Surprise! Lev Grossman loves Philip Pullman

Time Magazine as a run-up to their selection of 2007’s Person of the Year and the upcoming release of The Golden Compass in theatres near you has published an article by irrepressible Lev Grossman about the author of Compass, Philip Pullman. The article, Sympathy for the Devil, is vintage Grossman, whose name as a cryptonym for journalists posing as literary critics is Dickensian, with the necessary blow against C. S. Lewis and the pom-poms working for atheism. Readers of his 2005 interview with Ms. Rowling will remember his calling Lewis a Death Eater and this summer he celebrated Harry Potter (pre-Deathly Hallows) as a God-free book in an article explaining that God’s death was the only sure death we would have in the series finale.

No, he didn’t mean in the sense of Harry being a Christ figure.

I haven’t read any of the Philip Pullman books so let me bow out of this discussion lest I commit the sin of non-readers who know the books better than those who have. Here are some comments from thoughtful readers about this book and movie, several of whom have read Harry Potter. Contrast their views with those expressed by Grossman and the hesitant-atheist Pullman:

Pullman sees himself as championing the universal human values of love and tolerance and curiosity, many of which are of course also embraced by Christianity, though not always, he argues, by Christian writers. Lewis’ Narnia books arouse in him a level of outrage rarely witnessed during the breakfast hour. “His comments about women throughout are loathsome. His attitude to children who are fat and have freckles–for God’s sake!” Pullman says. “I think Lewis was profoundly immoral when he wrote those books.”

Atheism has had a best-selling moment of late with the success of books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and Pullman runs the grave and improbable risk of becoming not just mainstream but fashionable. But he isn’t a creature of fashion any more than he’s a creature of Satan. “I’m a great admirer of both men,” he says, “but I wouldn’t want to be part of any movement that had an agenda. I’m not arguing a case. I’m not preaching a sermon. I’m not giving a lecture. I’m telling a story. Any position I take is that of a storyteller who says, Once upon a time, this happened.”

Sandra Miesel, co-author of Pied Piper of Atheism and friend of this blog, says Pullman with Grossman’s help is trying to tone down his atheism lest it hurt attendance at the movie and sales of his books:

Lev Grossman appears to be among the people who unconsciously but automatically attribute higher intelligence and sophistication to an Oxbridge Englishman than to us colonial clods. Especially colonial clods (or “nitwits” as Pullman called us) who dare to criticize His Dark Materials. Pullman is being ever so coy in his publicity appearances for The Golden Compass film, professing to be a simple teller of tales with no agenda. Yet this is the same man who told the Washington Post in 2001 that the purpose of his writing was “to undermine the basis of Christian belief” and who agreed with David Frost during a 2003 BBC interview that if there were a God, it would be a good thing to rebel against him. And there are plenty of similar remarks sprinkled over the past dozen years. Pullman has cheerfully cooperated with the blunting of his message in this film in order to pave the way for sharper anti-theism in its sequels. Yes, he can write beautiful prose, but in essence Philip Pullman is just an up-market Dan Brown.

Peter Chattaway, a film reviewer and another writer with whom I have corresponded, wrote a piece for Christianity today, The Chronicles of Atheism, that has a similar view of Pullman’s agenda. He quotes Tony Watkins, author of Dark Matter (Damaris/IVP), a critical review of Pullman’s books and ideology:

“He’s such an arch-materialist, and so he completely rejects the Gnostic rejection of the material as being evil and the Gnostic embrace of the spiritual as the only thing which is good,” says Watkins. “He’s rejecting that and drawing on these Gnostic stories for inspiration and turning them absolutely on their head.

“Pullman says he’s just a storyteller,” continues Watkins. “I think he’s really slippery at this point. Because it’s all very well saying, ‘It’s just a story, just a fantasy, some of the characters say what I believe and some of them don’t’—but in his Carnegie Medal speech, he said stories create the morality we live by.

“The trouble is, he blurs the line between fantasy and reality by giving interviews and talking about the Republic of Heaven in the world. And because he’s got all of this anti-God rhetoric in the real world that is even stronger than what’s in the book, I think he can’t get away with saying, ‘It’s just a story and you can read into it whatever you like.’ Because he does understand what he’s saying.”

