Darkness to light

March 22, 2021

Darkness to light

Remy Chadwick

In my work in the arts I am frequently exposed to unredeemed cultural expression, that is, artworks and practices yet to be brought under the dominion of Christ. Sometimes this cultural expression is overtly intended to oppose the Christian faith. More often it is just part of the floodwaters of culture that exert their mindless pull on us all. It is easy to become desensitised to this, and as time goes on we can become less and less aware of our habits fusing with the massed secularism of our context. Conversely, many well-meaning Christians will insist that we must avoid unredeemed cultural material, especially that of the overt variety. (The insistence generally strengthens as the overtness increases.) As an artist I am sensitive to such arguments. Whenever I am told to beware of films or some such book or cultural artefact, I recall non-believing friends whose vocation is to create these very things. Over time I have come to see that part of my calling is to help Christians navigate culture constructively, to encourage imagination for redemptive purposes. In this short piece I want to show the opportunities unredeemed cultural expression can offer us by examining Phillip Pullman’s notorious children’s fantasy series, His Dark Materials.

Why His Dark Materials? It has most recently been adapted into a high-budget TV series by HBO and the BBC, viewed by at least 7 million Brits.[1] But the truth is, I love these books. They were formational for me as a teenager before I came to faith, and they have stayed with me even as Pullman’s not-so-concealed anti-church intent became apparent. Spoiler alert: Pullman stages a cosmic rebellion against the Christian God, his authoritarian angels and Magisterium (church), which is achieved through the sexual awakening of two teenagers and the triumph of particle science, resulting in our heroes vowing to build a post-deity multiverse ‘Republic of Heaven’. I’m not interested in criticising Pullman, others have already done that constructively.[2] Instead I want to show why His Dark Materials is still in its architecture a Christian work that offers a productive model of dialogue with our culture at this moment in history.

The rub is that Pullman cannot get away from a story arc with an act of self-sacrifice as its cornerstone. Not unlike C. S. Lewis (whose Chronicles of Narnia he considers ‘an invaluable guide to what is wrong and cruel and selfish’),[3] Pullman has constructed a cosmology in which the fate of the world rests on one chosen individual’s choice. This is a standard trope of the fantasy genre. What’s particularly Christian about it is that for Pullman’s heroes to succeed, they must deny themselves a great good in favour of a far greater one.

Lyra Belacqua is cast as a second Eve. She must undergo temptation anew and make the right choice to restore cosmic wholeness. Supposedly this looks like embracing her sexuality and that of her companion Will Parry. It manifests in a kiss and in touching each other’s daemons (animal physicalisations of the soul that accompany all humans in this fantasy). In many ways Pullman is an Enlightenment man, writing in homage to John Milton and William Blake, so it is natural that he would treat sexual fulfilment as the Eden from which a suppressed humanity fell.

The trouble for Pullman is that this is not actually Lyra’s central decision in the story. Lyra and Will learn that they cannot open another window to cross between their respective worlds, lest the cosmic Dust which gives life to all things permanently escapes the multiverse. Having just discovered their love for one another, they vow to remain apart permanently so that they can build the Republic of Heaven in their own worlds. Lyra keeps her life but gives up the one thing Pullman elevates most, the heart of his parallel moral framework: her eros.

Lyra’s sacrifice goes beyond material implications, for through this act the sting of death in Pullman’s world is removed. Lyra and Will travel to the Underworld, where harpies accuse and torment all the dead. Realising they must be freed, she and Will open a window where souls can escape and transform into life-giving Dust. She teaches the harpies to accept truthful stories as payment for safe passage of the dead. Keeping this window open forfeits Will and Lyra’s opportunity to cross worlds and be together, but it enables them to lead ‘a host of captives’ (Ephesians 4:8) into new life.

Pullman would grate at this interpretation, but at the core his story reflects the theme of Philippians 2 or Matthew 14:44-46—a man lays down what he has rights to that the whole world may gain life in him. We also see self-sacrifice in other character arcs, such as that of the Gyptians, Lee Scoresby, the angel Balthamos, even Lord Asriel and Ms. Coulter. On this virtue alone the series is worth engaging with as an example of what an atheistic project still owes to the gospel of Jesus.

What else do we gain from His Dark Materials? We get a rare gift: a comprehensive presentation of reality which rejects the ‘immanent frame’[4] and recalls a forgotten Christian heritage. Pullman dares to talk about original sin, spiritual warfare, eschatology, the connection between faith and science, the values of truth, beauty and love. That he decries a caricature of the Christian God is much less important than the achievement here. What impact might his imagination have on those longing for something more than a secular fairy-tale? Pullman offers a powerful model for the Christian apologist or preacher, asking: What reality do I wish was true in order to expound the deep truths that I sense? It may be fantasy, but it is nobler and richer than anything Richard Dawkins has written on religion.

