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Saturday, June 05, 2004

Discussing Philip Pullman . . .

To offer good analysis and criticism one must of course be familiar with the work of one's opponent. With that in mind, I can only admire such gifted authors like Amy Welborn or Carl Olson for their fortitude in plodding through The DaVinci Code in order to respond to it's anti-Catholic bigotry and set to right its glaring errors.

For all the frequent discussion of The DaVinci Code or Left Behind by Catholics on the net, there is apparently another work of fantasy fiction enjoying great popularity and which some have maintained constitutes an even greater threat to the faith in its capacity to decieve its audience.

Stephen Riddle of Flos Carmeli believes that Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy "is more potentially damaging than Harry Potter or the much maligned (and not really worth it) DaVinci Code"; so do, for that matter, Amy Welborn and Mark Shea. And there is justifiable cause for concern because, as with The DaVinci Code, Hollywood has decided to cash in on the hype by turning The Dark Materials into a movie.

As you might have gathered by now, I haven't read Pullman's work, and honestly when it comes down to it, in spite of all the praises for Pullman's skill with words, I'd rather fulfill my ambition to read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Simarillion or re-read Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia than attempt to digest an atheist whose literary screeds (according to Peter Hitchens) are motivated by a grudge against a member of The Inklings.

However, bowing to the duty of becoming acquainted with the work of the opposition, I'm hoping a perusal of the following reviews on the 'net will suffice:

  • "The Anti-Narnia", by Meredith ("Basia Me Catholic Sum"), begins with a brief but good defense of Harry Potter and moves on to explain why she found Pullman's universe such a literary letdown:
    Beautiful writing can cover a multitude of sins, but not for long. Pullman attempts a massive transvaluation of values: God is evil, Satan is good, Original Sin is Heavenly Grace. I'm not sure that any writer could pull off such an audacious sleight-of-hand, and Pullman certainly doesn't. The inversions remain too disturbing. The whole thing crumbles under the weight of the centuries-old archetypes he attempts to subvert: Pullman's life-giving Dust can never really supress the memory of TS Eliot's handful of dust, or the ashes and dust of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. His good, wise serpent can't drive out the serpent that is a primal symbol of evil.
  • Amy Welborn writes of the difference between Tolkien and Pullman:
    J.R.R. Tolkien, to whom Pullman is often compared, but for whom he has little regard (for the record, Pullman despises C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, calling it "anti-life"), was a man of deep convictions as well. The difference between the two writers’ work, though, is that Tolkien, as devout a Catholic as he was, took special care in his voluminous fantasy works – which extend far beyond The Lord of the Rings, by the way – to offer what he calls a "sub-creation" embodying his vision of reality and truth, but in which there is never an explicit reference to the notions "our world" has of God, nor of religion at all, creating on the way, a work of art, not polemics.

    So there lies the essential difference, which extends beyond ideology. Phillip Pullman ultimately fails as a writer in His Dark Materials, not because of his views on religion, but because he simply can’t resist the temptation to preach about them, putting art to the service of manipulating his young readers’ opinions, ironically enough, with even more force and skill than any of his imagined Magisterial Courts could ever muster on their own.

  • Paradise Denied: Philip Pullman & the Uses & Abuses of Enchantment. (Touchstone Magazine October 2003). Leonie Caldecott, editor of the commendable Second Spring magazine, on the axe-grinding anti-Christian agenda of the "anti-Inkling":
    On April 1, 2001, I attended a Pullman talk and signing-session at the Oxford Union with my daughter and some of her friends. . . . The microphone was passed around the audience for questions. "Why are you so nasty about the Church?" asked a child sitting several rows down from us.

    Pullman then launched into a diatribe against the Church as being responsible for all the horrors of history: wars, heresy hunts, burning of witches, etc. When he finished, a fairly large proportion of the audience burst into applause. Later we were told that the girl who had asked the question was devastated. Several in our party were preparing to receive the sacrament of confirmation. The point of receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit, notably fortitude and right judgment, was demonstrated graphically to them on that day.