I’m curious, too, that the promoters of this film have gone so far as to take a review written by a Catholic film reviewer and used it in advertsements as an endorsement by the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. This is picked up in even Catholic articles as reason to waffle on the issue of Pullman’s public profession of anti-faith. They are working really hard to keep traditional Christians from writing “Stay away from the theatre” pieces or from heeding those articles they might have read that warn them about Pullman’s agenda. I’m not Catholic, but, if I were, I think this kind of deception and misrepresentation about my bishops would send me over the top.

I haven’t read the books. I gave them to my older daughters to read and asked them to tell me what they thought. The oldest got through the first book in the trilogy and said, “no mas.” The next in line, a reader that has read Martin Chuzzlewit and The Pickwick Papers without looking back, got half way through the third book before she said, much to her parents’ surprise, that she couldn’t finish it. She said it made her feel sick. Sandra Miesel has told me this, too, was her response to studying His Dark Materials.

I will, consequently, take a pass on reading these three novels, and, in that decision, not write at any length about their value. One blogger I read today says they’re very different than Harry Potter but not necessarily in a bad way. S/he’s ahead of me in being able to share an informed opinion on the subject, but something Mr. Grossman wrote stumbled into an area I feel qualified to write about:

We’re used to fantasy literature either warily skirting religion (as in J.K. Rowling’s work) or subtextually stumping for it (as in C.S. Lewis’). We’re not used to fantasy taking on religion foursquare. But to be fair, it’s not religion that Pullman has a problem with, exactly, or religious believers; it’s what happens when religion mixes with politics. “Religion is at its best when it is furthest from political power,” he says. “The power to send armies to war, to rule every aspect of our lives, to tell us what to wear, what to think, what to read–when religion gets hold of that, watch out! Because trouble will ensue.”

Ms. Rowling doesn’t “skirt religion.” She observes the parameters of English fantasy fiction, unlike Pullman, and leaves the church buildings and pastors out while stuffing in a host of Christian images and themes. Lewis doesn’t “sub-textually stump” for his religious beliefs but represents them in artful fashion, again in keeping with English literary tradition, in, at most, an exercise in pre-evangelizing.

Mr. Pullman’s religion-as-boogey-man comments (forget Bin Laden and nukes in Iran; it’s Western theocracy that will get us all!) would be comic were they not so pathetic. That serious readers of his books say that the “death of God” is his purpose in writing and it shows quite baldly in his story line tells me he is much less the writer than Ms. Rowling or Mr. Lewis, however exalted his prose, and not half the thinker.

The thoughts of a side-line observer…


  1. Well, I struggled my way through all three Pullmann books when they came in Norwegian. But it was a wast of time. And yes, they make one feel sick. Lyra is not a living person like Harry Potter. She is a God-slaying robot, always jumping between worlds, and never ever able to sense even the most remote little fragment of guilt. She is a childish idealized Voldemort, but without his sad and lonely past.

    Yours: Odd Sverre Hove
    Bergen, Norway

  2. Arabella Figg says

    Not having read Pullman’s books, I refrain from opinion. If I scorn “authoritative” condemnations of HP by those who haven’t read the books, then I must follow my own rules. Which is making me wonder if I shouldn’t read Pullman’s trilogy, but do I want to bother?

    However, in Grossman’s article, Pullman seemed a very unpleasant man, who indulged himself in a prizeworthy hissy fit about Lewis. You’d think educated people would know better than to make anachronistic criticisms of writers who reflected their historical/cultural time. After all, Pullman reflects his own time and may eventually be a laughingstock himself to some snot-nosed commentator decades from now for not writing in the current argot/mindset. No worries; Lewis will be read a hundred years from now. Pullman will likely be . . . “Pullman who?”

    “”I suppose if you are interested in religious questions, that makes you religious,” Pullman muses. “I am. What I am not is a believer in the sorts of gods that seem to be on offer from the various major religions.”

    So what god would he find worthy of belief? I rather think it’s reflected in Pullman’s own mirror.

