a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Drum can’t read his (golden) compass

Posted by Thomas Nephew on November 26th, 2007

Kevin Drum holds forth on Philip Pullman’s “Golden Compass” series, arguing that Christian right has a point in worrying about the effects of the upcoming movie:

I’m sure the movie itself will indeed be harmless, but the books are every conservative Christian’s nightmare of what the secular left’s real agenda is — assuming you get past the first two volumes, that is. Pullman’s attack on Christianity is foreshadowed in those books, but in the third it’s laid bare with no attempt at even unsubtle Narnia-esque analogies. The Amber Spyglass is the story of how God (yes, the God of Abraham, the one in the Bible) has ruled despotically and malevolently over the Earth for 30,000 years and the forces of good and decency are finally going to kill him. And they do.

Other than the “every conservative Christian’s nightmare” part — and even that is speculative — there’s very little that’s really accurate or helpful about this kind of drive-by analysis of Pullman’s fine “Dark Materials” series. Trouble is, it’s close enough for government and blogging work.

Having argued that Drum actually doesn’t publish spoilers in the above, I’ll try not to as well. I’ll simply note that the God (or “Ancient One”) finally encountered in this story has not ruled at all for most of the time period Drum claims he has, that he is not killed by the “forces of good and decency,” and that He is in fact rather relieved to make his exit when it happens.

But the key fallacy, I think, is that everything depends on what Drum and other Pullman critics mean by “Christianity.” Pullman’s books are in part an attack on organized religion — on the worldly power it wields when it takes a bureaucratized, theocratized, Catholic Church-like form. True, they go further, arguing essentially that if such organized religions are truly representative of God… well, then there’s a problem with God, too. But much more importantly, they are a discussion of the consequences of a focus on eternal life after death rather than on a productive life before it. And they are a discussion of what it means to grow up and understand that. Indeed, Pullman is more ally than antagonist to Christians (and other believers) in one very important way: he doesn’t dispute the notion of a “soul” — rather, he extends and elaborates on it with the daemons accompanying humans in the alternate universe he describes.

Re Drum’s idea that the books are an “attack on Christianity,” there’s arguably an even more important point about Pullman’s books: there is no mention whatsoever of Jesus in any of his discussions of either the Church or its ethereal counterpart, the Authority. Indeed (or instead), the chief protagonists Lyra and Will play a Christ-like role when they make a great but utterly necessary sacrifice at the end of “Amber Spyglass” — moreover, after essentially “re-harrowing” Hell, admittedly with a decidedly different goal in mind than Jesus had in the New Testament.

To me, Pullman’s books are ultimately not so much an attack on religion as an alternative vision of spirituality: sentience and adult choice are the great goods of the universe, to be cherished, husbanded, and multiplied. That, it seems to me, is not such an awful vision for a Christian — even for a conservative Christian — to contemplate.

I also take issue with the whole notion — one Drum doesn’t really contest — that children are necessarily helpless victims of books like these. Earlier this year, I read the “Dark Materials” series to Maddie. She was enthralled, and loved to say that the book would soon be a “major motion picture” in a review she wrote for a summer camp magazine. When we got to the delicately handled (and largely implied) love scene between Will and Lyra, she knew it was a good thing, even if it embarrassed her a little bit.

But when we got to the end, and she saw where things were headed, she let me know she didn’t like how this story was ending at all — and she called a halt to the whole enterprise. We have thus completed 2.995 out of 3 books of the “Dark Materials” series — and it’s likely to stay that way for a while.

And that’s fine with me. When or if she’s ever ready to read the rest, that will be the right time. Meanwhile, we’ve talked about the scary parts, the God parts, the mildly smoochy parts. If Christian spokespersons want to sell believing parents and kids short by claiming they can’t handle this stuff, that’s their business.

But I find it passing strange that the normally sensible Kevin Drum should agree with them, writing “And if I were a mucky-muck in the Southern Baptist Convention, I’d be warning parents away from it too.” Whatever for? A book that’s about, among other things, soul, eternal life, love, growing up, and religion — even if it’s critical of it — ought to be a perfect challenge for those inclined to defend their faith. There’s really nothing to be afraid of — they’re just interesting, challenging works of fiction. Kind of like… well, I’ve said enough.

PREVIOUSLY: 2004/03/18: Missions from God – intro to series; 2004/05/02: A good conversation …between Pullman and Anglican archbishop Rowan Williams; 2007/07/14: Weekend quiz section – my daemon is …drumroll… a mouse. Or maybe a tiger.

5 Responses to “Drum can’t read his (golden) compass”

  1. tom Says:

    How old is your kid?

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Nine and a half.
    (Any luck with the Greek symbols — via keyboard or otherwise?)

  3. julia Says:

    feh. It’s a talking point. I heard a seven-year-old in the audience for Mr. Magorium (think long and hard before having a girl child, is all I’m saying) tell her mom that one of her classmates had heard roughly the same thing from his mother.
    Which, come to think about it, puts it pretty much smack in the target of the ongoing conversation about religion and culture at the Washington Monthly.

  4. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Right. To be sure, SBC types have every right to say whatever (stupid thing) they want to say about the movie, the books, and the “threats” they pose.
    They just don’t need murmurs of approval from the rest of us. Drum joins Amy Sullivan et al, I think, in giving too much of a hoot what (stupid things) SBC types say and think — to the point of misrepresenting what Pullman actually wrote.

  5. tom Says:

    No luck yet, but I’m only just now dedicating myself to the problem. When I went to change the language of the keyboard, I found I only had one option. So I guess I either need to dig up my XP disc or go the microsoft website to see if I can download other options.

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