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Engaging with Pullman, Part Two: Pullman and the Power of Stories

It’s a wonderful thing to see something that you have only read in books and pictured in your imagination come to life on the television screen for the first time!  On Sunday night, watching the first episode of the BBC’s new series “His Dark Materials,” I felt the tingles run down my spine as I read the words on the opening title card:

“This story starts in another world, one that is both like, and unlike our own.  Here, a human soul takes the physical form of an animal, known as a daemon.  The relationship between human and daemon is sacred.  This world has been controlled for centuries by the all-powerful magisterium.  Except in the wilderness of the north, where witches whisper of a prophecy.   A prophecy of a child with a great destiny…”

This is what great stories do: they engage our interest, stir our emotions and fire our imaginations.  And Philip Pullman is an expert story teller!  He often relates how as an English teacher he managed class discipline and held pupils’ attention by bringing their books to life and leaving them on a cliff-hanger until they came back next period.

Pullman appreciates something that many of his New Atheist colleagues do not and something Christians have sometimes forgotten: Man does not live by facts and figures alone – but by stories.  Inherently human beings are narrative creatures – the philosopher Alasdair Macintyre argues we can only understand ourselves by telling a story that begins with our birth and progresses through life towards death.  Indeed, the philosopher Charles Taylor argues that before we try to engage with the beliefs of the secular worldview in our society we need to understand its “social imaginary”, the prevailing stories which render belief in the God of Christianity implausible in the 21st century.

Furthermore, the journalist Christopher Booker spent 35 years studying literature and storytelling around the world before concluding that there are only “Seven Basic Plots” around which all human stories are constructed.  It seems like just as science reveals a physical order to the universe, and our consciences witness to a moral order, likewise our imaginations suggest there is a narrative order woven into the fabric of mental reality.

Whereas the New Atheists are the champions of reason and rationality; Pullman argues that science, logic, reason are not all sufficient.  We are not just walking brains on a stick, we are also deeply emotional and imaginative beings.  That’s why in his latest novel one of the characters reflects:

“Has reason ever created a poem, or a symphony, or a painting?  If rationality can’t see things like the secret commonwealth, it’s because rationality’s vision is limited.  The secret commonwealth is there.  We can’t see it with rationality any more than we can weigh something with a microscope: it’s the wrong sort of instrument.  We need to imagine as well as measure”. 

Also, in that vein, the hardcover spine of that book is embossed with these words: “The way to think about the secret commonwealth is with stories.  Only stories will do”

The driving story of His Dark Materials is a quest to kill God – the Authority – and liberate the world from the tyranny of the Church – the Magisterium.  It finishes with the rallying cry that now the king of heaven is dead that we must build “the Republic of Heaven” on earth.  It’s hard not to hear the echoes of Nietzsche’s Madman: “God is dead – we have killed him, you and I”.  Whereas Nietzsche’s atheism lead to nihilism – no more good and evil, no more meaning or hope; Pullman argues that the eclipse of the Christian worldview and loss of the gospel story need not lead to meaninglessness and existential despair.  For example, shortly after finishing the trilogy, in his lecture “The Republic of Heaven” he stated:

“What I’m referring to is a sense that things are right and good, and we are part of everything that’s right and good. It’s a sense that we’re connected to the universe. This connectedness is where meaning lies; the meaning of our lives is their connection with something other than ourselves. The religion that’s now dead did give us that, in full measure: we were part of a huge cosmic drama, involving a Creation and a Fall and a Redemption, and Heaven and Hell. What we did mattered, because God saw everything, even the fall of a sparrow. And one of the most deadly and oppressive consequences of the death of God is this sense of meaningless or alienation that so many of us have felt in the past century or so.”

Into that absence steps Philip Pullman, leveraging the power of the imagination and story, to lay out a manifesto for a meaningful and fulfilling life after the death of God.  In a different interview Pullman once asserted:

“This is the mistake Christians make when they say that if you are an atheist you have to be a nihilist and there’s no meaning any more. Well, that’s nonsense, as Mary Malone discovers. Now that I’m conscious, now that I’m responsible, there is a meaning, and it is to make things better and to work for greater good and greater wisdom. That’s my meaning – and it comes from my understanding of my position. It’s not nihilism at all. It’s very far from it.”

(However, I suspect that fellow British atheist John Gray might regard Pullman’s generous humanitarianism as just another “secular version of Christianity”).

It was only years after reading the books that I realised that His Dark Materials is really the antithesis of the Chronicles of Narnia.  Pullman is outspoken in his criticisms of C.S. Lewis – dismissing him as a bigot, racist, misogynist.  For example, Pullman takes umbrage at how Susan ceases to be a friend of Narnia (and is on course to be excluded from Aslan’s Country – heaven) because as she grows up, she stops believing, and becomes more interested in boys and make-up.  Thus, in contrast, at the heart of His Dark Materials is the coming of age story of Lyra and Will, which celebrates their growing up and becoming fully self-conscious and sexually awakened.

Nevertheless, at the same time, Pullman recognises the power of what Lewis was doing in using story to communicate the Christian faith.  For example, C.S. Lewis describes in his spiritual autobiography, “Surprised by Joy,” that as a teenager he read a fictional story by Gordon Macdonald that “baptised” his imagination – preparing his heart and mind for later understanding and receiving the truth of the gospel.  Later in an essay entitled “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s To Be Said”, Lewis further reflected on the power of story to prepare the heart and mind to consider the truth of the Christian worldview:

“I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.”

This is exactly what Lewis is doing in the Chronicles of Narnia.  I’m one of his children who first fell in love with Aslan, wept at his sacrificial death on the Stone Table and rejoiced in his resurrection from the dead to defeat the White Witch – only later did I fall in love with Jesus, the true Aslan.  Explicitly Lewis explains his agenda at the end of the Dawn Treader when Aslan says:

“In your world, I have another name. You must learn to know me by it. That was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” 

(Although fellow Christian and Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien thought that Lewis was a little unsophisticated in how he did it, both recognised the inherent power of stories that connects with our hearts and communicate truth).

Now in His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman is seeking to do the same thing, except to baptise the imagination against the God of the Bible and Church of Jesus Christ.  In our next article we’ll critically reflect on the God and Church as presented in Pullman’s story.


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