January 22, 2008

His Dark Materials: Anti-Church? Anti-God?

Filed under: Culture and Media — Bob Gifford @ 9:26 pm

So I’ve finished reading the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. The question I wanted to answer for myself was whether these books were anti-God, or merely anti-church. Before I report on the answer to this question though, a couple quotes:

My books are about killing God.

Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials

[Philip Pullman advocates] a totally atheist ideology, the enemy of all religions, traditional and institutional, and of Christianity and Catholicism in particular.

Editorial in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper

What the story makes you see is that if you believe in a mortal God, who can win and lose his power, your religion will be saturated with anxiety – and so with violence. In a sense, you could say that a mortal God needs to be killed.

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and His Dark Materials fan

So are the books anti-church, which is entirely appropriate, even warranted, given that the church is a human institution? Or are they anti-God, which would not be reason enough to pull the books from libraries, but would give some credence to the hysteria surrounding the movie?

(Warning — spoilers abound!)

In Pullman’s books, God, YHWH, the God of Abraham and Moses, is called the “Authority”. He is merely an angel, like any other, except that long ago he was able to put himself in charge over the other angels and the humans in a manner which his name would suggest. He perpetuates the pretense that he is the creator. (No one knows whether there really is a creator or not.) He has built the Kingdom of Heaven, a huge cloud-encircled mountain floating in the air from where he rules.

Angels age, and eventually die, and the Authority is no different, dying of old age near the end of the trilogy. In his old age decrepitude, his power has passed to his Regent, the angel Metatron, who is more of a totalitarian ruler than the Authority. While the Authority has been content to let the church enforce his rule, Metatron plans to put angels in charge of a new Inquisition to tighten control. Not good.

A key character, Dr. Mary Malone, a physicist former nun who renounced her vows and her faith, says that Christianity is “a very powerful and convincing mistake”. However, it is not accurate to say that the books are atheistic. “Dust” is a substance streaming through the universe. Dust is alive, conscious, and influencing the affairs of humans — it gives Lyra (the main heroine of the story) and Dr. Malone direction and guidance through various means. Dust is a personal God, an immanent God, but is in and through the entire universe.

The Authority and the Church are on the losing side of a Great Battle, to which the reader cheers enthusiastically. But this Authority and this Church bear no relationship to the God and the Church with which I’m acquainted. They are a caricature, they are invented characters that happen to be called by these familiar names. They are not the God and Church as many of us actually experience them. It is Dust that more closely resembles God as Christianity understands God, but even Dust is not omnipotent, and certainly not the creator of the universe (or universes in this case).

Anti-God or anti-church? They are definitely anti-authoritarian, which is a good thing, but it’s much harder to say they are either anti-God or anti-church, Dr. Malone’s statement notwithstanding. This is a fantasy, and even young readers won’t confuse it with reality. If our church was as evil and controlling as Pullman’s Church, it should be fought and overthrown. If God were not immortal, omniscient, omnipotent or omni-beneficent, then God would deserve our contempt, not our worship. In this respect, Archbishop Williams is right — this God needs to be killed.

But our church, or at least my church, is nothing like Pullman’s Church, and the God I experience is nothing like Pullman’s God. So it’s hard for me to take this as a real critique of my religion. It’s a fantasy. Getting upset at these books over their theology is like getting upset at Star Trek over of its faux-science.

The real question everyone should be asking is whether these books are any good as fantasy, not as theology. And there I would have to say that they’re okay, but just okay. For me, they fall short of, say, the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. But that’s hardly reason enough to wage a media campaign against them. Any young adult, or not-so-young adult, reader will recognize them as fantasy, not as a documentary expose’. However, that distinction seems to be lost on some.

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