a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Missions from God

Posted by Thomas Nephew on March 19th, 2004

KnopfVia the ever-interesting Interfaith Nunnery, I was fascinated to read that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has written a quite remarkable review of His Dark Materials, a play based on the book series by Philip Pullman.* The play is apparently quite the rage in London. If it’s half as good as the books, I can imagine why: reading them was a genuinely exciting, provocative, and fun reading experience for me, I can’t recommend them enough.

His Dark Materials is a fantasy trilogy** set in an alternate but in some respects recognizable world where a “Church” with otherwise unspecified theological leanings is cast as a ruthless, near-Orwellian ruler of England and Europe. From an early aside in the first book (The Golden Compass):

Ever since Pope John Calvin had moved the seat of the Papacy to Geneva and set up the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the Church’s power over every aspect of life had been absolute. (chapter 2)

That’s by no means the only or even the most interesting aspect of Pullman’s world — my vote there would go to the daemons and the daemonless panserbjorne. But it’s an integral part of Pullman’s polemic about religion, which is skeptical to put it mildly, and hostile not to put too fine a point on it.

Williams’ review, though, is such a neat reply to Pullman that … I may re-read the series. From his conclusion:

A modern French Christian writer spoke about “purification by atheism” – meaning faith needed to be reminded regularly of the gods in which it should not believe. I think Pullman and Wright [who adapted the books to the stage –ed.] do this very effectively for the believer. I hope too that for the non-believing spectator, the question may somehow be raised of what exactly the God is in whom they don’t believe.***

It was in the course of developing this response that Williams said something that really interested me:

But what kind of a church is it that lives in perpetual and murderous anxiety about the fate of its God?

What the story makes you see is that if you believe in a mortal God, who can win and lose his power, your religion will be saturated with anxiety – and so with violence. […]

What would the Church look like, what would it inevitably be, if it believed only in a God who could be rendered powerless and killed, and needed unceasing protection? It would be a desperate, repressive tyranny. For Pullman, the Church evidently looks like this most of the time; it isn’t surprising that the only God in view is the Authority.

An especially threadbare, embattled, vicious one might look like Al Qaeda. Williams’ question reminded me of Paul Berman’s discussion, in Terror and Liberalism, of Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual forefather of Al Qaeda. Berman describes Qutb’s reaction to the ‘catastrophe’ that the Islamic Caliphate — the rule on earth by the Prophet’s successors — had been ended by the secular Turkish state. Qutb believed that this portended the worst,

“a final offensive which is actually taking place now in all the Muslim countries… It is an effort to exterminate this religion as even a basic creed, and to replace it with secular conceptions having their own implications, values, institutions, and organizations.” (Berman, ch. 4)

Cobbling together Islamic and European reactionary thought, Qutb called for a “vanguard” of the faithful, charged with waging jihad against false Muslims and outside corruption alike. And, in time, the calling to desperately defend an almighty god twisted itself into a worship of death for its own sake. Qutb, on martyrdom and jihad:

“But the death of those who are killed for the cause of God gives more impetus to the cause, which continues to thrive on their blood. Thus after their death they remain an active force in shaping the life of their community and giving it direction. It is in this sense that such people, having sacrificed their lives for the sake of God, retain their active existence in everyday life…

There is no real sense of loss in their death, since they continue to live.” (Berman, ch. 4)

A philosophy like this would be tailor-made for self-appointed prophets with a taste for blood and divinely based power. Enter, years later, Bin Laden and Zawahiri, and their authority via ever-greater acts of terror as jihad.

Christianity could of course be equally murderous when it considered itself threatened. Consider, for instance, the fate of the Cathars, a Christian sect in Southern France in the 12th and 13th centuries. Catharism was brutally repressed by Pope Innocent III’s Albigensian Crusade and the beginnings of the Inquisition. At Beziers alone, at least 20,000 were massacred, Cathars and Catholics alike. (When the fate of the non-Cathar inhabitants was protested, the attending papal legate famously said, “Kill them all. God will know his own.”)

These kinds of examples might serve as the nucleus of a counterpoint for Mr. Pullman: one may wish religion were about Faith and Morality, but in practice it often turns out to be about Authority instead — and Authority “on a mission from God” to boot.

Pullman’s books are about more than that: protecting childhood, the (desirability of an) afterlife, and what might be called the virtues of materialism are all themes. The trilogy’s title comes from Book II of Milton’s Paradise Lost:

Chaos Umpire sits,
And by decision more imbroiles the fray
By which he Reigns: next him high Arbiter

Chance governs all. Into this wilde Abyss,
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in thir pregnant causes mixt
Confus’dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds,
Into this wild Abyss the warie fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look’d a while,
Pondering his Voyage …

Mr. Pullman and the Archbishop had a public discussion of His Dark Materials on Monday. I’m with Sister Andrea: that’s a discussion I’d have loved to attend.

* As “Sister Andrea” writes, there are spoilers in the review — all but inevitable, given the reviewer — so handle with care.
** The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass
*** Judging by his speech of a week earlier, Williams means Olivier Clement, a French Eastern Orthodox theologian. The idea of “atheism as purification” can also be traced to Simone Weil (via Naked Writing). According to some, Weil’s beliefs and death echo those of the Cathars.
**** (Whoa, heavy! Couldn’t resist. — ed.) Via “His Dark Materials [an unofficial fansite]”

PS: I’d be remiss in not pointing out Michael Chabon’s review of “His Dark Materials” in the New York Review of Books, and Gary Farber’s interesting discussion of same. Gary also mentions the Archbishop’s review, and was also impressed with Williams. I also should say that for detailed, knowledgeable discussion of Sayyid Qutb, you should visit Bill Allison’s Ideofact blog.

UPDATE, 5/2: More, based on the transcript of the Pullman-Williams conversation.

3 Responses to “Missions from God”

  1. » Blog Archive » Drum can’t read his (golden) compass Says:

    […] PREVIOUSLY: 2004/03/18: Missions from God – intro to series; 2004/05/02: A good conversation …between Pullman and Anglican […]

  2. » Blog Archive » Preemptive absolution, Al Qaeda style Says:

    […] month ago, I mentioned Philip Pullman’s great fantasy trilogy “His Dark Materials.” In the final book, […]

  3. » Blog Archive » Weekend quiz section Says:

    […] ‘Mrs. Coulter” (“Republic of Heaven“) — it turns out one of my favorite books, Philip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass,” is coming out as a movie this […]

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