ‘materialist’ worldview in readers — rather they promote a New Age worldview similar to the one promoted by the Star Wars movies and many other films and books.

In summary

I have found the BBC/HBO third season, which dramatises the third novel in the trilogy, tedious. It has none of the power of Narnia, and the eschatology envisaged is incoherent. Plus it takes itself too seriously. It lacks the playful self-deprecation that the Marvel Cinematic Universe manages — especially in the Guardians of the Galaxy films.

As a Christian, I believe the books tell a misleading story about the way towards what is of ultimate worth in our universe. All stories are made up — but made-up stories can convey what is ultimately more truthful — or can convey something less truthful. His Dark Materials is, ultimately, in my opinion, more untruthful than truthful.

For that reason I would not get my grandchildren to read this book until I was sure they were well-grounded in truthful stories so they can see the problems with the eschatological hope Pullman offers us in His Dark Materials.

A much fuller treatment of these books by Tony Watkins looks well worth reading too.

 

Bibliography

Pullman, P (1995) Northern Lights, Scholastic, London

Pullman, P (1997) The Subtle Knife, Scholastic, London

Pullman, P (2000) The Amber Spyglass, Scholastic, London

 

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