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Pullman’s Purpose

- by Mark Greene

This year's Whitbread prize-winner Philip Pullman is, as you might expect, a fine writer and he's a fine writer with a cause. His cause, as he himself has made clear, is to destroy Christianity, and to liberate the world from any faith in a personal God.

The Amber Spyglass, the first children's novel to win the award, is the final volume in his hugely popular trilogy, His Dark Materials. It's a collection that ironically seems to have assured him a place in the pantheon of childrens' authors alongside C S Lewis and Tolkien, writers whose Christian faith he views as both misplaced and corrosive. Indeed, he regards the Narnia books with intense loathing:
"The Narnia books lead up to a view of life so hideous and cruel I can scarcely contain myself when I think of it," (The Times)

Or similarly, in The Sunday Telegraph:

"I think he (Lewis) was actually dangerous because these books celebrate death. As an end-of-term treat the children are killed: that to me is disgusting."

Well, if you consider that a somewhat distorted view of Narnia that fails to consider the eternal bliss that the children will enjoy, then just wait for what Pullman does to the Bible. Indeed, Pullman goes about his assault in the most direct way - no allegory for him, no concealing of the identity of God behind invented names like Lewis' Aslan. No, the God Pullman attacks is called "God, the Creator, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty" and rather perniciously "The Authority." This god is, in Pullman's cosmos, no god at all but the first angel that formed from matter. God is not the God of truth but a liar. His angels are not the angels of light but the angels of darkness. In this god's universe heaven is not a place of joy and freedom but a vast and drear prison camp where the dead are tormented by harpies. God himself is indeed the 'Ancient of Days', not in the sense that He was before the beginning, but in the sense that he is very, very old, hanging on to existence by a mere thread and in the end blown away into happy molecular disintegration by a gust of wind.

Pullman builds this edifice of untruth on a partial rewriting and radical re-interpretation of Genesis Chapter 3, of the Fall, from which he quotes liberally and not entirely accurately. Still, whilst Pullmans' distaste for the church is evident early on in the first book he bides a good five hundred pages before showing his hand. In the meantime he's drawn his readers (and me) into a brilliantly conceived tale of a young, fiercely courageous and intensely loyal girl whose best friend is kidnapped by agents of a malevolent church. She sets off to rescue him. As the trilogy progresses the scope of the tale widens out into a cosmic battle between good and evil waged across several parallel universes accessed by windows that have been opened and continue to be opened by the subtle knife of the so-named second volume. Along the way we learn more about God who is not a loving God seeking people's good but their enslavement, and we learn more about the Church that serves him which is not a channel of love and a protector of children but a self-serving, bigoted, malevolent and murderous exploiter of them.

Sadly, of course, the history of the Bride of Christ is not without its ghastly episodes but overall if we were to ask in which other communities in human history has so much love been shown to the sick, the poor, the marginalized… or if indeed we were to consider in which other communities so much been given in time and treasure an talent to alleviate poverty and ignorance and disease, then Pullmans' view would be exposed for the malevolent distortion that it is. He even goes so far to accuse Calvin of having ordered the execution of children. This may not be blasphemy but, according to Professor Tony Lane of LBC, who is himself one of the world's leading authorities on Calvin and has broached the question with other leading experts, it's tendentious in the extreme. Pullman is not only swift to re-write the past but he's also quick to re-imagine the future. So it is that the young girl Lyra and her young knife-bearer friend Will are the new Eve and the new Adam. And they are destined for an encounter with the serpent who turns out to be a lapsed nun, an encounter on which the future of the multi-verse rests. If this new Eve resists the temptation, God will be defeated and it will herald a new start, a new era of peace in the Republic of Heaven on earths - in which the here and now will be all and death will be but a joyous dissolution into the universe. But if Lyra and Will succumb, cruelty will go on and on. In sum, Christ is not the new Adam whose atoning sacrifice opens the door to full humanity, rather it is all up to our Lyra and our Will. And they come through - displaying splendid determination, courage, emotional strength, as well as a laudable selflessness that allows them to sacrifice their great love for one another for the good of all the multi-verses. Their emotional strength is made all the more remarkable by the fact that both have been growing up without an appropriate level of care from their mother or father. Lyra's parents have abandoned her in their quest for power. Similarly, Will's father's work took him away from his family and into another world, leaving Will to care for a mother whose emergent mental illness made her ever more dependent on her son. Perhaps some of Pullman's popularity stems from this empathy with a generation of children who feel themselves abandoned - by divorce and over-work, for example - children who must make their own way in the world.

