Friday, April 4, 2008

now that no one reads this I can say whatever I want

"His Dark Materials" is a series of three books by Philip Pullman. The first, "The Golden Compass," has been made into a movie, which I have not seen and do not intend to see soon as it seems to have gotten rather poor reviews.

Pullman apparently (i.e. he has explicitly said that he) wrote the series trying to be a kind of "anti-" C.S. Lewis, using fiction to make an appeal for atheism. In this, he failed rather badly, on a number of levels.

Firstly: there were a number of anti-religion and anti-church monologues from a few different characters. These all seemed forced into the story in the way that an 8-year-old might draw horns on the Mona Lisa. The religious institution in the main world from his books is clearly designed to resemble Christianity; I would like to report that it was entirely different, but Christians through the centuries have provided plenty of ammunition for caricatures of that sort, and it was a good enough skewer of christians-who-don't-get-the-point as to be believable.

Here I must pause a moment to note that the second two books are essential reading if you want to actually understand what he's trying to say; the first book doesn't really do much more than introduce a few terms.

Secondly. His characters, while ostensibly rebelling against "authority" and "morality" display the sort of morality Christians of all sorts (including those who don't "get the point") aspire to. This is sort of like "sticking it to the man" by paying your taxes on time.

Thirdly. He has a non-human, non-local, all-pervasive, all-knowing intelligence directing the activities of all his characters. Irony-wise, that really takes the cake... He also references many bible stories as basically factual (though with some detail mis-understood, of course).

Fourthly, and most seriously. Normally, when you support something, you try to make it sound like a good thing. But the sense one gets after finishing the third book (I'm trying not to give anything away here) is that of permanent isolation, separation, loneliness, despair. One of the most depressing endings I've read in a long time. When one puts down "The Last Battle," or "That Hideous Strength" (the final books in C.S. Lewis' Narnia and Space Trilogy series), one thinks, "I wish the world were like that." When one turns the last page on MacDonald's Lilith, one wants to sleep in the big hall, too. When I finished "The Amber Spyglass," I spent the rest of the week chanting, "The world is not like that. The world is not like that," to myself.

On a positive note, I liked most of the characters, and thought they behaved reasonably. His personification of the human spirit was interesting. I also thought it very interesting that he seemed to take a clear position in a debate that I thought was only Christian intellectual m***********: are humans composed of two parts (body and spirit), or three (body, soul, spirit)? His books clearly take the latter view. On a side note, talking bears with armor? What the hell was he smoking? And, if you only read one of these books, read the middle one. I liked it the best.

Enough about the content. Writing wise, he was clear enough, but Lewis' style is inimitable and Pullman certainly doesn't "imit" it.

Reading these books is a valuable exercise in cultural literacy. The athiests may be able match us in the "book of dumb proof" (e.g. Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens) category but are a ways away from us in the battle for the imagination, if this series is any indication.

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