Article ID: JAR2002RH | By: Nicole Howe
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In apologetics, a crucial question to ask a critic of religion is “What do you mean by ‘God’?” Philip Pullman gives an imaginative answer to that question in His Dark Materials, a fantasy trilogy turned television series now airing on HBO. The books originally generated backlash from Christians because of Pullman’s anti-religious bent and his negative characterization of God and the church. However, a closer look at Pullman’s “god” reveals him to be merely a straw man, a false god Christians would reject as well. Therefore, rather than rushing to defend against Pullman’s attacks on religion and the church, a more fruitful approach might lie in challenging his assumptions about the nature of God.
The imagination is powerful, evidenced by the profound influence Milton’s Paradise Lost had on Pullman and His Dark Materials. However, there are some distinct differences between the two stories, namely Pullman’s assumptions about the kind of world we live in. With Pullman’s choice to cast Dust (or consciousness) as the ultimate foundational reality, he creates a materialistic world in which God is simply another created being. His Dark Materials, with all its fantastical elements, really begins and ends with matter and leaves little room for the immaterial, eternal God of the Christian Bible. Unfortunately, this a priori commitment to an anti-supernatural worldview results in a distorted understanding of God and Christianity. Perhaps the best response to His Dark Materials is to tell a very different story about the kind of world we live in, one that lifts our eyes from the creation to the Creator and points to a transcendent God who is both beyond us and among us.
An indispensable skill within the world of apologetics is the art of question-asking. Critics of religion or Christianity often have hidden assumptions that drive particular questions or conclusions, and a deft apologist will seek to probe beneath the surface to uncover those hidden assumptions. When it comes to arguments against God’s existence, one of the most critical questions we can ask is, “What do you mean by ‘God’?” Philip Pullman gives us his imaginative answer to that question in His Dark Materials, an anti-religion fantasy trilogy turned television series, now airing on HBO.1 The books originally generated backlash from Christians because of Pullman’s anti-religious bent and his negative characterization of God and the church. But a closer look at Pullman’s “god” reveals him to be merely a straw man, a false god that Christians would rightly reject as well. Therefore, rather than rushing to defend against Pullman’s attacks on religion and the church, a more fruitful approach might lie in challenging his assumptions about the nature of God.
When the first book of the series, The Golden Compass, was released in the U.S. in 1996, it sparked quite a controversy for the way Pullman used the children’s fantasy genre to communicate his distaste for organized religion. Pullman clearly believes religion leads to a stifling of scientific inquiry and free thinking and results in a system where tyranny and control are necessary features rather than mere anomalies, a theme running throughout His Dark Materials. And while he may not be as well known for his skepticism as Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, Pullman is certainly in lockstep with them when it comes to his hostility toward Christianity. In 2001, he told The Washington Post that he wrote the trilogy intentionally to “undermine the basis of Christian belief.” He then went on to say that Tolkien would have considered his work deplorable, and Lewis would have called it “the Devil’s work.”2
If it sounds like Pullman’s work is a bit backwards, that’s because it is. Intentionally so. Both Tolkien and Lewis were heavily influenced by John Milton’s Paradise Lost, an oft misunderstood epic poem chronicling the fall of man from the perspective of Satan. Pullman was also deeply affected by the poem, and it stands as the inspiration for His Dark Materials.3 However, while all three agree that Paradise Lost is a literary masterpiece, Pullman interprets Milton’s Satan character as the hero of the story and praises his rebellion against God. According to Lewis, this is a common but incorrect interpretation. In his A Preface to Paradise Lost, Lewis argues extensively that, though many readers have come to admire the Satan character, “Milton could not have shared their admiration.”4
Nevertheless, Pullman’s distaste for concepts like an authoritative God and original sin led him to craft a narrative where he intentionally flips the biblical story of the fall upside down, making God the enemy and human beings the hero. Rather than original sin being an act of rebellion and cause for our destruction, Pullman recasts sin as consciousness, called Dust (an elementary particle that explains consciousness). And rather than God being the one to set us free, it is we who must set ourselves free from God. In Pullman’s world, The Authority (God) is a liar, an angel who merely claims to be the author of creation but was really formed out of Dust like everyone else. The Magisterium (the church) is the antagonist and will stop at nothing to shield people against Dust (consciousness), not only because they think it infects them with evil, but because they know it will open their eyes to knowledge and self-awareness, ultimately making them more difficult to control. The General Oblation Board is a branch of the Magisterium headed up by Mrs. Coulter and will stop at nothing to “protect” children from the evil of Dust, even kidnapping and violating them. The protagonist of the story is a child named Lyra Belacqua, who sets out to destroy the Magisterium with the help of a ragamuffin tribe of people called The Gyptians, and a few other friends she meets along the way.
The first season of the television adaptation of His Dark Materials seems so far to have generated much less controversy than the books. However, it could be argued that Pullman’s anti-religious agenda is even more explicit in the show. Perhaps because the movie version of The Golden Compass (directed by Christ Weitz, 2007) was criticized for downplaying Pullman’s important anti-religious themes,5 the creators of the series seem more intentional about not making the same mistake. While the book version of The Golden Compass reserved some of the more didactic religious content for the final chapters, the television series leaves less room for the imagination. The controversial retelling of Genesis 3 is revealed within the first fifteen minutes of the very first episode, making it clear from the onset that Pullman has something to say about Christianity. Additionally, by pushing many of the plot lines forward and adding details (even borrowing from the second book in the series), we are exposed to much more of the evil inner workings of the Magisterium and Mrs. Coulter, and find ourselves sympathizing with Lyra almost immediately in her fight to take them down.