Overall, however, Pullman sees himself as rewriting Milton's Paradise Lost - except for teenagers. And it is a heady mix of witches, shamans, daemons (the animal manifestation of a person's soul), talking bears, angels, and spectres that suck the consciousness out of adults but leave them in a kind of suspended state of indifference - the living dead. Though the spectres bear a resemblance to the dementors of Rowling's books, Pullman's trilogy is not written as an escapist fantasy. His work is darker, much darker than the playful, good-humoured, public school world of the Potter books. Indeed, though there are many moments of wonder, and some of playfulness, Pullman rarely, if ever as far as I can recall, allows himself a joke. After all the future of the universe is at stake - no time for an every flavour jelly bean. Nor indeed, for much subtlety of characterisation - at least not for the bad guys who are all unremittingly and one-dimensionally evil with stereotypically unpleasant daemons - frogs, lizards, beetles and so on.

Curiously for an atheist, Pullman's universe may not have a real living god, but it sure has all kinds of 'spiritual' forces, including a curious instrument called the alethiometer which cannot but tell the truth and give appropriate directions. This, if anything is the deus ex machina, in the trilogy. There is a force out there, and there are prophecies to be fulfilled but what or whence this force, and how prophecies can be given with authority we know not. Pullman posits a coherent multi-verse with some purpose behind it but cannot bring himself to go the next step to contemplating a personal God. Still, he denies out an out atheism in the rather over-analytical way that some postmoderns do:

"Atheism suggests a degree of certainty that I'm not quite willing to accede to. I suppose technically you'd have to put me down as an agnostic. But if there is a God and he is as the Christians describe him, then he deserves to be put down."

This strikes me as profoundly dishonest - here's a man who's spent years constructing an epic story with the express aim of showing that there is no God and after all that he protests uncertainty. Me thinks he protests too much.

Pullman is, in fact, an old-fashioned atheist, still believing that a world without any belief in God would be a better place, and that humans have the capacity to create heaven on earth. You would have thought that anyone who'd lived almost their entire life in the second half of the twentieth century would have woken up to the reality that, whatever Christianity's faults, the atheist creed of communism in its various manifestations proved far more effective at limiting freedom of thought and expression, and more far efficient at enslaving people in gulags and camps and murdering them in their tens of millions than Christianity ever has. Furthermore, the history of Western Europe is an eloquent testimony to what occurs when civilisations move away from their Judeo-Christian base - people do not discover joy and beauty and true freedom, they encounter increasing alienation, fragmentation, loss of identity and existential angst. This was, incidentally, also the conclusion of many of the great non-believing thinkers and artists of the twentieth century. God may not exist but that is little comfort - look at humanity. Whence now cometh our help?

This has always been the atheist's problem. If there is no God to blame for the mess, humanity has no choice but to look in the mirror. And it ain't pretty. Pullman thinks that the here and now is all there is and that it's full of wonder and delight. He believes that if only we concentrated on the here and now we'd all be happier. That's what the bulk of the population of Britain are doing and we've never been so miserable.

I first encountered these stories through the enthusiasm of my then 12 year old god-daughter who admired the brilliance of Pullman's adventure but was able to dismiss his anti-Christian propaganda with the nonchalance of a donkey flicking away a fly. "Pullman's God," she said, "is nothing like the God I worship." Indeed he is not. But you only need to go back to the Garden of Eden to see how dangerous it can be when a subtle wordsmith whispers in someone's ear that God is not really good, that he does not have your best interests at heart, that he does not mean what he says…

Indeed, Pullman's propaganda may well be most dangerous to children and adults who have never known the love of the living God and do see the church as an out-of-date, life-denying, power-hungry and ultimately self-seeking institution. It may simply confirm their prejudices. As such, Pullman may succeed in turning many a child away from the true God he calls 'the enemy.' Nevertheless, Pullman has laid down his gauntlet in public, and the very success of his books and the explicitness of his attack may well provide Christians of all ages with many an opportunity to present the truth.

Certainly, we must oppose his ideas, and he expects no less. Nevertheless, he has left himself extremely vulnerable - his books almost entirely ignore Jesus. Perhaps he could find no way to twist such loving self-sacrifice into ammunition for the case against God. After all, a God who will deliberately sacrifice himself out of love is a long, long way from the malevolent and impotent cripple of Pullman's imagination. Indeed, we might pray that he soon discovers that the door into heaven will not be cut by an extraordinary and unique knife but has been already been flung wide open by the submission of the Son to some very ordinary nails.

Mark Greene