Phillip Pullman's Day of Judgment
Stratford Caldecott on two studies of a gifted but violently anti-Catholic children's author (whose books this newspaper has never advocated burning
Dark Matter: A Thinking Fan’s Guide to Philip Pullman,
reviewed by Stratford Caldecott
There has been a lot of talk recently about atheism. This usually flares up around Christmas, when the sight of cribs and Christmas lights inflames secular humanists to incandescence. But this year it was made worse by the controversy stirred up around an article by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in response to the tsunami disaster. His article raised the question of whether such disasters make people doubt their faith. The consensus seemed to be that it did not, given that bad things have been happening to good people all through history, and indeed faith seems often to have been strengthened by affliction. But faith in what? Faith in whom?
Philip Pullman, responsible for the “death of God” in the third volume of his best-selling trilogy His Dark Materials, has been praised by Dr Williams for forcing Christians (and others) to consider more carefully what exactly they mean by “God”. The Ancient of Days who in The Amber Spyglass dies “demented and powerless”, blown away on the wind, is basically the conventional “idea” of God, now deservedly passing away as the long Age of Authority gives way to the age of maturity. In terms of the mythology of the story, he is the first of the Angels (made of “Dust”), a demiurge who succeeded in deceiving those who came after into believing that he was God, until the youngest Angel, Sophia, discovered the truth and was expelled from heaven. The subsequent angelic rebellion against the lying Authority proceeds through the temptation of Adam and Eve right down to its climax in Spyglass, when the attempt to impose a new Authority is finally defeated.
The two books under review praise Pullman as the brilliant storyteller and fantasist for our times that he is, yet both succeed in exposing the shoddy thinking and anti-Christian fanaticism that spoils these admittedly fascinating tales. Tony Watkins does the job in more devastating detail in a text of 300 pages, while Hugh Rayment-Pickard’s book offers a more “bite-sized” critique. Unfortunately the latter does nothing to correct the longstanding misinterpretation of an article in The Catholic Herald which Pullman gleefully but falsely alleges called for his books to be burned. (In fact it reinforces the story by repeating it on the cover.) Anyone interested in the true story of what the article said – actually in defence of Harry Potter – would be better advised to read page 15 of Dark Matter, with its more careful documentation.
Pullman’s use of words such as “Magisterium” and “Oratory”, and his portrayal of the Church in his alternative universe as a child-murdering institution dedicated to repression – and furthermore capable of giving “advance absolution” to an assassin – signals an attitude to the Christian Church of our own world consistent with his links to the National Secular Society. It is not his atheism (or agnosticism) that should concern Christian readers, but rather this animus against the Church, which echoes the view being promoted in other contemporary best-sellers such as The Da Vinci Code. It is a kind of hatred that leads him to exaggerated the sins and mistakes of Christians down the ages, separate them from the virtues and great achievements, and lay the whole mess at the door not just of Church leaders but of Christian theology.
As Tony Watkins and others have pointed out, the “theology” of Dark Materials is a kind of postmodern Gnosticism, inverted into materialism by way of quantum physics. Will and Lyra, the young heroes of the story, “children-no-longer-children, saturated with love” after their own Fall from innocence, having previously liberated the dead from a shadowy afterlife into union with the blades of grass and the raindrops, reverse the flow of life-giving Dust from the multiverse, clearing the way for a “Republic of Heaven”. There is no transcendence, only a celebration of the physical world and its spiritual forces, which are also, ultimately, physical in some mysterious way. Dust is the most spiritual thing in the world of His Dark Materials, being the basic substance of self-consciousness (confused by the Magisterium, therefore, with sin), and yet it is clearly made up of elementary particles – although what its true origin may be, and how it speaks truth through the alethiometer, is still to be explained.
Having immunized his young readers against the Christian worldview, and inverted the myth of Genesis, Pullman leaves us with a selection of Christian virtues – freedom, benevolence, kindness, courage, and above all love – floating without apparent foundation. He would say they need no foundation, that the affirmation of life and experience and complexity and freedom is valuable in itself. Rowan Williams is quite right in saying this will (and should) cause us to think more deeply about what we believe. Christians, too, should affirm these things, and these two books make a strong case for thinking that we may in the end be able to do so more coherently than Pullman himself.
Version: 10th February 2005
Version: 14th April 2006