  • In "An Almost Christian Fantasy" (First Things 113 (May 2001): 45-49), editor Daniel P. Moloney takes a different turn, agreeing with fellow critics on the defects of Pullman's writing,
    Atheists can write perfectly good and realistic fiction, because there is nothing about being an atheist that prohibits a person from understanding human motivation and the physical world. But being nonreligious does deprive you of the one thing an ambitious fantasy author needs: a plausible cosmology, a myth that tells us how things got to be the way they are.
    But at the same time concluding with a rather different and unexpected take:
    . . . 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.
    I imagine that many Christians (and not a few members of St. Blog's) may disagree with his review, but I rather enjoyed Malonely's unconventional reading -- and Pullman himself would probably find the suggestion that a Christian might even derive valuable moral lessons from his work positively infuriating. ;-)

  • The author of the blog "Confessing (Ex-) Anglican" [now evangelical] offers a prayer for Pullman in which we can all join:
    . . . one essential plank of Pullman’s "evangelistic" strategy is to make God appear, not terrible or evil, but simply weak and pathetic. It’s clear that Pullman’s worldview has no room for a God who is weak, pathetic - or who dies. He seems to believe that putting such an image of God in people’s minds will help inoculate them against Christianity (it’s clear that one of his aims is to create the right sort of "mythic structures" in his readers’ minds).

    But of course, the whole message of Christianity centres on the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ: when God himself, in his Son, made himself weak, pathetic and helpless. God in the manger; God on the Cross.

    If Pullman cannot see this, then this explains the total absence of Christ from his books - there is simply no way of fitting Christ into Pullman’s worldview. That is where the worldview falls apart.

    That also gives me some small, faint hope for Philip Pullman - the fact that he cannot fit Christ into his worldview opens the possibility that one day Christ will force his way into Pullman’s worldview and shatter it; that Pullman will see that a weak and helpless God - one who needs to be carried around (as a baby), one who can be held in contempt by men and killed (as a man) - far from being the ultimate nail in Christianity’s coffin, is in fact the God who loves him and has, in his Son, laid down his life for him.

Finally, Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, met with Mr. Pullman for a public discussion at England's National Theatre on March 17, 2004, in which they discussed a variety of topics (the resurgence of gnositicism; Mel Gibson's The Passion; the ethics of teaching religion in school, among other things). During the 'Q&A' period the following question was posed to Pullman:
Q: Is one [religious] truth someone else's lie, and does that inevitably lead to warfare?

PP: This raises the question of relativism and so on. It's a terribly difficult one. If my religion is true, does that mean your religion is false, or are we worshipping the same god by different names? I'm temperamentally ‘agin' the post modernist position that there is no truth and it depends on where you are and it's all a result of the capitalist, imperialist hegemony of the bourgeois… all this sort of stuff. I'm agin that but I couldn't tell you why. I'm rather like the old preacher who was agin sin. That was the message that came from his sermon. It's a temperamental, visceral thing.

It seems to me that Philip Pullman wants very dearly to be an atheist -- but as he admits with some embarassment, there is something in him that reacts, strongly, against the metaphysical foundations of atheism: the relativistic ["post modernist"] assertion that there is no truth, no meaning.

Indeed, as Daniel P. Moloney reveals in his review of the trilogy in First Things, Pullman himself simply cannot help but be motivated by implicitly Christian values:

In Pullman’s telling, the fate of all creation hinges, not on some difficult choice between good and evil, but merely on the moment when Will and Lyra first kiss. Somehow (and in the 1,100 pages of the trilogy there is nothing that suggests why this is of literally cosmic significance), after this kiss—and that’s as far as they go—the Dust that had been flowing out of the universe flows back in, and an age of peace and love is suddenly possible. Because these two young teenagers are basically innocent, as the shifting of their daemons reveals, their innocent love is supposed to show that sex and things of the flesh are very good, when properly ordered. Pullman mistakenly attacks Christian asceticism when he really is rejecting only heretical Manicheism. . . .

Soon after The Kiss, Will and Lyra are forced to make a very painful choice between their own happiness and keeping their promises to others—and they choose loyalty and the common good. The possibility of great happiness is presented to them, and they give it up at great cost to themselves. This melancholy ending redeems the earlier banality, both morally and narratively -- but only by appealing to the very Christian notion that we should put aside even good things like kissing in the name of the last things. The choice that Lyra and Will make is analogous to the choice a young man or woman considering religious celibacy makes: though I can reject my destiny, and it will require great strength to carry out, I am clearly called to forgo the great good of marriage in order that others may enjoy life and go to heaven.

As any reader of Mere Christianity knows, it is the subtle and gradual recognition of 'The Law of Nature', 'The Moral Law', 'The Law of Decent Behavior'; the gnawing feeling that there must be a Meaning to it all, some kind of Truth, that spells the end of atheism and the impending consideration of the divine.

If Moloney is right -- and I believe he is -- then Pullman had best look out, for the Hound of Heaven may be after him yet.


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