This is an informal critique of the His Dark Materials series in response to the concerns of some people in my church. Looking forward to comments. Hope it’s helpful!
The soon-to-be released film The Golden Compass has caused some controversy in the Christian world, having been described as ‘atheism for kids’ (Vineyard, 2007). It is based on the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. I read and considered the trilogy briefly when I was doing my teaching qualifications in 2004 and since then have watched various Christian reactions with interest. Philip Pullman is a well-respected author of children’s and adolescent literature and this trilogy fits into the adolescent category. While these texts must be approached with caution, similar to The Da Vinci Code and the Harry Potter series, they may provide us with excellent gospel opportunities upon closer examination (Hurst 2007). I include adolescent readers and viewers in this call for caution. Introducing young people to the concept of critical reading will stand them in good stead for later life as well as encouraging them to be thinking and active witnesses for Christ in their current situation.
This critique will examine the whole trilogy, not just Northern Lights. To that end, it includes some spoilers. By way of a very brief summary, the trilogy centres around Lyra and her friend Will (who only appears from The Subtle Knife onwards) as they move through parallel universes. They are attempting to find the source of ‘Dust’, an elementary particle which the Church teaches is evidence for original sin and which is less attracted to children. Lyra’s estranged mother and father, Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel, are likewise engaged in this pursuit although, it seems, for a mix of sinister and noble reasons. As the trilogy unfolds, it becomes apparent that The Authority (the godlike character) and his delegated regent Metatron are the source of Dust. In the end, Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter reconcile and kill the Metatron, sacrificing themselves in the process. Prior to this, the Metatron has imprisoned The Authority in a crystal box but when Will and Lyra free him, he is too weak to continue and dies. It is revealed that Dust is actually a sign of self-awareness, not an indication of evil.
Before critiquing particular elements of the novels, it is important to firstly clarify that this literature is fantasy. It is something of the imagination. This genre is typically associated with highly fanciful and sometimes supernatural themes (Fantasy World 2007). Certainly the world from which Lyra comes, with its Dust visible to children and its daemons (part of the soul external to the body, in the shape of an animal) does not look like ours. Will’s world may be a little closer, since daemons are not visible but the idea of Spectres and a world without adults is dystopian to say the least. At one point in The Amber Spyglass, Will and Lyra do travel to a world which looks much more like ours, with similar technology and so on. However, the very fact of their world-travel, through slicing open the fabric between worlds with the Subtle Knife, indicates the fantastic nature of this text. Being fantasy then, this novel is not set in the real world and readers should not treat it as such. However, some of the concepts within the novels have relevance to our world and so it is these to which I now turn.
In a recent email I received, His Dark Materials was described a story is about “a young streetwise girl [who] becomes enmeshed in an epic struggle to ultimately defeat the oppressive forces of a senile God… In the final book, characters representing Adam and Eve eventually kill God”. There is much to both agree and disagree with here.
Firstly, a remark about the nature of ‘God’ in this trilogy and then some things for Christians to disagree with and also some common ground.
Firstly, regarding the nature of ‘God’ in this trilogy, the above quote presupposes that the ‘senile God’ is the God of Christianity, as indicated by the capital G and (although this may be called into question), the use of the term ‘Yahweh’ for that god. However, it must be remembered that Yahweh is not the God of Christians alone, but also of Jews. The uniqueness of Christianity comes not from God’s name (for Jews use that as well) but from his incarnation in the man Jesus. There is nothing about Jesus in this story at all. At best, this ‘senile’ God is a theistic god, but he is certainly not the triune God of Christianity.
There is a natural tendency, however, to compare and contrast any god-like character in a novel with the God of the Bible and certainly, this comparison could be made here. However, there are some fundamental differences. Christians should be aware of these on apologetic grounds, that is, to defend the assertion that The Authority (as the god character is referred to) is the same as the Christian God. In addition, these differences can remind Christians and point non-Christians, perhaps for the first time, to the truth, glory and goodness of our great God.
he character and nature of The Authority is fundamentally different from the Christian God. For example, The Authority is not the creator. Rather, he is the first created being, the First Angel who has deceived others into believing that he is God and has real power (‘The Authority’ 2007). The God of the Bible, on the other hand, is a self-revelatory God (Heb. 1:1-3) and it is Satan who deceives and masquerades as an angel of light (2Cor. 11:14). The contrast is clear. On one hand is the creator God of Bible whose majesty, power and love are clear to all and on the other, The Authority, who becomes increasingly frail and withdrawn from the world throughout the story and has to delegate his power to the Metatron.
