Philip Pullman and Silliness

Be prepared for some silliness (and hopefully brief outbreaks of serious) this Christmas as Philip Pullman’s children’s series “His Dark Materials” appears in theatres.

The Golden Compass is the title of the first installment of Pullman’s trilogy and it surrounds a precocious young girl named Lyra who does battle with the evil authorities of her world. A fairly classic tale, but with a twist. Pullman’s trilogy is attempting to be to atheism what C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books were to Christianity. Enter silliness.

Ben Witherington III (who often blogs about movies with great insight) makes a relatively alarmist post on the topic, while Peter Leithart pokes fun at Hollywood for watering down the movie’s atheistic offensiveness for fear of offending Christians at the box office! For a more sustained look at the series’ contents and arguments against God, Mars Hill Audio has posted a podcast of an interview with Alan Jacobs that does an admirable job of explaining and critiquing the books’ major themes.

I read and enjoyed the series over this past summer, so I figured that I’d throw in my $0.02, hoping to fall a little more on the serious side of the serious-silly divide. Pullman is a terrific writer, and he creates an engrossing world that is a joy to be immersed within. His alternate universe is the right mixture of like and unalike our own to draw us in, and his gift for detail and description shines throughout.

That being said, Pullman’s gifts are ultimately wasted in a story that falls flat due to its transparent ambitions to make a big point. Pullman is so myopically focused on debunking God that his story suffers for it. The series’ final installment whimpers to an end because of its polemical edge. It is highly ironic that, while Pullman is a vocal critique of the Narnia series as being indoctrination, his own series attempts a much heavier-handed indoctrination than Lewis ever managed.

All the same, the last thing I want to do is to demonize Pullman. I think he’s a bit misguided, but I welcome his critiques of the church and its tendency to abuse its power. There’s no question that we have done much to earn the ire of people who look at the disparity between our message of love and our all-too-frequent lives of hate. I’m afraid that plenty of religious folks are going to come out swinging against this movie, which will only serve to confirm Pullman’s atheism for many.

Don’t be silly. See the movie if you like fantasy. If you don’t like fantasy, don’t see it. In either case, get over the fantasy that we have anything to say if it’s not in love.

4 responses to “Philip Pullman and Silliness”

  1. “Get over the fantasy that we have anything to say if it’s not in love”. Cheeky line.

    I appreciate that openness to criticism. There’s much within the church that deserves criticism, and we act against love much of the time by refusing to give due attention to it.

    I’d be interested in reading the books, maybe interested in the movie.

  2. I did not know the movie is book-based. I’ll have to read the books now before I see the movie. I actually knew nothing about either of them, and knew less about the author. I’m glad for your insight. Thanks.

  3. I read the books as they came out years ago far before anyone was really talking about his underlying purposes and world view. I found myself waiting for redemption, waiting for something other than conflict and desperation. It was as you said, a brilliant storyteller telling a story not worth telling.

    I have heard that he was fighting Lewis’ science trilogy and that is why so little resembles the God we love and the church we know. His critiques are valid to some extent, but the caricature of those things we hold dear is so far from the North American church culture I don’t even know if they will resonate.

    I don’t think anyone truly wants or desires to protect the version of God and the church he is fighting against. I think if that was our only option I’d join forces with Lyra too.

  4. Tony, Becky: The first two books are great fun and worth reading, but that’ll make the third all the more disappointing.

    Heidi: Agreed. Alan Jacobs (in the interview I linked above) calls Pullman a Manichean, since everyone who’s part of the church is unreservedly good and everyone outside is evil without exception. Talk about a serious lack of subtlety!

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