The Prelator

Weblog of Patrick McKay

Posts Tagged ‘Atheism’

His Dark Materials – Book Review

Posted by darklordofdebate on February 16, 2009

Over the last week I finally Phillip Pullman’s famous His Dark Materials trilogy. I’d been wanting to read this books since the movie of the Golden Compass came out last year and I read all the reviews about how controversial the series was. After I finally got around to watching the movie a couple weeks ago, I decided to get the trilogy on audio book so I could listen to it on the bus into DC for my internship. I thought it would make some nice reading material and I could do a little opposition research on the series that has been called the “anti-Narnia”–an atheistic fantasy tale which sets itself up as the dialectical antithesis to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Or that was the plan. In reality, I ended up falling in love with the story, and found it so enthralling I couldn’t stop until I had finished the entire trilogy.

I must say that I found Pullman’s trilogy to be incredibly well written and an absolutely captivating story. The characters were extremely engaging and believable, and even though I had already read the plot summaries on Wikipedia and knew they end up killing God in the end (or at least Pullman’s idea of him), I found myself increasingly sympathizing with them. Philosophically, the series was one of the deepest I’ve ever read, on the same level as 1984, Brave New World, or the Giver (see my previous post on Dystopias). The ending was absolutely heart breaking, probably the most poignant I’ve ever read. The scene was even more powerful because I was listening to the “enhanced” audio book–a hybrid audio book/dramatization with a full unabridged recording that also has a full cast of actors. The voice acting was superb, and hearing the utter despair and love torn anguish in Lyra’s voice when she and Will learn they must be parted after so recently discovering their nascent love, had me in tears for the rest of the evening.

No doubt Pullman has created an incredible epic, with literary quality equal to or perhaps even surpassing Narnia. (It even has a voyage to the land of the dead, which at least according to one of the only things I remember from my Western Lit class is an essential ingredient of a classical epic). And since this series is essentially an atheistic allegory with the declared intent to undermine Christianity in the same way Lewis’ tale bolsters it, I think it’s important for Christians to be familiar with it to combat its underlying philosophy.

For those who haven’t read His Dark Materials, the plot is so complex it’s nearly impossible to summarize. It is about two 12 year old kids (Will and Lyra) from different parallel worlds that unite to ultimately overthrow God himself. The book’s basic premise is a sort of sequel to an inversion of Milton’s Paradise Lost, where Satan was the real hero and the fall was actually a liberation. God on the other hand is seen not only as an imposter, but a cosmic kill-joy who seeks to suppress all human joy and pleasure. Pullman posits that Satan was right in Paradise Lost when he said God (called the Authority in the trilogy) was actually just the first angel who deceived the other angels into thinking he was the creator, setting up a tyrannical monarchy and exiling all the angels who resisted his rule.

By the time of Pullman’s story (roughly present day, which would have been the late 1990s when he wrote the books), the Authority is so aged and decrepit that he is no longer capable of ruling, but is locked away in a crystalline coffin (a sort of stasis chamber) while the Regent of Heaven, the Angel Metatron (sounds like something out of Transformers) rules in his stead. Toward the end of the last book (The Amber Spyglass), Will and Lyra stumble upon him and free him, whereupon he immediately dissolves into nothingness from his own frailty as soon as he is exposed to the air. As numerous Christian reviews have pointed out, this symbolizes the idea that the idea of God quickly dissolves when exposed to the illumination of human reason.

The real genius of Pullman’s trilogy however is the idea of “dust” which is known in our world as “dark matter.” This he says is a type of elementary particle which forms the essence of “spiritual” matter. Just like atoms with their component particles such as electrons, protons, etc. form the basis of physical matter, dust is the basis for spiritual matter–out of which all spiritual beings are formed and whose presence in material beings confers consciousness and sentience.

Unlike most atheists, Pullman does not deny the existence of the spiritual realm outright, but instead acknowledges its existence while claiming that it is fundamentally no different than the material world. And just as physical forces can be understood and harnessed by human science, so can spiritual ones. In fact, Pullman even goes so far as to mysticize atheism, since his universe (or rather, multiverse) is populated with mythological creatures such as harpies, and dust itself is portrayed as having a type of mystical consciousness which can be tapped into through various types of divination (most notably, Lyra’s alethiometer). Pullman also incorporates into his story the “many worlds” hypothesis of quantum physics, where there are an infinite number of parallel universes coexisting simultaneously.