    Fullatricks sees herself in the hall mirror and likes what she sees…

  3. globalgirlk says

    Let it be said by me that at some points this article is over my head. So here is my opinion on the matter. I’ve read the first two books and could not bring myself to read the third. The author of these books has said some things and written things that are anti-church and anti-God. I don’t know why he hates us so much but he does. His view of the church is that it is there to destroy every good thing and every good feeling. The church has its flaws but I’ll leave it at that. Yeah, so I would caution people strongly about reading these books because they did mess with my thinking. Also the thought that this universe could exist without God is horrifying. He says that God should be killed. Here is the kicker in all that thought, He was but He did not stay dead.

  4. Perelandra says

    The fiasco about the opinion of that Catholic reviewer being passed off as a recommendation from the whole body of US Catholic bishops has raised calls for the reviewer to be fired. Even individual bishops are annoyed.

    My daughter-in-law to be got halfway through the third volume and gave it up as too distasteful.My son said that Pullman’s waffling about his real views is almost worse than the views themselves.

    The movie is getting mixed reviews in the secular media, for what that’s worth.

  5. I haven’t read any Pullman (I too have been thinking I should, just so I could speak from somethng other than a position of ignorance) but I want to figure out a way to read them without actually putting any royalties in his pocket. Mean of me, I know.

    A friend said her teenage daughter liked the first book, but also had her interest fade out before she finished the series. Maybe they just don’t resonate sufficiently with the way we’re made, and a book that resonates with the way we’re marred just doesn’t satisfy in the same way?

  6. It’s unfortunate the way author interviews can limit a reader’s interpretation of a book. In both Pullman’s case and Rowling’s case — if you look at the text alone — there are complex themes that lend themselves to multiple possible interpretations. Then the author interview gives you the “right answer” and negates other interesting viewpoints.

    Rowling is clearly a lot more media-savvy than Pullman. Actively setting himself up as the antidote to Lewis? Not a clever move. Rowling, on the other hand, wrote some very skeptic/atheist-friendly themes into her series (including Deathly Hallows) but didn’t acknowledge them in public, leaving the non-religious to spread the word on their own (which they did, see my discussion of Harry Potter as a Christ figure which I wrote before she answered that question). Then — with the religious right hounding her for promoting witchcraft — she threw her fellow Christians some very blatant, superficial bones (“See? I quoted the Bible! And Harry died to save everyone then came back — just like Jesus!”).

    Actually, I agree with Pullman that stories shape our morals. But that means that as a storyteller he should be a little more careful about setting out with an agenda. To be honest, I think he did a better job of writing an entertaining (not-preachy) story than some quotes attributed to him seem to suggest. Still, since he recognizes the storyteller’s role in shaping culture, that ought to inspire him — as a storyteller — to be careful with his own biases.

    Regarding the film: Keep in mind that it’s just the first book of the series, which is pretty much universally acknowledged to be the best of the three books by far, and one which didn’t contain much of a theological message, if any.

  7. I have read all three books (and so have two of my three children). I think the first book was strongest and the last one did not work for me.

    Pullman can write more majestic prose than Rowling but I never really engaged with his characters. I cannot easily remember his characters names, whereas Rowling’s characters leap from the page and I can effortlessly remember dozens of them.

    If we are supposed to ignore the author and stick to the text then the text clearly warns against putting trust in unaccountable organisations that hijack God, establish themselves as the sole conduit to all matters spiritual (tell you what to think) and wield enormous power. In the last book the ‘God’ that the ‘Church’ has imprisoned simply melts away when ‘freed’.

    Metaphors abound but in the end it just did not add up for this reader.

  8. I have not read Pullman and chances are pretty good I won’t be reading him in the future. To those who have read and posted for the benefit of us non-readers I say “Thank you.” Your thoughtful, non-emotional reviews of Pullman’s work are insightful… that the books do not appear to hold the readers’ interest is a blaring commentary on the very thing Pullman just doesn’t understand: relationship, not religion, is the key to spiritual understanding.