The actions of The Authority are also different from those of the Christian God. The former is oppressive and governs through the church where the latter is fatherly and has sent his Spirit to live in the hearts of his people and teach them how to live his way (John 16:13). However, the sharpest contrast comes at the moment of The Authority’s death. Unlike Jesus, who goes willingly to the cross (Matt 26:36-45) and commits his spirit into the Father’s hands (Luke 23:36), The Authority is little more than a frail old man, fighting his battle with death and losing (‘The Authority’ 2007). The Authority is not lord over death — he is completely subject to it. He, like others, becomes part of everything in his death, entirely insignificant. Jesus, of course, achieves something incredible by his death — the reconciliation of humankind to God! Even more so, he comes back from death as Lord over it and all creation. Indeed the Christian God is far superior to The Authority!
Although there are great differences between The Authority and the God of the Bible, there is also a great deal of common ground and it is to this we now turn our attention.
The picture of human rebellion against The Authority in His Dark Materials highlights a key biblical theme: our rejection of God. While the nature and character of The Authority and the Christian God are vastly different, humans are rebellious in both cases. The Bible makes our depravity quite clear (Romans 3:23). Rather than sanitising our rebellion against God, let’s be honest! Each of us refuses to worship God for who he is (Romans 3:10-12). That rejection is just as bad as, if not worse than, Will and Lyra journeying to another land to kill God. Indeed, we know that human beings did kill God, stripping, beating and crucifying Jesus, and we are no better. This trilogy provides Christians with the opportunity to point each person who reads it to their own sin and, in light of a holy God, to expose it for the heinous crime it is.
There is also a messianic element in the text that may help Christians to explain the gospel. To a large extent, The Authority is irrelevant to everyday people but the Metatron has a hold on them (‘The Authority’ 2007). Lord Asriel’s mission is to destroy the Metatron and his enslavement of the church and its people. When he eventually finds Metatron and, along with Mrs Coulter, fights him, he is able to defeat him only by sacrificing himself. There is a natural link with Jesus here, whose defeat of Satan was final at the cross as he sacrificed himself and saved humankind from their enslavement to sin.
One of the biggest attacks the book makes is on the institutionalised church. For example, one character, an ex-nun, describes her former religion as “a very powerful and convincing mistake” (Vineyard 2007). Indeed, it seems that the church is the vehicle for Metatron’s power, The Authority’s oppressive body that spreads lies. No Christian would agree that the true church, God’s people, sealed with his Holy Spirit, would seek to deceive people and yet we know that there are false teachers in the institutionalised church and that the church is ultimately made up of fallen human beings who get it wrong and do terrible things to each other and others. In a recent interview, this was the same point that Pullman himself made (Hurst 2007). In light of this, I think that Christians should be able to give a hearty ‘Amen’ to some of the criticisms made of the church, at least in the past if not in the present. Being honest about the church’s failings and pointing instead to the One who never fails should be our aim. After all, we do not want people to become adherents to a particular church or institution, but followers of Jesus Christ and therefore part of his worldwide family!
There is much hype, both within and outside of the Christian world regarding The Golden Compass. There is much to be said but going directly to a source rather than believing hearsay and rumour will allow Christians to give informed opinions. If one were to read His Dark Materials as a textbook of Christian theory, history or theology, there would be cause for concern. Certainly, there are a number of points at which it simply does not line up with what the Bible says. However, rather than shunning it, Christians can use this as an opportunity to enter into dialogue and highlight the God of goodness, the fallenness of humans and the completion of the work of Jesus, the Lord of all creation, on the cross. As parents, teachers, friends and Christians, let us be ready to give an answer for the hope that we have!
1. Josh Hurst ‘Golden Compass under fire’, http://www.christianitytoday.com/movies/news/blog-071105.html viewed 7/11/07
2. No Author ‘Fantasy World’ http://www.reference.com/browse/wiki/Fantasy_world viewed 7/11/07
3. No Author ‘The Authority’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authority_%28His_Dark_Materials%29#The_Authority viewed 7/11/07
4. Jennifer Vineyard 2007 ‘”Golden Compass Film” angering Christian groups – even with its religious themes watered down’ http://www.mtv.com/movies/news/articles/1573421/story.jhtml viewed 7/11/07
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.