his dark materials

January 4, 2008

Maybe I’m a little late to the game, but I finished reading the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. I originally started reading as a result of some of the email that was making its way around urging Christians not to see The Golden Compass. The claim was that the movie was a setup to lure kids into reading the trilogy with it’s atheistic message. Most of the messages seemed rooted in second or third-hand information, so I set out to read the trilogy for myself.

Be warned that spoilers might follow. Also, just for the sake of clarity, I’ve only read the books. I haven’t read anything else, such as interviews with Philip Pullman, etc. I’m merely offering my perspective of the books as a Christian reader.

Much of the critique I’ve read claims that Pullman does not portray the church in a favorable light. That is a fair critique. I think Jason Clark characterizes it well when he states that Pullman primarily is responding to his own “caricatures of Christianity“. However, some of the ways Pullman portrays the church have been accurate in it’s history, and I would even share some of his critique. Yet I also have to recognize that any characterization of what we might call the church is going to fall short of the diversity of belief, structure, and practice that is the Christian church. As one in leadership in the church, my best response is to hear the critique that Pullman offers and evaluate how it might be true of my context and how I can respond to it.

To say that this series is an attack on God is to miss the point of the previous paragraph. Yes, the characters do set out to destroy God, but it is a God that is also a caricature of what has been portrayed by the church. The Authority, as God is called, is not a god at all, but an angel who set himself in power. Even in Pullman’s fictional universe, there is still a sense that there are greater realities than the this finite ‘God’. In the church’s desire to have certainty of that which is greater than us, we are often more guilty of confining God to our understanding rather than inviting ourselves and others into the grand mystery of God, and that is what I think Pullman reveals.

I guess the ultimate question is whether or not I would allow my own children to read these books. I would, however I don’t think they will be ready for them anytime soon. I noticed that Barnes & Noble shelves these books in a a section for 7-12 year olds, and I think that I’d likely not introduce my children to them until they are around 12 at the earliest. Besides religion, there are some dark and mature themes in the book. Though I don’t want to shelter my children, my young girls have very tender hearts that would be troubled by these stories. When and if the time comes, I would mainly be willing to let my children read them because I’ve read them as well, and could engage in conversation with them about the books and ask them questions about how they perceive the story.

As a Christian, I see no benefit in trying to silence the stories of others. Even in Pullman’s ‘anti-Christian’ work, I have been offered much to think about, and I welcome this creative expression of who he is. Yet, I believe that there is a grand story at the heart of all reality that is true. As such, I desire not to attack the stories of others, but to be the best storyteller of what I find to be true.

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