The Prelator

Weblog of Patrick McKay

Posts Tagged ‘Phillip Pullman’

Musings on the End of the World

Posted by darklordofdebate on March 5, 2009

I’ve discovered bi-weekly bus rides into DC are a great time for listening to audio books, so having recently finished Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, over the last couple weeks I’ve been listening to the City of Ember books by Jeanne Duprau, continuing with the theme of young-adult fantasy/adventure stories. I watched the movie of City of Ember the same week I watched Golden Compass for the first time, which put both high on my reading list (the movie adaptation of Ember was far better than Golden Compass though, since they didn’t butcher the plot near as much). While the Ember books didn’t have anywhere near the literary quality or philosophical depth of Dark Materials, they did combine two things which have always fascinated me–an underground city and a post-apocalyptic setting.

I’ve always loved caves and being underground (as evidenced by my penchant for exploring storm drains), and the idea of an underground city intrigues me. The scenes involving Zion were my favorite parts of the Matrix trillogy, and I absolutely can’t wait until they make the movie of The Silver Chair in the Narnia series so I can see how they visualize they underground city in that book. For the last few years I’ve also had a growing fascination with post-apocalyptic survival and dystopia stories. I love disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow and the TV show Jericho, and books like 1984, Brave New World, the Giver, etc.

These types of stories are especially vivid for me, and I often wonder what it would be like to survive some kind of great disaster that causes a significant disruption to society, and wonder what life in such a world would be like. Literature provides different answers, from the rise of monolithic totalitarian states like in 1984 to a new dark age as in the Ember books.

This last idea I find particularly intriguing. The Ember books take place approximately in the 2340’s, after a combination of nuclear war, disease, and famine decimated Earth’s population around the year 2100. Needless to say, it’s a very different take on the 24th century than Star Trek! Humanity never really recovered from the disaster, and society is reduced to a number of small settlements and villages with no more than a few hundred people, which have reverted to a largely pre-industrial civilization–albeit with remnants of the old civilization scattered about and re-purposed for new uses. There’s no electricity, no plumbing, and no gasoline or motorized vehicles (they rip the engines out of pickup trucks and tow them with oxen). People live in thatched earth huts, use candles for light, and survive on subsistence level farming. Virtually all knowledge of how to make or use present-day technology has been lost, and current society has been mythologized as a lost golden age.

This idea intrigues me, and I often wonder if such a thing is possible. Could all our knowledge and technology really be lost? Is it possible for a civilization as advanced as ours to completely disappear? From history I know that all nations and civilizations have ultimately ended, and yet today humanity seems to have advanced so far technologically and become so globalized socially that it would be impossible for that civilization to collapse. And can a nation as powerful and advanced as the United States really fall? What would such a fall look like? What would it take for America to actually cease to exist? And what kind of world would follow if it did?

Yet as impossible as it seems, there are other things about our modern world that just seem untenable in the long-term. Can technology really continue advancing at the incredible pace it has for the last 200 years? What are the limits of science and technology? For thousands of years, mankind lived essentially the same, and it’s only during the last few centuries that the kind of technological progress has taken place that created the modern world as we know it. Will that progress continue indefinitely or will we one day take it too far and bring about a calamity that erases all the progress we’ve made?

Then I read articles talking predictions for future biotechnology–where neural interfaces will merge man and machine and where regenerative medicine will make man essentially immortal. And I wonder, how much longer will God allow this to continue? If God smacked man down when he got too arrogant at the tower of Babel, how much more are we setting ourselves up for a divine smackdown today, with skyscrapers reaching thousands of feet taller than Babel ever did and with people claiming they can make man into gods by merging our minds with computers? Even if that doesn’t happen, it seems sooner or later man must pay a price for all his technology. Even if not through environmental disasters like global warming (which I still doubt is even real), can we continue using energy resources at the rate we have for the last century and expect to still be able to power our advanced technology 500 years from now? Perhaps Christ will come back before then and we won’t need to worry about it, but what if he waits thousands of years? Can humans continue living the way we do and with all the potential for self-destruction that exists today?

I think one reason apocalyptic fiction appeals to me is that it expresses a nagging feeling I often have that perhaps this world will end during my lifetime–that maybe I will experience a catastrophe of such magnitude that it will bring an end to America, or even modern civilization itself. There are so many things wrong with the world–economic collapses, terrorism, the possibility of nuclear war–that I wonder if it’s not inevitable that something will happen that brings it all to an end. Oh I know the human race isn’t going die out–God would never let that happen–but He never promised to preserve this particular civilization or this specific country.

I remember a few months ago reading an article where a Russian intelligence expert predicted the United States will collapse and break up in the next few years. While the guy obviously had a vested interest (he seemed a bit too happy at the idea of Russia conquering Alaska), and however much we may mock his idea as preposterous, I must say I sometimes wonder if he might be right. I think the current recession (depression?) has demonstrated that capitalist economies are inherently unstable and subject to total collapse at any time. And government controlled economies are even worse–which is why Obama’s so-called stimulus plan will do absolutely nothing and will probably make things even worse. America is weaker now that it has been in a long time, and if a rogue nation like Iran decided to take advantage of America’s weakness and light off a few nukes in major American cities, I wonder if our country could really hold together or if it would collapse into anarchy as portrayed in the TV show Jericho.

These thoughts are especially vivid on my weekly bus rides into Washington DC. As I sit staring at the magnificent buildings all around me–with their gleaming white facades of neoclassical columns and Romanesque engravings that practically scream of permanence, majesty, and power–I wonder how much longer it will all really last. What if I woke up tomorrow and Washington was gone? What if I was one of the last people to see that beautiful city, and all that remains for future generations is a distant memory of a time when America was great and people lived in comfort and luxury, surrounded by machines with almost magical powers? What would I tell my children in those days? How would I describe these things to them, which would be as foreign as the idea of non-passengers being allowed on airport concourses is to the child born after 9-11? What if I, in the words of The Day After Tomorrow, have spent my entire life preparing for a future that no longer exists?

In the end, I am reminded how everything in this world is only transient and temporary. Nothing is fixed, nothing is permanent. And nothing should be taken for granted. For Christians, we may take comfort in the knowledge that this world is not our true home, and that our true citizenship belongs to the Kingdom of Heaven not earthly nations which rise and fall like the tide. No matter what the future holds, we may live secure in the knowledge of His sovereignty, knowing that all things work together for His glory. For me, I also resolve never to take my world for granted–to live the life I have been given to the fullest and treasure it as much as possible. I wish to see as much and learn as much as I can, so if this world ever does come to an end, it will still exist in my mind, and to me at least, can never truly be lost.

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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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