by G. Scott Huggins
I was asked to speak recently as part of a panel at a convention on the anti-Narnia trilogy committed by Philip Pullman called His Dark Materials. The books are, like the Chronicles of Narnia targeted toward the youth audience. I’ll say in passing that I find it absolutely stunning that I heard volumes of advice from churchgoing folk on the merits vs. the evils of reading Harry Potter books, which pretty much align with Judaeo-Christian moral teachings, if anything. Yet never once did I hear a peep about these three books, which in effect openly declare war on the Christian faith. In the series, the only afterlife is Hell, which is maintained by an evil God (“The Authority”) who has pulled the wool over the eyes of the universe. Essentially, this “God” is the imagined God of Satan in Paradise Lost: not a Creator, but simply an immensely old and powerful being who assumed the title of “God” in order to rule all who came after. The Authority maintains Hell for no other reason than Divine sadism, and by the time of the novel, the angel Metatron is trying to take over the position of “God” from the senile and dying deity, maintaining the monstrous tyranny of Heaven. The protagonists are humans who lead a revolution against these evil god-kings to establish “The Republic Of Heaven.”
So, I told those running the panel that as a practicing Christian, I would have some fairly sharp criticisms to direct toward the books’ portrayal of Christianity, which as questions of fairness go is about on a par with Tim LaHaye’s portrayal of atheism in the Left Behind series. And if this was a fan panel extolling the books’ virtues then I would probably not be the person they wanted. They agreed. And in some sense I am disappointed, because I was rather hoping they might want to foster a sharp debate on the issue, but I get it: people are fans of things, and they don’t always want to be told why they shouldn’t be.
Now, I don’t expect with this essay to dissuade anyone who loves these books: there are many out there who regard war upon the Christian faith as a good and necessary thing, and if you think that weaning children away from it is a moral triumph, then I imagine that you will indeed like these books. I disagree, of course, and I imagine that no one who is a fan cares. But what I find truly interesting is this: So often, when I speak with atheists, they boast of having read the Bible. They believe they know it better than Christians do, and it is often stated – and more often implied – that if Christians would actually read the whole thing, including the morally challenging bits, then they would stop being Christians. Perhaps especially in light of that, I would encourage people who are familiar with Pullman’s story to consider all the things this triumphant war on God had to leave out in order to be prosecuted to its successful conclusion.
The most glaring omission from the entire series is the story of Christ. The Authority portrayed in the books is explicitly Christian in character. The Catholic Church is still a frightening world power in the first book. Can you imagine a Catholic Church without Christ? And yet, the story of Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection is entirely absent. The story of Enoch from Genesis and of Lucifer’s Fall are pretty much central to the storyline. But the defining act of Christianity is completely ignored. And the only conclusion that I can possibly come to is that it had to be ignored for the tale of an evil God to make the slightest bit of sense. Because the charge that God is an evil puppetmaster that just loves to torment people by holding them to an impossible standard and then punishing them when they fail really falls apart if that same God has sacrificed himself or his child to reunite humanity with Himself. But I have to confess that I don’t see why the whole story of Christ wasn’t revealed as a complete fabrication to lure gullible humanity into worshipping the Authority. If the whole thing had been revealed as propaganda, then that would effectively have made the Authority just that much more ruthless: the promise of Divine Grace revealed as a lie. But I think the problem here is that Pullman has either a) simply failed to understand that the story of Christ is central to the Christian faith, or b) doesn’t care that it is, and is confident that his readers will have too little religious education to call him on it.
For reasons that are never fully explained, humans can be kept alive indefinitely in the torment of Hell – Lyra and Will free the damned souls in the third book – but cannot be kept alive in Heaven. This despite the fact that we know that Enoch somehow won enough favor from the Authority to be turned into the archangel Metatron. Baruch also somehow became an angel, with an extremely long life, but when Will reasonably asks how, Baruch demurs to say. So humans can be transformed into – if not eternal beings (because even God dies of old age) – at least incredibly long-lived and powerful ones in a condition free from torment. Yet this apparently cannot happen anymore. All the souls freed from Hell simply dissolve into nothingness. In fact, the nothingness, which is described as a mystical but unconscious joining with the life of the Universe, is portrayed as superior to becoming an angel, because angels seem to envy humans the pleasures of the flesh. Even though angels can lust after and mate with human women. So angels are apparently incels.
And again, one wonders how we are supposed to take this? Because it seems to me that Pullman leaves himself with a rather terrible end to his own story. Lyra speaks breathlessly of creating “The Republic of Heaven,” at the end of the series, but no one seems ever to wonder whether the Authority’s apparently unique power of human apeotheosis could ever be duplicated, even though all the Authority’s power seem to have come from his superior experience. And if the Authority dies in the end, then surely the other angels will as well. Followed by humanity and all other life. The Republic of Heaven, in the end, will come to nothing.
Funnily enough, Lucifer, who is regarded as a hero by Lyra’s parents, never shows up in the story except by reference. He is cast as the archetypal liberator of the universe from the tyranny of the Authority, but is apparently lost forever in the mists of time. Of course one might well think that Satan is the proper hero for two parents who abandon their child, refuse to acknowledge her to her face, and literally cut the soul from her friend’s body in order to unlock the secrets of the universe. Apparently, like every revolutionary tyrant in human history, the ends justify the means for them. As long as they were on the “right side,” fighting against God, they get to wear the mantle of virtue. Like Satan himself, their recorded crimes are to be washed away because… the Author(ity?) says so.
So in the end, it seems to me that Pullman has managed to demonstrate (since “proof” is far too strong a word to use in connection with any work of fiction) just two things.
Firstly, he has demonstrated that a Christianity with no Jesus Christ, no hope of heaven, and no real sin to oppose, is a monstrous tyranny. I would, I suppose have to agree. I wonder if Pullman might next favor us with a dystopia in which he concludes that a republic with no representation, no elections, and no limits on power is a terribly abusive form of government? Surely we must then conclude that republics are oppressive, yes?
Secondly, he has demonstrated that he is, within his scope as a fiction writer, perfectly willing to indulge in the same abuses of power that he mocks the Authority for abusing: he will allow no grace to those he has designated as evil, he will offer no hope of salvation to anyone. Near the end of the third book, Mary Malone says that good and evil are names for what we do, not what we are. Good actions help people and bad actions hurt them. However, Pullman seems to have taken that to a fearful extreme: what determines whether an action helps or harms has nothing to do with people actually hurt or actually harmed. Rather, the proof of an action’s good or evil has much less to do with actual harm caused than upon whether they were done under the correct flag. So long as the Authority was destroyed, all of Lyra’s parents’ cruelty and lies were good things.
The Authority is Dead.
Long Live the Author.
There is another reason why Pullman omitted or only alludes in passing to Christ, Satan, and Lucifer: he doesn’t intend his writing to critique Christianity specifically, but authoritarian religion generally. That is perhaps reductive (if trying to critique Christianity as a whole wasn’t already reductive), but his rhetorical opponents need not be Christians in particular. Under this reading, Pullman’s emphasis on hell is perhaps unfair because hell and heaven are mainstream ideas in many religious traditions. Perhaps he means to critique precisely those strands of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and other traditions that themselves emphasize hell and use hell coercively.