  9. I have recently read the His Dark Materials trilogy, so I have no hesitation it “hacking” at the book a bit. I’m still debating on seeing the movie or waiting for the DVD. The special effects look great, but early critical reviews indicate the movie suffers from the same problems as the book, namely little to no character development and ineffective plot lines. I also very nearly put the books aside without finishing them. They get very tedious to read after a while. The use of some classic archetypes helps a little, but what salvages His Dark Materials from the slush pile is Pullman’s mastery of setting the scene and describing the action. He really can pull you into the story by creating an exciting “word picture.” That will no doubt make for some wonderful special effect opportunities in the movie. But after a while, even that gets tedious. The problems in the storytelling far outweigh the eloquent and inventive narration.

    The biggest problem is that the plot jumps from scene to scene and ultimately evaporates rather than reaching a dramatic conclusion. The books read more like a series of short stories than one well thought out epic. The heroes stumble from one misadventure to another, often for the most trivial reasons. For example, in The Amber Spyglass the reader must suffer through page after page of Lyra and Will’s journey through the land of the dead. The reason given for why they take this dangerous journey is so that Lyra can tell Roger she is sorry he got killed. Supposedly Lyra and Will have this important mission to save the world, but they go off on a dangerous side journey just to apologize to a dead boy? That makes no sense in terms of the plot. As it turns out, the journey through the land of the dead is so that the heroes can release the dead souls into oblivion. That action does nothing to create or resolve conflict in the plot, but is just one long, tedious diversion.

    There is some character development of the two main characters, but most of the characters pop in and out of the story just to solve difficult plot problems. It borders on the melodramatic at times, but is frustrating to me as a reader. There is no clever setup or foreshadowing of how the heroes can solve the problem, but rather, the omniscient Author provides a last minutes solution out of nowhere.

    Also, the conflicts in the story that should have created drama fail to materialize. The villains never seem to be a serious threat to the heroes, but are often inept, ignorant, or nowhere to be found at moments of crisis. The Magesterium, which we are told is a powerful authoritarian regime, can’t seem to put together sufficient forces to stop the renegade Lord Asriel, or even capture one lone child. The supposedly extremely powerful angel Metatron is sucked in by something so trivial as a woman batting her eyelashes at him. The “Authority” turns out to be a weak old creature, no threat to anyone, who just dissipates into thin air when encountered.

    The great inventiveness of the parallel worlds turns out to be a kind of joke at the end of the story as well. The only way the characters can solve the problems of their worlds is by closing off all the connections between parallel worlds and never visiting them again. Thus the best part of the story is turned into something evil. Moreover, by the end of the trilogy a love interest has developed between Lyra and Will. Yet, that love must remain forever unavailable because each has to return to his or her respective world and never see each other again. The very powerful and useful Subtle Knife has to be broken and discarded so that it won’t be used again. Even the Golden Compass, referred to in the story as an “alethieometer,” ends up being diminished. To being with, it is used inconsistently in the story. Many times, Lyra can use the device but fails to do so. Thus, the author often uses this device to solve some plot points, but ignores it for others. It’s really too powerful of a device and Pullman has to not use it in order to avoid a really trivial plot where every move is foreordained by the Golden Compass. As she matures, Lyra loses her innate ability to read the Golden Compass and must spend many years re-learning how to read the symbols.

    All of that left me wondering, what was the point? Why create all this fantasy world, inventive literary devices, and a budding romance, only to destroy them in the end? Why create such devilish villains but never make them a believable threat? Why create a romance that can never be fulfilling?

    Because Pullman’s writing is generally good, these weaknesses confused me at first. I think I get it now. In contrast with Rowling, who stated once that she never set out to preach to anyone, Pullman clearly set out to preach his views through the story. Consequently, the story takes a subordinate role to the propaganda. It’s not that Pullman is a poor writer so much as it is that his desire to propagandize took over the story. Scenes are included to allow various points to be preached at the reader, usually via didactic dialogue, but those scenes often fail to push the plot forward. Thus, the story suffers so that Pullman can preach.

