Philip Pullman & Christianity
Dartman, Longman + Todd, 2004.
This is the quickest review I have ever written. I bought this book at the bargain price of 50p yesterday, I read it while taking a bath and am writing this review just 24 hours after purchasing it. From that we can deduce that it is an easy read and pretty short (117 pages). It’s also a great review of Pullman and his work. This book doesn’t stop at examining His Dark Materials trilogy but also looks at his other writings. I have only read the trilogy so I can’t comment on how accurate Rayment-Pickard’s (HRP) take is on Pullman’s other books.
I got this book primarily because the film of Pullman’s first book in the trilogy is causing quite a stir. The film The Golden compass takes its title from the US title of The Northern Lights, presumably American’s are ignorant of the norther lights phenomenon (only joking!). This book is no blunt hatchet job. It is a considered and thoughtful critique. He ably pulls apart Pullman’s worldview and shows where he is inconsistent – HRP uses a transcendent and immanent critique to analyse Pullman’s writings.
Pullman was born in 1946 the golden age of Lewis and Tolkein. Pulman went to live with his grandfather, a traditional Church of England priest (1666 and all that), after his father died in an air crash when Pullman was young. This accounts for the many Christian images that are found (and twisted) in Pullman’s work. Pullman says:
…I have to consider myself an atheist. But because of my upbringing I’m a Christian atheist, and I’m a church atheist …’
This influence is explored well by HRP. HRP has obviously spent time researching Pullman and his writings. It is fascinating to see the (a)theological themes in Pullman’s Dark Materials foreshadowed in his earlier writings.
The themes and issues that HRP discusses includes violence, the church, the soul, dust, sexuality, innocence and experience, the death of God and heaven. HRP makes clear the problem of violence for Pullman. One the one hand Pullman deplores the violence in C S Lewis’ Narnia; he finds it ‘objectionable’ hat the children are killed in a train crash at the end of the books. And yet no justification is provided for Lord Asriel’s murder of Roger in his own book. As HRP notes:
Pullman’s moral difficulties with violence are connected with his godless universe. With God out of the picture Pullman’s ethics cannot be based upon any theological or metaphysical system of justification. Pullman does not believe in the theological categories of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.HRP goes on to comment:
Pullman’s ambivalence about the ethics of violence reveals a deeper theological ambivalence. On the one hand Pullman objects to a divine authority who lays down the morals. On the other hand he is not entirely comfortable with an ethic worked out in purely human terms. So he is left giving two cheers to ethics without God. It nearly works; but not quite. Not unless you have an alethiometer – but in real life aleithometers are in short supply.Here lies the problem for the atheist – how can we do morals without a transcendent being? Morality must be a ‘natural’ phenomenon – so why not pick and choose our morals? It also highlights the problem of evil for the atheist. Traditionally it has been seen as a problem for the theist and much Christian writings have been devoted to developing a theodicy; however, the problem is even more acute for the atheist – why is evil evil if there are no God-given norms? Alethiometers may work in fiction but not in the real world.
The death of God in His dark materials is liberating, but not dangerous. Will and Lyra are liberated to fulfil their duty to ensure that Dust does not escape from the universe. They are liberated from the Authority, only to fall under the spell of a new ‘authority’: the absolute obligation to build the republic of heaven. But they are not liberated to moral oblivion, or confusion, or an emptiness of meaning. This is ‘death-of-God-lite’: God dies but the cosmos retains its theological meaning. Humans still have a destiny, there are still objective ethical rules and Dust still gives the universe a warm glow.
The god that Pullman kills – kills is perhaps too strongh a term, as Pullman’s god withers away and dissolves into nothing – is a far cry from the robust good creator God of the Bible; Pullman’s god is a pathetic imposter god, a first angel formed from the Dust. However, because he was the first angel he was able to fool the others he was their creator.
Pullman’s atheism is parasitic upon theism. As HRP comments: ‘The dilemma of atheism is that it must always be dependent upon theism’. HRP closes his analysis with a warning for the church:
Pullman (and his readers) find Christianity life-denying and authoritarian. To them the church appears more concerned with preserving its doctrines and traditions than in celebrating the vitality and goodness of life, more concerned with the power and prestige than with people and their sufferings.
Unfortunately, all the talk of boycotting the Golden Compass film confirms these misconceptions. As most Christians know Christianity is life-affirming – how have we failed to convey the liberating message of the gospel?
The book ends with a synopsis of Pullman’s writings. Incidentally, the title The Devil’s Account comes from William Blake’s ‘The marriage of heaven and hell’:
It indeed appear'd to Reason as if Desire was cast out, but the Devils account is that the Messiah fell, & formed a heaven of what he stole from the Abyss.
This book is a is a refreshing break from the knee-jerk responses to the film; it well researched by someone who appreciates Pullman as a writer but is sensitive to the non-Christian themes and issues.
There is an interesting interview with Pullman here.