Pullman holds up relentless curiosity as the antidote to dogmatism—and how could Christians disagree? He gives us a heroine whose chief skill is lying and grows her into a protector of the truth. Pullman may not have applied Lyra’s curiosity to theology but there is nothing stopping a Christian reader from doing so. In an era of fake news and tribalism, curiosity for the truth is an essential mark of Christian discipleship. It requires the ability to discard what is distracting in pursuit of what is true and satisfying, forming sound judgment without leaving room for presumption. In the hands of a thoughtful teacher, His Dark Materials can become a launching pad to prompt suspicious secularists and developing disciples towards greater inquiry about the Christian worldview.

What Pullman may not have anticipated when he wrote these books (as Alan Jacobs observed)[5] is how the revolutionaries of yesterday can become the oppressors of tomorrow. His Dark Materials warns readers about the dehumanising influence of institutions. Pullman had the church in his sights, but in fact it cuts both ways. Thus we needn’t run from his depiction of Christians, which is ungenerous but sadly has aspects of truth. The Magisterium are not real custodians of the Christian faith: they are Pharisees, rule-keepers burdening the world with a false kingdom. We can happily reject this species of religion and show our culture a better example of walking in Paul’s footsteps. His Dark Materials can be for us a warning against any other human institutions who would suppress love, truth and delight. We have no shortage of them today. My home state of Victoria has just passed laws to criminalise advice, care and prayer supporting particular expressions of human sexuality.[6] As I write I am confined by crisis bureaucrats who contravene democratic processes[7] and practice ‘a tyranny sincerely exercised’[8] with no end in sight.[9],[10] Victorian bureaucrats should read His Dark Materials. Better yet, Christians should read these books and learn how to deploy our culture’s language against our culture’s idols, turning eros into agape.

If this defence of His Dark Materials sits uncomfortably, I wonder if it is because we hold too tightly to a paradigm where authorial intent is always king. Bible-believing Christians have good reasons to resist the influence of postmodern literary theory. But actually, how important an author’s intent is depends very much on who the author is. God is not diminished by Phillip Pullman’s intentions. What did He intend when Pullman created this particular piece of culture? If God can create holiness in sinners and raise the dead, perhaps he can use a work like His Dark Materials for our ultimate benefit.

 

ENDNOTES

[1] J. Kanter, ‘His Dark Materials: ‘His Dark Materials’: BBC/HBO Show Becomes Biggest New Drama On British TV In 5 Years With 7.2M Viewers”. Deadline.com, 4 Nov 2019. https://deadline.com/2019/11/his-dark-materials-bbc-hbo-drama-makes-magic-start-with-7-2m-viewers-1202776781/ (All URLs accessed February, 2021).

[2] E.g. A. Moody, ‘Dark Material: The Gospel of Philip Pullman’. The Gospel Coalition Australia, 14 Oct 2019, https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/article/dark-material-gospel-philip-pullman/

[3] P. Pullman. The Republic of Heaven. The Horn Book Magazine, 1 Nov 2001, https://republicofheaven.wordpress.com/

[4] C. Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2009), p542.

[5] A. Jacobs, ‘The Devil’s Party.’ First Things, 12 March 2007. https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2007/12/the-devils-party

[6] Victorian Legislation, ‘Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020’, 22 Feb 2021, https://www.legislation.vic.gov.au/bills/change-or-suppression-conversion-practices-prohibition-bill-2020?_ga=2.246672135.226598263.1613972744-1012960147.1613972744

[7] Parliament of Victoria, ‘Emergency Powers, Public Health and COVID-19’, 22 Feb 2021, https://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/publications/research-papers/download/36-research-papers/13962-emergency-powers-public-health-and-covid-19

[8] C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 14 Sept 2014), p324.

[9] C. Le Grand and S. Ilanbey. ‘'We can’t keep living like this': COVID-19 state of emergency opens political divide’. The Age, 23 Aug 2020, https://www.theage.com.au/politics/victoria/we-can-t-keep-living-like-this-covid-19-state-of-emergency-opens-political-divide-20200823-p55oi7.html

[10] C. Zagon, ‘Victorian Government pushes to extend State of Emergency as return to work capacity expanded’. 9News, 2 Feb 2021, https://www.9news.com.au/national/victorian-government-pushes-to-extend-state-of-emergency-return-to-work-capacity-expanded/75d97746-072e-4a74-9805-b22c1a2f707e



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