    For example, the journey through the land of the dead and the releasing of the dead souls into oblivion makes little sense to the plot and only appears to have been inserted as a setup for one of Pullman’s arguments. It’s another way of saying that there really is no heaven waiting for us, but not to worry because death releases you from any physical or emotional discomfort as your atoms dissipate back into the cosmic dust. Personally I think that is a terrible idea to put into the head of teenagers. It could easily be misinterpreted as a good argument for suicide as a solution to teenage angst.

    The Golden Compass is also used as a preaching device. It always tells the exact truth to those who can read it, symbolically representing a desire to follow what is true, not merely what is hoped for. If the Compass had some uncertainty associated with its answers it would be more powerful as a literary device, but that might imply some sort of faith. The nature of the Golden Compass is that it is “revelatory” knowledge obtained intuitively and accepted without question. The loss of the ability to read the Compass expresses the idea that we cannot rely on having the truth given to us by some authority. That may be appropriate for children, but adults must search for truth with their intellect. It seems there is no room for “child-like faith” in Pullman’s world.

    There has been a fair amount of talk about the story “killing off God” but that issue turns out to be secondary to his main theme. Pullman portrays God as an ancient angel, borrowing from the Platonic and Gnostic ideas of a demiurge, but throws out any spiritual or supernatural elements. The theme really is not “killing God” but that there is no omniscient creator to begin with, and the sooner we get rid of the idea the better off we will be. This view of God fits with the portrayal of religion as authoritarian and tyrannical, indicating that if we did not believe in God and hell the authoritarian Church would have no hold on us. The theme that emerges is if people didn’t believe in God, were not subject to an authoritarian rule, and were not living with the idea of an afterlife, they would make better use of this present life. The real message Pullman is trying to preach is “live here and now because that is all you have got.” And, your life here should somehow make things better and more enjoyable for physical existence. That’s why he closes off all the other parallel worlds and destroys the means of reentering them. Those worlds symbolize a longing for something other than this life and this world. The characters must live in their own reality (the present physical life) or die an early death. Thus, he characterizes religion as corrupt because he believes it prevents people from doing good and enjoyable things in this life.

    It’s a stupid, shallow argument, really. If he limited his attack on authoritarian religious institutions that corrupt knowledge of God, I could live with the other flaws. But there is no distinction made in the books and they are clearly an attack on Christianity in general, not just some of the bad events in the past or religion as political handmaiden. Pullman completely ignores all of the good things that religious people do and denies and belittles the true depth of feeling of religious devotion. Fortunately, the argument is presented in such a lopsided manner that it is unlikely to convince anyone who is not already leaning in that direction to begin with. There is no place in the book where the deeper philosophical questions surrounding God and religion are even raised, much less debated. The adult characters merely lecture the children on how it is and the author’s complete control over the story allows him to create a god-like being that is exactly what his argument needs. It’s pure propaganda, in other words. So, the book fails on not only a literary level, but on a philosophical level as well.

    Adult readers will probably see right through the blatant propaganda, but young people are not as likely to see or understand the flaws. His Dark Materials ends up as a tedious story whose sole purpose is propagandizing children into a kind of libertine, self-centered existence. It tells the reader to reject any spiritual authority and just do what you think is best. In other words, Pullman tells the reader, you just wasted your time reading a polemical fantasy.

    If Pullman wants to claim he is only telling a story and not preaching, then I have to conclude he’s not the level of writer to deserve all the awards he has been given.

  10. “Catholic theologian” for Philip Pullman:

    These books are deeply theological, and deeply Christian in their theology. The universe of “His Dark Materials” is permeated by a God in love with creation, who watches out for the meekest of all beings – the poor, the marginalized, and the lost. It is a God who yearns to be loved through our respect for the body, the earth, and through our lives in the here and now. This is a rejection of the more classical notion of a detached, transcendent God, but I am a Catholic theologian, and reading this fantasy trilogy enhanced my sense of the divine, of virtue, of the soul, of my faith in God.

    The book’s concept of God, in fact, is what makes Pullman’s work so threatening. His trilogy is not filled with attacks on Christianity, but with attacks on authorities who claim access to one true interpretation of a religion. Pullman’s work is filled with the feminist and liberation strands of Catholic theology that have sustained my own faith, and which threaten the power structure of the church. Pullman’s work is not anti-Christian, but anti-orthodox.

    Look for her ‘Hidden Key to His Dark Materials’ soon!

  11. notsoruthless says

    Hi! This is my first post. I read this blog and the comments quite often and have enjoyed it much. I have recently finished Pullman’s books and wanted to provide some additional thoughts.

    First, I am a Christian myself, but I am not easily offended by those who find fault with Christianity or who hate the instutution of the church. I think that many of their arguments are valid and come from the failings of the church and of Christians to live out the truth of their beliefs. We are all imperfect, after all, and we present our theology through our own flawed filters.

    With that said, I can see where Pullman is coming from. He believes the church exists to keep people from truly living – through rules, through fear, and through manipulation. In his story, God himself is not omnipotent but rather an evolved, power-hungry being who has taken over the universe(s). His characters are on a mission not to kill a real God but a phony stand-in – there is no discussion beyond this imposter God about whether or not an actual God exists somewhere outside of the infinite universes in his story. And I can see how easily someone could form a view of the church like Pullman’s… all it would take would be one bad experience with one unbalanced Christian, who stressed fear and damnation and following the rules, and left out the part that above all, Christianity is about love and grace.

    For Pullman, everything that makes you feel good is worth doing, and it is wrong to deny yourself these things. He seems to believe that people are innately good, and if the church and its “morals” would just excuse itself and leave them to their own devices, the world would be a loving, magical, wonderful place. It seems that Pullman doesn’t understand the joy and love and … life that can come from self-denial. That dying to your desires and your wants could have any positive results.

    I’m glad I read these books if only for the following reason: they have opened my eyes to the fact that, as a Christian, I can do much, much more in my effort to show people what Christianity is truly about. It’s not just about rules and institutions and penance and guilt. It is about freedom and love and redemption and hope and… true life. God is not just a grumpy old fellow trying to keep us from having a good time. He wants to help us experience true life and love in a greater capacity than we could ever do on our own, imperfect as we are. This is an important part of the Christian message and reading these books has helped inspire me to shout it out a bit louder from now on.

  12. JohnABaptist says

    Reading the article that John cites above, I was surprised (though perhaps I should not have been) to see her refer to “…Lucifer’s army of fallen angels…” in the following paragraph:

    “The trilogy is a retelling of Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” the classic epic poem from which Pullman borrowed a line, “His Dark Materials.” Milton tells of the battle between Lucifer’s army of fallen angels and God’s rule in heaven. In “Paradise Lost,” God prevails. But in Pullman’s book, the two child protagonists help to defeat the rule of the Authority and the Authority dies.”

    I would have supposed a Professor of Theology at a major university who chose to cite Milton’s Paradise Lost would have at least been aware that Milton identifies Lucifer as being the holder of the office of “Light Bringer” while he is in Heaven, but renames him Satan immediately upon his fall, and scrupulously avoids using the term Lucifer to refer to him thereafter (c.f. The Dartmouth Site. Check the footnote to Book 10 line [425].) It is Satan, and not Lucifer, who commands an army of fallen angels in Milton’s work.

    But then, she seems to me to quote many of her other sources in a very loose fashion as well. Is this perhaps the future of academia? Redefine selective mis-quotations from Ancient Masterworks to support the Politiosophical position du jour? If so I’m too old a dog to change. I’m going to keep barking in favor of accurate quotations and reasoned Philosophical discourse.

  13. globalgirlk says

    I just don’t understand. I recently, as in the last thirty minutes, returned from the movie theatre. The movie the Golden Compass was not all that great and they leave out key plot points. As for the article above, I am slightly confused about this woman’s explanation. Maybe I’m considered narrow minded but I did not see anything similar to the god that she described in the books.

