Some of you have been asking about the recent hub-bub surrounding the release of the film “The Golden Compass” (to be released on Dec. 7th). Many Christians have expressed a very reasonable concern with the books (and now the movie) because Philip Pullman, the author of the “His Dark Materials” trilogy has openly declared his opposition to all things Christian. He stated plainly in one interview: “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief… Mr. [ C.S.] Lewis would think I was doing the Devil’s work.” I have not read any of the books yet or seen the movie, so the following thoughts are based upon reading several interviews and articles from what I would consider thoughtful and trusted sources.
First, anyone who openly sets out to undermine the basis for Christian faith has set themselves up against God and is therefore an enemy for the sake of the gospel. It is important that we insist upon the antithesis between light and darkness, good and evil, the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. At the same time there have been many pagans who hated the God of heaven who created good and beautiful things. An atheist cannot consistently produce beautiful things, but God gives grace where he pleases. And sometimes he gives creativity and beautiful innovation to those who are far from him. Consider the fact that it is the line of Cain in the early chapters of Genesis who first create musical instruments, jewelry, and develop the arts and animal husbandry. While surely the God-fearing line of Seth did make some glorious inventions and discoveries, it is revealed to us that there was a renaissance-like emergence of the arts in the family line that had decidedly turned against the face of God. Similarly, there are a number of great civilizations that arise outside the covenant people of God throughout history, centers of cultural and industrial development that God’s people inherit only later on. This often seems to be the pattern of God’s working in the world: he gives gifts to those who hate him in order to pile burning coals upon their head and so that when they are gone his own people may inherit them.
Secondly, we must insist as Christians who serve the true and living God, that the only way for a story to work is for it to borrow or steal from the Christian story. In order for there to be character, story development, tension, release, and all of the wonderful things that go into an engaging and imaginative story, it must follow many of the basic contours of God’s own creation and story. While Pullman has self-consciously set out to subvert that story, as an atheist he cannot present any counter story without descending into nonsense. If the world really is a series of chemical reactions then his story is no more meaningful than a couple of bubbles in the ocean. In an evolutionary universe, nothing means anything. But Pullman obviously understands that words have meaning, stories can be told in wonderful and winsome ways, and that there is such a thing as good and evil. While he openly sets out to subvert the Christian God and his Church (and this apparently becomes more and more explicit throughout the Trilogy), as the reviewer in the First Things article (see link below) points out this only serves to lesson the wonder of his story, and ultimately he has to borrow many basic Christian themes. As the reviewer says, despite all the ‘God-killing’ motifs, Pullman actually ends up with an “almost Christian trilogy.”
Finally, one of the themes that shows up in several interviews with Pullman is his bitterness towards what he sees as a Christian rejection of this material world we live in. Of course this is entirely inconsistent with Pullman’s strict materialism which doesn’t believe that there is anything going on here but chemicals and atoms floating around and bumping into each other. But happily, I would suggest that Pullman appears to be critiquing something worthy of critique. He criticizes Lewis and Tolkien for envisioning a heaven which is some sort of escape from this world, and he insists in one interview that “this world where we live is our home.” While it is completely incoherent for Pullman to suggest anything of the sort — in his worldview he has done nothing more meaningful than burp and hiccup a few times — I would suggest that he has identified one of the great failures of the Christian Church. Whether or not he is right about Lewis and Tolkien, in many ways we have failed to recognize that this world is the world that the Lord Jesus intends to make our home. After all, Jesus said that he came to save the world and that the meek would inherit the earth, and not some other far off heaven. The prayer that we pray each Lord’s Day is for the kingdom of heaven to come down and impress its reality upon on our world. The vision of John at the end of Revelation is that of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven and being established here on earth. Related to this is the centrality of the doctrine of the resurrection. We confess our faith each week in the ‘resurrection of the dead’, and this means that we believe we will get our bodies back even after we have died just like Jesus did. This means that the life we live now, the jokes and stories we tell, the feasts we celebrate, the psalms we sing, and that feeling in our bellies when we’ve laughed really, really hard, all of that has meaning and will continue to be part of us forever. We will not rise from the dead as spirits with harps looking for a vacant cloud to float on for all eternity. This world was made to be ruled and glorified, and if the stars and planets are any indication of God’s design, it would not surprise me in the slightest to find that there are more worlds to rule and explore after this one.
So what does all this mean? Should we or should we not read the books and go watch the movie? I would highly recommend that you do two things: First, don’t be shrill. There are lots of emails going around about how these books (and the movie) will damage your children for life. But Pullman lives in God’s universe, and he borrows generously from the treasures of God’s story. If one of your friends reads one of the books or sees the movie don’t banish them to a hot and lonely place. As Peter Leithart points out in one of the links below, the movie version in particular appears to be somewhat more innocuous than the books. Regardless, parents should make sure they are discussing these things with their children and winsomely encourage them to have a cynicism about all this stuff. Pagans are boring. But secondly, I would suggest that you have a lot of better things to do with your time than sort through the ins and outs of an atheist’s attempt to undermine our faith. For instance, I would suggest that you read the Lord of the Rings again, then make sure you’ve gone through C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy at least three or four times. It gets better with every read. Of course there’s the Chronicles of Narnia, and when you’ve gotten those stories deep in your bones, it’s probably time to start the Lord of the Rings again. You also need to tell jokes and read stories by P.G. Wodehouse. You need to sit around the dinner table as families and sing psalms and laugh and then sing a few more psalms and laugh a little more. We’re building a Christian culture here, and frankly there’s a lot of work ahead of us. This world is our home, or better, this world is becoming our home. Through sin, we have been estranged from all the goodness for far too long, but God is giving it all back to us in Jesus Christ. So enjoy a glass of wine, plant a garden, sing some Psalms, laugh around the dinner table, and have a second helping of dessert. God is good, and Philip Pullman knows it deep down in his dark little heart.
I found the following links helpful in thinking about some of this. I thought you might too: