November 13, 2007

The Philip Pullman "heresy"


A "rumor" circulating around Christian websites and email lists breathlessly reveals that The Golden Compass, the upcoming fantasy epic based on the trilogy by Philip Pullman, celebrates the demise of God. All right-thinking people should be shocked! Shocked! Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war! But this kind of ignorance-fueled hysteria reminds me of nothing so much as the "witch" scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

BEDEMIR: How do you know she is a witch?
VILLAGER: She looks like one.
BEDEMIR: Bring her forward.
WITCH: I'm not a witch. I'm not a witch.
BEDEMIR: But you're dressed as one.
WITCH: They dressed me up like this.

Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy has been in print for a decade and has sold over 15 millions books. One does have to wonder about the long delay in the outrage. Well, it does help to stoke the fires of self-righteousness once you get around to dressing your foe "up like this."

In fact, the god who meets his demise is more an over-the-hill Darth Vader than the personification of the being on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And the scene in question doesn't occur until the third installment in the series, which at this point isn't scheduled for theatrical release until 2011 (unless they pack all three books into two movies, in which case it won't hit theaters until 2009). The Chicken Littles should take two Valiums and get a grip.

But the rumor is out and about, aided and abetted by the fact that Philip Pullman enjoys speaking his mind and has stated publicly, among other things, that he doesn't care for C.S. Lewis. So Lewis fans have taken mighty offense. Actually, in terms of literary criticism, I don't think Pullman is that far off the mark. I also have the feeling that the eccentric Lewis was in person--like Einstein--a less agreeable person than his hagiographies make him out to be.

Pullman obviously loves playing the curmudgeon too, and I have some sympathy for the sentiment. But I'll say this for the Borgia popes: they never let loutishness get in the way of artistic genius.

Pullman also comes across as something of an atheist (I say "something," because His Dark Materials is certainly not atheistic). This guilt-by-association is a trap Christians often fall into. Darwinism gets embraced by loudmouthed atheists, so evolution must be the devil's work. But Marxists reject Darwin too. Push come to shove, I'll stand with the Darwinists, thank you very much. They're less likely to ship me off to a gulag.

But these ad hominems are beside the point. Having grown up in the Mormon tradition, I'll direct the bulk of my ranting and raving against my own kind.

Namely, that this fevered reaction is typical of the kind of hand-wringing that Mormons get into by: 1) believing that the enemy of their enemy is their friend; 2) not really having the slightest idea what they actually believe, and so deciding in this intellectual vacuum to go along with whatever tripe the more vocal evangelicals are fulminating about; 3) seeking safety in numbers.

[My sister suggests that the problem may arise from what she calls "right-brained literalism." That is, rejecting the weight of empirical fact while taking the subjective and emotive--such as that aroused by art--as literal expressions of reality. So one's personal reactions to a rumor are taken as more meaningful than the substance of the rumor itself. Unfortunately, this makes rational argument so much dust in the wind.]

Too many Mormons, for example, aren't aware that Lewis (in Perelandra) explains the Fall in terms quite different than the Sunday school view. Pullman's depiction is closer to the Mormon version. Do we need reminding of why mainline Christians--especially evangelicals--consider Mormonism heretical and non-Christian? You may be both throwing stones at the same target now, but it won't be long until they're back to throwing stones at you instead.

What do Mormons imagine the First Vision was about anyway? If not killing off the Nicene god? And in no uncertain terms.

Not only does His Dark Materials align more closely with Mormon doctrine than Lewis's Narnia, but it does so on a more complex level. If Narnia is algebra, His Dark Materials is differential calculus. Hence the oversimplification, leading to gullibility. In contrast, this review of Pullman's trilogy in First Things elucidates the weaknesses in Pullman's narrative with an even hand, and comes to the same conclusions that I do:

I can fairly characterize His Dark Materials in this fashion: imagine if at the beginning of the world Satan’s rebellion had been successful, that he had reigned for two thousand years, and that a messiah was necessary to conquer lust and the spirit of domination with innocence, humility, and generous love at great personal cost. Such a story is not subversive of Christianity, it is almost Christian, even if only implicitly and imperfectly. But implicit and imperfect Christianity is often our lot in life, and Pullman has unintentionally created a marvelous depiction of many of the human ideals Christians hold dear.

As I've noted above, the supposed heresy that kicked off this whole kerfuffle doesn't even take place in The Golden Compass. So if you're jonesing to be offended, you're going to have to wait. However, the conclusion of the anime series Scrapped Princess is quite similar to His Dark Materials. Essentially, the overthrow of the old church and old god ("Mauser"), made possible by a blood atonement, which leads to an "fall" from Eden (that has turned into a police state), and from captivity to free will.

PACIFICA: Are you God?
MAUSER: I am a traitor, the caretaker of this sealed world.
PACIFICA: I--
MAUSER: You were born to destroy me.

Obviously, without watching the entire series (available from Netflix), you won't understand all the specifics of plot going on here (Pacifica's brother--the dragon--is fighting the enforcers of the old order). But Mormons in particular should recognize the symbolic nature of Pacifica's death, the conversation between Pacifica and "god," and her description of the "war in heaven."

I personally consider His Dark Materials one of the most ingenious Y/A fantasies ever written. Besides, whatever else he does, Pullman deserves respect for his succinct and insightful defense of Y/A literature in general.

UPDATE: More Philip Pullman commentary here, here, here and here.

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