His Dark Materials: The Church that atheists don’t see

This is part of a series of posts on the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman (henceforth HDM). Spoilers abound.

Pullman’s trilogy is intended as an anti-Narnia, a polemical work meant to critique and satirize Christianity and the Church. He’s stated this openly in several interviews, and he followed HDM with The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, a fictionalized version of the story of Jesus which makes his critique even more explicit. It’s interesting, then, to note that Pullman’s critique is in fact focussed on an incredibly narrow part of religious life, to the exclusion of the better part of what believers actually experience.

To wit, Pullman treats religion as if it’s entirely about power and authority.

The Church in the world of HDM is a political entity, entirely concerned with maintaining its own worldly status and position. The Church’s moral teachings exist solely to increase the Church’s power. God is renamed “the Authority,” and both him and his archangel Metatron are in the diety business just because they want to boss other people around. The plot of the trilogy concerns the efforts of the protagonists to undermine this authority and get out from underneath the shadow of God’s or the Church’s control.

Let me concede up front that this is not an entirely baseless critique. The Church is political entity, even in our own time, and it has often acted in ways meant to increase its own power rather than forward its supposed spiritual purpose. Furthermore, Christian activism in the US largely contributes to the notion that Christianity is a political platform rather than a spiritual discipline.

But Pullman doesn’t seem to think that there is anything to religion other than power and control, which means that he misses the largest part of what most believers actually experience. (It also means that he writes a book which purports to be an attack on Christianity in which no character ever says a single word about Christ, not even the timeworn cliches of Jesus as a great teacher misrepresented by the Church, etc. In fact, given the differences between Lyra’s world and ours, it’s not actually clear that there ever was a Christ in their timeline.) To put it mildly, my experience of religion is not one that much resembles Pullman’s critique. My knowledge of God begins in beauty, passes through sorrow, transcendence, sublimity, struggle, and (yes) obedience, and ends in silence. My God is the voice that answers Job out of the whirlwind, the fire burning in the unconsumed bush, he who is clothed in darkness, but who will not break a bruised reed. The Authority of Pullman’s books only ever says, “Do as I tell you.” Christ says “Come to me you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

My experience is not unique. I do not know anyone whose primary understanding of God is that of a distant lawgiver, a powerful being who coerces obedience with the threat of eternal punishment. And to be clear, most of my Christian acquaintances are of the evangelical Protestant or conservative Catholic stripe, precisely the sort of people that Pullman most has in his sights. Perhaps somewhere out there exist Christians who conceive of God this way. But I have never met them.

To critique the Church in the way that Pullman does is to focus only on its most impersonal, institutional, and authoritarian aspects, and to ignore everything else. The Church contains more than bureaucrats and lawyers. It contains saints and mystics, poets and painters, architects and astronauts. HDM does not acknowledge the existence of this mass of people at all. In HDM, there is no one in the Church who is there for any reason other than acquiring power, and no one who bows a knee for any reason other than fear. Pullman is free to present the Church this way if he wants to. But this is so different from reality as to be useless as a critique.

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2 Comments

  1. Besides, anyone who has that level of problem in forming a healthy relationship to authority (where there is authority and it is appropriate) is just a very old adolescent. Might as well rid the world of those evil police officers, or lead a pogrom against McDonald’s shift managers, or spit in the eyes of our own parents. It’s childish and a bit pathetic to rail against tradition, leaders and fore-bearers (aka old folk) without realizing that all our delusions aside we live in the world shaped by them and their hard suffered decisions.

    I’m not saying, ah yes, there’s authority and the little weasel ought to listen to his betters; I’m just pointing out that even where authority does exist it is not inherently criminal and by more stretches than not a better sort than what he’d do himself. This is what adults learn. That there is no magic in the world, you actually have to do things so that people can eat.

    Perhaps this is what this sort of atheism is (there are other sorts to be sure), nothing more than the wanderings of a mind spoiled by the experience of never lacking any needed thing and by the power of modernity to increase his own perceived self-importance.

  2. Pullman never claimed to be atheist, his problem is with the Catholic Church, a problem he developed when studying theology. On the contrary I find hdm profoundly spiritual…

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