It is through dust that Pullman makes his chief theological attack on Christianity. Dust is the source of all consciousness and forms the soul of all sentient beings. In Lyra’s world, people’s souls manifest themselves physically as various types of conscious animals (called daemons) which constantly remain with them and are an extension of their own personality, though apparently capable of a certain degree of independent thought and action. Children’s daemons can change into any form they wish, but become fixed (or “settled”) at puberty into a particular form which symbolizes their personality and role in society (lesser people have lesser animals for daemons). At the same time, Pullman reveals that daemons only started to become fixed at the Fall, when in a bizarre alternate version of Genesis 3 he describes how this was a direct effect of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. (“And when the woman saw that the tree was … to be desired to reveal the true form of one’s daemon…”)

In the first book, The Golden Compass, the Magesterium of the Catholic Church (which basically rules the whole world since apparantly the Protestant Reformation never happened in Lyra’s world–John Calvin is the pope) determines that settled daemons are thus the physical manifestation of original sin, and try to prevent children from being affected by sin by severing the connection between them and their daemons before they become fixed–turning them into mindless zombies in the process. This implies that sin, rather than being a flaw, is actually a central part of human nature and is in fact what makes us capable of free thought in the first place.

It is also no accident that daemons settle (bringing on the full onset of original sin) at puberty, when children reach sexual maturity. For Pullman, as it seems with just about everyone else in the non-Christian world, everything ultimately comes down to sex. His central criticism of the Christian church is what he sees as its eternal war to stifle the joys of human sexuality–and indeed every other good pleasure life has to offer. (At one point, a missionary/assassin goes into a new world and immediately starts strategizing how to “evangelize” the creatures there by convincing them that the thing they love doing the most is sinful.) For Pullman, Adam and Eve’s actions were not a Fall but a coming of age in which they reached their full potential, and as such is to be celebrated not condemned.

In Pullman’s tale, Will and Lyra are prophesied to be the second Adam and Eve, who repeat the Fall by falling in love, which somehow restores harmony to the universe (as one commentator put it, “How exactly is two kids getting it on in the bushes supposed to save the world?”). There is nothing explicitly sexual about Will and Lyra’s “Fall,” in which they do nothing more than kiss. I would disagree with those who say the story implies they went further. Pullman himself has said for 12 year-olds, a kiss is more than sufficient–and remembering back to my own thoughts about love at that age I quite agree. However, there is a clear sensual aspect to it later when they touch each other’s daemons, against which there is a strong taboo and which is earlier established to be an intimate act. At most it is, in the words of another review, “sex by analogy” as it is a means of sensual expression that simply doesn’t exist in the real world.

However, Pullman’s message is clear. He believes Christianity has set itself against human sexuality, which it has sought to suppress from the very beginning. In this he expresses what I think is probably THE main reason many non-believers reject Christianity–because they disagree with its prinicples of sexual morality and want to be free to act as they like. Christianity is therefore evil because it seeks to deny them that pleassure. And it’s a view I can well understand. How many times have I myself been tempted to think this way and see God as just a cosmic kill-joy forcing me to deny my own desires and pleasures? It’s rather convicting, actually, to think how often I’m tempted to think exactly like Pullman, and I have to constantly remind myself that His ways are better, and that sin only looks better but in reality brings only pain.

And this I think is where Pullman ultimately fails to hit his mark. The entire trilogy is an explicit attack on Christianity (through lines such as “the Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake”) and the Authority the characters defeat is explicitly identified with the Christian God. Yet the god Pullman describes is nothing like the God I know. Pullman’s god is an impostor, cruel, vindictive, weak, uncaring, and joyless. My God is kind, loving, merciful, true, and is the source of all true joy. He is the one that, rather than setting himself up as the tyrant of heaven, sacrificed his own Son to reconcile mankind to himself, so that we may experience his blessings forever.

Furthermore, Pullman describes Christianity as completely negative and oppressive, seeking to suppress or destroy every good thing in life. Yet he ignores the fact that Christianity has been the most powerful liberating force in Western history, providing the impetus for the development of modern science, the rise of democratic government, and the motivation for countless human rights causes from ending slavery to women’s rights.

Both in his portrayal of God and his refusal to acknowledge anything positive about the Christian religion, Pullman completely fails to make an accurate critique of my faith. Instead, he merely sets up one gigantic straw man argument (or in this case, straw God?) and proceeds to topple that, leaving  Christianity as I know it unscathed. Maybe Pullman did defeat a god in his books, but it wasn’t my God.

Finally however, this doesn’t mean we should completely disregard Pullman’s criticism. Pullman’s criticism is not without some merit, and one of the most important lessons Christians can take away from these books is to consider if perhaps he may sometimes be right. Indeed, his perspective could teach us valuable things about ourselves if we’re willing to listen. For example, the Christian church has often gone too far in its efforts to prevent impurity–from scarlet letters to the efforts of many people in my own background among Christian homeschoolers who attempt to convince people that all adolescent romantic relationships are sinful, and must therefore be avoided at all costs.

Having grown up in this kind of environment, I know well what it’s like to feel ashamed of even being attracted to someone, like I would be somehow be wronging a girl if I ever expressed interest in her. It’s a feeling I have struggled to shake off to this day, and it’s in cases like these where Christians have simply gone too far in their efforts to avoid falling into sin, such that they legalistically turn things into sins that are really not, and end up stifling perfectly legitimate joys and fulfilling relationships in the process. It’s a warning we would do well to heed, lest we become like the Magesterium in Pullman’s novel–going to such lengths to prevent people from falling that we end up destroying their very soul.


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