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A Journal for the Inquiring Christian

Book Review …

Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials

Overview: Philip Pullman's alternate worlds trilogy is fun and filled with memorable characters, but the third book is just a silly anti-Christian diatribe.
by Greg Krehbiel
Avoid this series

His Dark Materials is a trilogy: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. It is engaging, witty and imaginative, and features some very likeable characters. Unfortunately, the world-view is sophomoric and blatantly anti-Christian.

In The Golden Compass we follow Lyra Belacqua in her seemingly orphaned romps around Oxford. It doesn't take long to realize that this Oxford is not our Oxford — not that I've ever been there in any event — meaning that Lyra's Oxford is in another world, where some things are the same and some are very different.

The most striking difference in Lyra's world is that everyone has a daemon, which is a kind of Id/familiar/pet. Until a child is grown, the daemon can change shape at will — a mouse one moment, a tiger the next — but it takes a definite form somewhere around adolescence, and the fixed form of the daemon is some kind of reflection of the inner self of the ... what, host? Owner? .... Whatever.

Of course I was disappointed that these creatures were called "daemons." Why mar a perfectly good book — for so I regarded it at first — with this unnecessary association?

I should have trusted my instincts. The author's anti-Christian biases pick up steam throughout The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife. We learn pretty soon that he doesn't like the church, but since "the church" of Lyra's world is not our church (in fact, Calvin had won the 16th century contest of ideologies in Lyra's world), I was willing to look past most of that. There were some strange metaphysics thrown into the story, but hey, this is fantasy, you gotta expect that.

Mid-way through The Amber Spyglass Mr. Pullman shows his true colors. He doesn't only hate the church. He hates God — or "The Authority" as he prefers to call him.

In Pullman's universe, matter decided to become self-aware about 30,000 years ago (we're never told how such silliness could happen), and The Authority was merely the first conscious being. He then decided to try to deceive all the other creatures into believing that he was the creator and force them to do his bidding. (Satan and his lot are cast as freedom-loving rebels, sorta like Han, Luke and Obi-Wan.)

The heroes of the story are those who decide to cast off The Authority's yoke and make war upon him, finally ridding the universe — that is, all the multiple worlds of the series — of this heavenly tyrant. The "good guys" are nuns who broke their vows, little girls who lie incessantly and fallen angels.

Mr. Pullman portrays all of this as very healthy and reasonable because "The Authority" is a dreadful fellow. It goes without saying that his church makes life miserable for everyone, but even his promises of pie in the sky are hollow. The dead, both the just and the unjust, are doomed to a miserable half existence, bereft of hope, tormented by harpies — who were put there by The Authority for precisely that purpose. (Those familiar with early Christian heresies might recall the Gnostics and their Demiurge — the evil, spiteful pretender to the divine throne.)

Pullman's "Authority," which he links to the God of Christianity, is a demented, vindictive angelic being that the universe is certainly better without. But such calumny isn't good enough for Pullman. In the end he portrays God as a decrepit, doddering, senile old Bubble Boy who has to be carted around in a crystal cage and protected from the slightest puff of breeze.

In place of God, Pullman has Dust. In George Lucas' world it might be "the force." This childish, simple-minded pantheism is supposed to liberate everyone from the horrible mistake of Christianity. (One of his hero characters says, "I thought physics could be done to the glory of God, till I saw there wasn't any God at all and that physics was more interesting anyway. The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all.")

So how does Pullman's pantheism fix things? Well, for example, the comforting solution for those miserable souls in The Authority's underworld is to dissipate out into the cosmos once again and become one with everything. Gee, that's just what I always wanted.

Pullman seems upset that Christianity teaches that we're sinners. I don't know what Pullman's religious beliefs are, but from the babble in these books we might suspect some form of ala carte Buddism. If so, his complaint against the Christian doctrine of sin seems out of place because the eastern religions teach a far more distressing view of human nature. We're not real individuals with a problem, they say. Rather, everything that we think of as "ourselves" is just an illusion that has to be "overcome" by "enlightenment," which is sorta like that dissolving into the cosmos thing the dead are supposed to be oh-so-glad of.

For myself, I'd rather be a real person with a sin nature, thank you very much, then a nothing that is deceived into believing it is a something.

If Pullman's ideas were presented systematically in a philosophy class you'd laugh and move on to the next chapter. The danger of fantasy (as with science fiction) is that you have to suspend some of your critical faculties to enjoy the story, and then, while your guard is down, Pullman strikes his low blow.

I'm not going to tell you more about the book because, as I said, it is an engaging, interesting story, and I don't want you to read it. So don't be deceived by positive reviews. (I regret to say that I gave The Golden Compass a thumb's up.) Avoid this series altogether. It's a sophomoric anti-Christian diatribe, but dangerous precisely because it is packaged as a fun series of books for young adults.
Copyright 2001 by the cited author. All rights reserved.