Saturday, November 17, 2007

Philip Pullman

I haven't really put on my thinking cap or pulled out my writing pen (or in this case, keyboard) this week, as I don't really have anything of note to say. This is in spite of having actually read some good material both online and offline, plus longer-term stuff that I've always wanted to post about. I've been feeling a little tired, mentally, and the onslaught of the cold means that I much prefer to huddle under layers of blankets.

Not having posted anything book-related for a while, thought I'll do so today.

Not surprisingly, with The Golden Compass slated for release on the 5th of December, there's been more chatter about Philip Pullman and his Dark Matters trilogy. The eagle-eyed among you might have noticed that Northern Lights has been stuck to my Currently Reading board for quite a while now. Having picked it up a couple of months ago, I got distracted by other books and haven't returned to it just yet. Still, I only have a quarter left to go, so will finish it soon!

For those of you not clued in, this is the fantasy series, apart from Harry Potter, of the last decade or so. His Dark Materials comprises of Northern Lights (American title: The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. It's quite a dense trilogy, which means that the plot isn't easy to summarise. Basically, the story revolves around Lyra, a plucky preteen, who discovers that she is the central figure in a complex conspiracy between two sides vying for power. As we read on, and bear in mind that I haven't read that much yet, we can see that the story begins to take on added meanings and that we're actually reading about a war between God, or perhaps more accurately, the Church, and Satan.

Pullman draws on ideas from quite a diverse range of fields. Physics, for one - the trilogy takes place in a multiverse (as I know zilch about physics, you have to look elsewhere if you're looking for more on multiverses!), and there's stuff about dark matter as well. Philosophy, for another - Pullman is sympathetic to gnostic strains of thought. Not having read the whole trilogy yet, I can't confirm this, but I suspect that Pullman probably is a Romantic.His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman (That means he sees emotion and sublimity as the epitome of the human experience, not that he's the second coming of Colin Firth!) His literary influences are pretty obvious; I'm sure more than one of you would probably have guessed that John Milton's Paradise Lost is an obvious literary forbearer, and Pullman is obviously interested in expanding on William Blake's famous statement that "Milton was of the devil's party without knowing it". (This is a reference to the fact that many people who read Paradise Lost couldn't help but feel that Satan was portrayed as the hero, although there is much debate over whether this was Milton's intention or not. Not that authorial intentions matter much nowadays in the scholarly guild anyway.)

Pullman is an atheist, and has gone on record attacking C.S Lewis' Narnia, although opinion as to whether His Dark Materials is explicitly anti-Narnia differ. He is also acknowledged as a very gifted and imaginative reader. All three individual books have won awards, and Northern Lights snared the Carnegie of Carnegies. Now to tell you the truth, I've been pretty underwhelmed so far by his writing, but now that I've become a little more familiar with where he's coming from, I've grown more appreciative. And hey, in my final year at university, someone in my faculty was offering a lecture series on "Philip Pullman and John Milton", so obviously they must think he has some merit!

Pullman, as far as I can tell, pulls no punches. A lot of his disconcerting stuff (to Christians) are found in the second and third books, so I haven't gotten to them yet. But from what I've heard, God is portrayed as feeble and weak, the Christian heaven a horrible place, and the church invariably an instrument of oppression. So as you can imagine, many Christian groups are up in arms over the release of this movie and calling for a boycott. One prominent exception, though, has been Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who argues that the books aren't anti-Christian so much as it is anti-dogmatic.

I have yet to make up my mind, but I do think that a boycott is simply counter-productive. I always think that far too many Christians take a reactionary approach. Do we really think that Pullman, Dawkins et al. are going to cause the downfall of Christianity? I don't think so. That doesn't mean that I don't think the books have the capacity to be dangerous or subversive. But really, that isn't anything new. Long before Pullman, there was Jan Mark's Divide and Rule and Pete Hautman's Godless, and to a lesser extent Lois Lowry's The Giver, all young adult fiction which also highlighted the darker side of organised religion. It shouldn't be surprising that so many coming-of-age tales feature religion prominently, since religion would surely come into the equation whenever people start exploring the big questions of life. Far better to engage with the books themselves, to show where (I suspect) Pullman's ideology actually weakens his storytelling, and to paint a far more compelling narrative of the Christian story, which is of course one of true freedom rather than oppression.

Whew! I was actually planning simply planning to write little vignettes of some of the books I've been reading, but I see that this post has developed into one about Philip Pullman. So I'll just leave it there. When I eventually finish the trilogy I might tell you what I think. But for those of you looking for more detail, here's a good if long podcast interview with Alan Jacobs, professor of English at Wheaton College and author of one of my favourite Harry Potter essays. He essentially sees a Manichean duality at the heart of Pullman's thought. There are spoilers in the interview though! Jacobs has also written a critique of the trilogy in the Weekly Standard (referenced in the podcast interview), which is unfortunately no longer online. However, there are some extracts from that piece here.

Also, here's a short reading list:
  • Dark Matter: A Thinking Fan's Guide to Philip Pullman by Tony Watkins. This is the book I'm planning to read once I've finished the trilogy. Watkins, a Christian, explores the scientific and literary background to Pullman, interviews Pullman himself, offers a generous appreciation of his writing before going on to offer a critique of Pullman's distorted version of Christianity. I've heard lots of praise for this one so am looking forward to dipping into it.
  • The Devil's Account: Philip Pullman and Christianity by Hugh Rayment-Pickard. Rayment-Pickard, whom I think is a Catholic, offers a succint critique of the morality underlying Pullman's work, showing that it doesn't hold the high ground.
  • Shedding Light on His Dark Materials: Exploring Hidden Spiritual Themes in Philip Pullman by Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware. I saw this book profiled recently, and as far as I can tell, the authors argue that Pullman's story actually undermines his own worldview by showing how Christianity is the only plausible framework which his world can operate. Or something like that. That's an interesting thesis, though I'm not sure if it's persuasive.

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Blogger Tim said...


it's interesting that you've dedicated a whole blog entry to Pullman and his impact on Christianity because my home church has just released an email supporting a boycott on both the movie and the novels. I myself have had the oppurtunity to study the trilogy in some depth as an third year elective, so I profess to hold some expertise on the series... though i'd hardly call myself a Pullman fan, haha.

i guess i can appreciate both sides of the coin; firstly, the call to boycott the movie and the triloy seems remarkably similiar to the hysteria which swept the evangelical world during the Harry Potter controversy. Conversely, however, whilst nothing in Potter directly contradicts the Bible or is particularly questionable in that sense, Pullman is a whole different kettle of fish altogether. I'd go so far as to say that any child under the age of 12 who reads the trilogy (or watches the movie, depending on how anti-Christian that is) would develop a rather skewed perspective of Christianity that could affect their perception of God, given the fact that young impressionable minds are at their most mouldable and fashionable during childhood years.

how exactly should Christians react to the movie and the books, then? i'm still thinking this through, but my gut feeling is that this is a slightly more different (and complex) issue to the whole 'Harry Potter vs the Church' issue. Given that this is purpotedly a work of fiction, rather than a pseudo-historical text (like Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code), unless church pastors are literary experts it would seem to be slightly harder to engage with from the pulpit as sermon material, beyond issueing black and white instructions not to watch the movie/read the trilogy.

on a lighter note, if this is in keeping with Nicole Kidman's track record so far this year, chances are that the movie will bomb anyway ;)

and on a completely different subject.. it seems like Steve Mclaren's job is safe! that is, if you guys can get over Croatia at Wembley...

2:51 am  
Blogger BK said...

I agree, His Dark Materials is a different case from Harry Potter or Dan Brown. I certainly would not want to expose any child to it unwittingly. Pullman's worldview comes through loud and clear in his books.

Speaking as someone with a literature degree (does that make me an expert?), I don't think it's necessary to be a "literary expert" to engage with the books though. I think we can find points of departure from Pullman's books without too much difficulty. So for example, from what I gather (not having reached that part of the trilogy yet), he has a rather exalted view of sexuality that he sees as being suppressed by the church. We can show that if we were really paying attention to the biblical narrative, sex is a beautiful, God-intended thing as long as it is expressed the way God designed it, within the confines of a loving, monogamous marriage. The world's current view of sex as anything goes actually cheapens it. In fact, Judeo-Christian thought acknowledges the body as important and good, contra Platonic or gnostic thought that sees the body only in terms of corruption. Jesus' death and resurrection redeems the body.

Or the idea of a weak, feeble God. Now I think it's right to express some outrage at the way God or the Authority is portrayed in the books. But we shouldn't stop there. We can certainly point instead to the God who became weak for us, and consequently, subverted the world's ideas of power structures (eg. 1 Corinthians). Jesus, whom Christians proclaim as Lord, did die - he died willingly in our place, becoming sin for us (1 Peter 3:18, 2 Cor. 5:21). Great opportunities for conversations during Christmas season actually! :)

Christians certainly shouldn't endorse the book or movie, nor should every one read it. We just don't need to fear it either. Of course, we should be discerning as well. Although I did say in my post that I feel a boycott is counterproductive, it's not something I feel strongly about, so I respect the decisions of those who have chosen such a course of action.

Simply, my point is that Christians have a compelling story to tell. If we do so in the context of a community ("By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" - John 13:35), we can show that a faithful church is not one of those scary cabals of weird-looking men who speak in hushed undertones, but a genuine group of diverse sinners who are reconciled to God and united to one another by the cross, then any counterfeit narrative loses its power to capture the imagination. Ironically, if Alan Jacobs is right, Pullman's own rigidity about his views are to the detriment of his writing.

You're right about Nicole Kidman btw. :) Did you notice the Bondness of the cast (Daniel Craig, Eva Green) as well? And Chris "American Pie" Weitz is the director! Don't diss him though, he has a Cambridge degree! (Oh wait, Cambridge...maybe you should diss him.. :-p)

3:16 pm  

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