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Engaging with Pullman, Part One: Why I’ll be watching ‘His Dark Materials’ and so should you!

On Sunday night the BBC will commence showing what is billed as their most expensive series ever: “His Dark Materials”.  I will be watching – but not only because I’m a license fee payer who wants to keep a track of my investments!

I grew up in the 1990s with three authors in my life: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein and Philip Pullman.  The BBC/HBO series is based on the latter’s best-selling and award-winning novels: “Northern Lights” (1995), “The Subtle Knife” (1997), and “The Amber Spyglass” (2000).  It has been 20 years since I first stepped into Pullman’s gripping narrative world and I have eagerly returned to it in the ‘equel’ series “The Book of Dust”: “La Belle Sauvage” (2017) and “The Secret Commonwealth” (2019).

I first read the series while confined to bed seriously unwell for a number of weeks.  I came newly alive reading of Lyra as she travelled through streets of Oxford in an alternative universe, sailed to the north, rescued a friend from certain death, fought with armoured bears, liberated her father, and stepped through a rip in the fabric of existence into another world.  Slowly unfolded over the course of the action is the motivation of Lyra’s father, the enigmatic Lord Asriel, who is seeking to liberate people from the tyranny of the Church (“The Magisterium”) and establish the republic of heaven on the earth by destroying the king of heaven: God (“The Authority”).  In so doing, the English teacher Pullman retells and inverts the Milton’s classic poem “Paradise Lost” – from which the series draws its name.  Now you can see why I was so gripped and fascinated – and also why I sensed it was controversial!

This is the sensational story that the BBC have spent some £50 million bringing to the screen.  The first series, retelling the first book “Northern Lights”, will be watched by millions of people in this weekend prime time slot in the run up to Christmas.  Some critics have dismissed the books as “atheism for kids” – given the story involves celebrating the death of God, allying with fallen angels, shamans, and witches, practising divination, among other things you can see where the critics are coming from!  However, I don’t think we should just ignore this series or mindlessly consume it.

As one of the leading British New Atheists, Pullman has a thoughtful message he wants to communicate.  Once when interviewed Pullman stated:

“I’m religious, but I’m an atheist. I think religious questions are the big questions. Where did we come from? What is life about? What is evil? Those are questions I do think about.” 

Answering these questions by analogy, he hopes to supply something of what is missing in the secular humanistic worldview.  In another interview he explained that his project is about telling ‘a better story’:

“The Christian story gives us human beings a very important and prominent part. We are the ones who Jesus came to redeem from the consequences of sin, which our parents – you know. It is a very dramatic story and we are right at the heart of it, and a great deal depends on what we decide. This is an exciting position to be in, but unfortunately it doesn’t gel at all with the more convincing account that is given by Darwinian evolution – and the scientific account is far more persuasive intellectually. Far more persuasive… The kingdom of heaven promised us certain things: it promised us happiness and a sense of purpose and a sense of having a place in the universe, of having a role and a destiny that were noble and splendid; and so we were connected to things. We were not alienated. But now that, for me anyway, the King is dead, I find that I still need these things that heaven promised, and I’m not willing to live without them. I don’t think I will continue to live after I’m dead, so if I am to achieve these things I must try to bring them about – and encourage other people to bring them about – on earth, in a republic in which we are all free and equal – and responsible – citizens”

But is the materialistic philosophy and godless worldview of Philip Pullman truly a better story than the gospel?  (He starts at a disadvantage because his is written as fiction, while the gospel is recorded as fact!)

So over the coming weeks this series of blogs will explore the world of His Dark Materials and engage with the worldview of Philip Pullman from a Christian perspective.  Maybe you can watch with, read along, and talk with your friends at school, university, or at coffee time in work about the series too?