Engaging with Pullman, Part Three: Pullman on God and the Church

by David Nixon

Last time we were thinking about the power of story.  Whereas Richard Dawkins has written in stark prose: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully” (The God Delusion); and Christopher Hitchens has asserted: “religion poisons everything” (God Is Not Great).  In “His Dark Materials”, Philip Pullman weaves these same objections and accusations against God and the Church into his grand narrative.
Here’s a quick walk through of the way that God (The Authority) and the Church (The Magisterium) are portrayed in the series:
In the first book, “The Northern Lights,” most of the action revolves around a branch of the church which is kidnapping children and cutting away their animal daemon’s – which in Pullman’s universe is the equivalent of stealing part of their soul!  The Magisterium justifies this research by seeking to protect children from “original sin” (which it associates with Dust – more on that in the next article).  However, in fact it is traumatising children and preventing them developing full self-awareness, free thinking and free will.
In the middle of the second novel “The Subtle Knife”, a witch, Ruta Skadi, reveals what she has discovered about Lord Asriel’s intentions:
“And he invited us to join him, sisters.  To join his army against the Authority… He showed me that to rebel was right and just, when you considered what the agents of the authority did in His name… He opened my eyes.  He showed me things I never had seen, cruelties and horrors all committed in the name of the Authority, all designed to destroy the joys and truthfulness of life… I know whom we must fight. It is the Magisterium, the Church. For all its history — and that’s not long by our lives, but it’s many of theirs — it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can’t control them, it cuts them out. … Sisters, you know only the north; I have travelled in the south lands. There are churches there, believe me, that cut their children too, as the people of Bolvangar did – not in the same way, but just as horribly. They cut their sexual organs out, yes, both boys and girls; they cut them with knives so that they shan’t feel. That is what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling. So if war comes, and the Church is on one side of it, we must be on the other.”
Then in the third book, “The Amber Spyglass”, we meet a rebel angel who reveals to Lord Asriel what are the diabolical plans of the Kingdom of Heaven:
“The Authority considers that conscious beings of every kind have become dangerously independent, so Metatron is going to intervene much more actively in human affairs… He wants to set up a permanent Inquisition in every world, run directly from the kingdom”
Much of the action revolves around liberating the captive souls in the World of the Dead, which the Authority has set up as a prison camp.
Then at the very end, the first rebel angel – Xaphania – summarises the indictment against God and the Church:
“All the history of human life has been a struggle between wisdom and stupidity.  The rebel angels, the followers of wisdom, have always tried to open minds; the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep them closed… and the struggle isn’t over now, though the forces of the kingdom have met a setback.  They’ll regroup under a new commander and come back strongly, and we must be ready to resist”
Having heard all of that, let me suggest that while the story is new, the slander is not!  Questions about the character and goodness of God go right back to the Garden of Eden.  The first lie called into question God’s love and benevolent intentions towards the human race.  Questions about the behaviour of the church across history and the hypocrisy of Christians have been raised for centuries – indeed, many have argued that the current hostile secularism we see in Western Europe is a backlash against the corruption and abusive authority exercised by state churches in the past.
This is why when parents rightly ask about whether they should allow their children to read Pullman’s books or watch the BBC/HBO series, I think that it would be wise (at the very least) to read/watch along with them and then talk about some of the issues raised in the story.  I think it is far better for children to encounter some of the most hostile objections and honest doubts about the Christian faith in the loving environment of a Christian home, rather than to be shielded from them until they leave home only to encounter them in extremely unsympathetic sceptical environments.
If you are watching the series and talking about it with friends, these themes will emerge.  So why not ask your friends about their thoughts (even their prejudices) and experiences of God and the Church.  It may be helpful to equip yourself for the ensuing conversations by watching (and even sharing with your friends) some of Solas’ Short Answer videos that answer these specific questions:  (this article continues below the videos…)

On the God of the Old testament and God of the New:


On God and Hell:


On the Church’s Bad History:


On Religion and Hypocrisy:


Next time we’ll be considering “Pullman on Dust and the Signals of Transcendence” – exploring how His Dark Materials not only requires a negative apologetic defence of the faith but also gives us the opportunity to make a positive apologetic.  Pullman is surprisingly spiritual and recognises that there has to be something more!

David Nixon is a pastor and writer based in Edinburgh, where he lives with his wife and children.