  14. It seems that Mr. Pullman is trying to pull a “Dan Brown” move by stating in one interview, ” “but I wouldn’t want to be part of any movement that had an agenda. I’m not arguing a case. I’m not preaching a sermon. I’m not giving a lecture. I’m telling a story. Any position I take is that of a storyteller who says, Once upon a time, this happened.”
    Then in another, ” Yet this is the same man who told the Washington Post in 2001 that the purpose of his writing was “to undermine the basis of Christian belief” and who agreed with David Frost during a 2003 BBC interview that if there were a God, it would be a good thing to rebel against him “.
    I can’t believe that Mr. Pullman, like Mr. Brown would insult our intelligence with such contradictory statements. Remember Dan Brown when confronted about the backlash from the Catholic and Christian community during the release of the ” Da Vinci Code”, stated that the book is “fiction” people! Then in the beginning of the book and in interviews comes the statement to the effect that the documents and materials used in his book are all historically accurate and based on FACT.
    Then we find after some research that many of the “documents” that Mr. Brown used as proofs for his story were none other than fraudulent documents produced through one Pierre Plantard who was convicted by the French courts. Yet millions still accept Dan Brown’s version of the church hiding the truth about Jesus Christ. I guess then we should not be too surprised that many will accept Philip Pullman’s version of God and His church, even with his contradictory statements. It fulfills an “agenda” that Mr. Pullman states is not there!
    John, this is why I have not read,” His Dark Materials” either. With Ms. Rowling, as you so clearly stated, she wrote the religious backround and symbolism within Harry Potter according to the realm of true English literature. Giving us a picture of her struggles and questions within her faith and authority inside the heart and soul of her characters not in a “preachy” sense of the work, but in a real life sense encased within a fantasy world. That what sets J K Rowling a “world” apart from Philip Pullman. Maybe not in prose, but in heart and soul.

  15. Okay, so it´s a little schadenfreud-ish of me, but:

    “Golden Compass Loses Its Way at the Box Office”

    It did about 25-30% of OOTP’s opening weekend.

  16. I haven’t read the Pullman books, but my son did. He enjoyed the story line, finding it fast-paced and engaging. He also picked up on the theological points of the book (like the good TO — Theologian’s Offspring — he is). However, to a large degree, he inverted things. Somehow, he decided for himself that a lot of what Pullman presented as “bad” were things he saw as good and the “good” in the books were things that would be wrong. He couldn’t quite articulate it, but I do think he got Pullman’s point about the death of God.

    So Pullman is not so subtle that a rather intelligent, theologically aware 12-year old can’t see his real meaning. (Unfortunately, many adults are not nearly as solid in their theological understanding as my son already is.)

  17. Gee, Time Magazine presents Philip Pullman and “His Dark Materials” as an alternative to potential Person-of-the-Year J.K. Rowling. Would that be the Time Magazine that’s part of Time-Warner? You know, the Time-Warner that owns Warner Bros., which owns as one of its subsidiaries New Line Pictures? And wouldn’t New Line Pictures be the producer/distributor of “The Golden Compass”?

    What a surprise that they should publish this article the week the movie is released!

    … By the way, “Golden Compass” originally had an anticipated opening weekend of $50 million. Last week that estimate was drastically dropped to $32 million, which was widely considered a rank failure for a movie costing between $180 mil and $250 mil (depending on whom you listen to).

    The movie actually opened at $26 mil. There are rumors that the head of New Line will lose his job (i.e., not have his contract renewed next year) over this. I think we can assume that the 2nd and 3rd books are unlikely to be filmed. (Let’s just hope the foreign box office is as bad as domestic.)

    …We have an inner longing to hear stories that meet our inmost spiritual needs — the need for heroes, the need for transcendance, the need for beauty, etc. — Stories, as it were, that reflect in some way the Great Story.

    So should we be surprised that the movie, which would seem to be the opposite of what we long for, tanked?

  18. Speaking of agendas, from the “Catholic theologian” article:

    “Dust also reflects strains in feminist theology that reframe the divine as feminine and hold that Christians’ relationship with the divine is mutual, not hierarchical: We make ourselves vulnerable to God as God makes God’s self vulnerable to us. Many see this feminized God as a kind of heresy – a rejection literally embodied in the fact that women are forbidden to represent Jesus through the Catholic priesthood.”

    There is nothing in the Church hierarchy that excludes a mutual relationship with God. Individuals are encouraged to develop a personal relationship with God as well as worship with others as a community and members of the Body of Christ. Implying otherwise seems disingenuous and indicative of an agenda on the part of this essayist.

    As for my opinion on Pullman’s books, I’ll first require a trip to the library to read them.

  19. I read the “Catholic theologian” article when it appeared in the Globe about two weeks ago. Well, I guess one can call oneself a theologian and still be theologically unsound.

    I have read the first two books of the “Dark Materials” trilogy, and that was quite enough, thank you! I found the characters two-dimensional and not that attractive–a result of Pullman’s atheism?

    Anyway, I am not a careless reader, and I found that Freitas’s article missed the mark. I took Pullman at face value–as attacking God as an authoritarian figure. This is the role of “God” in the books, and of course it constitutes a slander against god.Does anybody really believe that the True Christian God is a tyrant? What about the image of God in Man, what about free will? So on this count, Pullman is blaspheming.

    Now, if Pullman’s “God” is actually and angel, a demiurge, or a “bad” god, to be opposed by the “good” god of the dust, then P. has succumbed to the classic heresies of Gnosticism and /or Manicheianism. More blasphemy!

    I interpreted “dust” as being acquired human experience, the building up of character through experimentation and the loss of innocence. (Well, don’t worry, Mr. Pullman, you won’t find a human being around who is primordially innocent!) I found Freitas’s interpretation of “dust” as the Holy Spirit just “off the wall.” Furthermore, Sophia is not the feminine aspect of the third person of the Trinity. Quite to the contrary, Sophia or the Wisdom of God is identified with the second person of the Trinity, the Logos.

    Pullman’s books may be skillfully written, but give me Harry Potter any day. Though some say the movie is supposed to be good, last week “Mr. Moviephone” on CNN said he was panning it, not because it was anti-religious, but because it was just bad!

  20. I think it would be an understatement to say that Pullman has not acquitted himself well in this whole mess of an attempt to strip the books of their theological content. But I don’t think Pullman’s apparent pretentiousness and slipperiness cut against His Dark Materials as a terrific, if deeply flawed, series.

    That being said, I wouldn’t expect most Christians to find them anything other than offensive. While I think many of a theological bent find them fascinating precisely because Pullman’s source material, and themes, are so much more explicit than you would normally find in young adult literature, that shouldn’t translate into a claim that the books are really “acceptable” for most variants of Christianity.

    But, that being said, I found C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia offensive; as a young Jewish agnostic I felt terribly betrayed when, it finally dawned on me while reading the Last Battle, that I was being propagandized. Yet I still enjoy them, and intend to read them to my daughter. But that’s because I find them both fun and interesting; I also find His Dark Materials fun and interesting.

    A few points:

    1) While the necessity of closing the portals between the parallel worlds does serve Pullman’s message, it didn’t strike me as inappropriate. The Republic of Heaven cannot be established. Asrial’s vision is as flawed as that of the Authority he hopes to overcome. Indeed, it is ultimately his love for his daughter that redeems him, as it does Mrs. Coulter. We sometimes have to accept painful sacrifices, but those should not preclude us from living our lives if we emerge alive. Etc.

    2) The end is consistent with a major thematic found in fantasy literature and its cognates: that of the passing of magic from the world,. Indeed, in such literature we also find the notion that the disenchantment of the world, and/or the removal of god/the gods/demigods from active participation in our world is a necessary cost for humanity’s self-determination. See Cooper, Alexander, Wagner, etc. Pullman’s doing the same thing, which even has parallels some particular understandings of salvation through Christ and why no miracles should occur after the redemption of humanity.

    (Recall why the Alethiometer is diminished: Dust no longer intervenes in the world as it must during the rebellion, and now Lyra, who has read it through an act of grace, must learn to read it through hard work, study, and intellect.)

    3) I disagree about Lyra. She goes through a significant arc in the novels. She’s an inveterate liar and general hooligan. By the end of the books, she’s learned to be true to herself in multiple senses of the term. See the above comment as well.

    4) For a really superlative reading of the relationship between His Dark Materials and Milton’s epics, see Stephen Burt’s chapter in MILTON IN POPULAR CULTURE.

    Anyway, apologies for typos and semi-coherence. I really must get back to work :-).

Speak Your Mind