By the time we get to episode five, and the heart-wrenching funeral for little Tony, the battle lines have been clearly drawn. As John Faa encourages Lyra in her war against the Magisterium, he takes a line directly from the book, stating, “now we know what terrible evil these people are capable of. Now we can see our duty more plainly than ever.” And then he adds, “we have to fight.” It seems clear that viewers should also be convinced of our duty more plainly than ever, as we have been keenly aware of the evil of the Magisterium from the very first episode. All of this results in characters and plot lines that are much less ambiguous than the book and eliminates some of the subtlety Pullman achieved by revealing his hand more slowly.
For some, the rush to ban His Dark Materials because of its controversial nature only seems to reinforce the view that the church is zealous in its desire to silence dissenters because it has something to hide. Sadly, there have been too many church scandals throughout history where that was indeed the case. Religion can certainly be co-opted as a means of control. Leaders can become corrupt. Institutions can become self-protecting and deceitful. However, it is understandable why the books stirred so much controversy, given Pullman’s clearly stated motives for writing them, his frequent misrepresentation of the Christian faith, and his hero-worship of Milton’s Satan character.
While Pullman claims to be retelling Paradise Lost, the underlying differences between His Dark Materials and Paradise Lost are crucial. Pullman’s entire narrative is built around hidden assumptions, namely his foundational understanding of the nature of God and his commitment to an anti-supernatural worldview, and these assumptions make his work qualitatively distinct from Milton’s.
Whether assertions come from behind a lectern in an apologetics debate or through an imaginative work of art like His Dark Materials, apologists need to dig deeper to uncover these hidden assumptions and bring them to light. Why? Because the imagination is powerful, a fact on which Pullman and Christians would both agree. Pullman himself asserts that “the way poems and stories work on our minds is not by logic, but by their capacity to enchant, to excite, to move, to inspire.”6 The implicit point in this statement is that poems and stories do indeed “work on our minds,” and impressionable readers might find themselves accepting Pullman’s conclusions without really understanding his premises. Lewis reminds us of this fact in An Experiment in Criticism: “To be sure, no novel will deceive the best type of reader. He never mistakes art either for life or for philosophy. He can enter, while he reads, into each author’s point of view without either accepting or rejecting it, suspending when necessary his disbelief and (what is harder) his belief. But others lack this power” (emphasis added).7
Some readers will swallow the philosophy of a book, without even realizing they are doing it. What’s more, Pullman says he does not consider the books to be fantasy, but rather “stark realism”8 because they reflect the truth about the world; the fantastical elements are there merely to bolster his point. This is relevant because Lewis would argue that this approach is even more treacherous since “no one can deceive you unless he makes you think he is telling the truth.”9 For Lewis, “the unblushingly romantic has far less power to deceive than the apparently realistic.”10
No one who has read the books or watched the series would likely call them realistic. In fact, some of the most visually captivating features of the television series are the incredible special effects that play up the fantastical elements, such as talking bears, flying witches, and daemons. Even zeppelins feel thrilling and novel, as they hover ominously against the landscape of an unfamiliar world. Pullman and the show’s creators have an obvious knack for removing the veil of familiarity to capture our attention. However, the psychological themes explored in His Dark Materials are very down to earth — concepts like self-awareness, hierarchical authority, relational trust, adolescence, and, of course, the liberation of the human mind from the so-called prison of authority and tradition. These are important topics, and ones in which the truth matters greatly.
Whether evaluating truth claims in a live conversation, a fantasy story, or a television show, Christians should agree with Pullman regarding the value of intelligent inquiry and asking good questions in order to uncover truth. It is the quickest way we can push the conversation to its foundational premises, so the claims being made can be thoroughly tested and critiqued.
What Do You Mean by “God”?
To thoughtfully engage Pullman’s claims (and any other critic of religion), one of the most important questions one can ask is, “What do you mean by ‘God’?” What we believe about these foundational questions will serve as a guide for everything else — political, relational, and moral. In episode eight, Lord Asriel makes certain Lyra understands that the most important question we can ask is where Dust comes from. The questions of origins are complex, but we humans press to find the answer because the origin of life is one of the deepest puzzles of the human heart, and one of the most critical. How we answer the question influences everything else.
Even when it comes to fictional storytelling, Pullman is passionate about the importance of origins. In his own preface to Paradise Lost, he makes an astute observation about how to write a good story: “The question, ‘Where should my story begin?’ is, as every story-teller knows, both immensely important and immensely difficult to answer…the opening governs the way you tell everything that follows.”11
It stands to reason that this importance would be even truer for the narrative of our real lives. When it comes to our own human existence, the beginning of our story sets the tone for everything that follows. And it matters whether we believe the story begins with us or something outside of us. And it matters whether that foundational something is material or immaterial, natural or supernatural, impersonal or personal. As philosopher and poet Malcolm Guite asserts, it matters whether the primal statement about everything in the universe is “I AM,” as the biblical God says it is, or whether the “foundational, utterly irreducible first statement about anything is ‘it is,’” as many modern materialists presume it is.12
For Pullman’s world in His Dark Materials, the answer is clear: the story begins with us, literally. The Golden Compass opens with “Lyra and her daemon,”13 a literary choice that seems quite intentional given Pullman’s emphasis on the importance of origins in storytelling. In Pullman’s world, daemons (pronounced “demon”) are not supernatural creatures to be feared; they represent the inner life of a human being and give us a basis for understanding self-love. Daemons are attracted to Dust (consciousness) and are therefore the secret to knowledge and understanding of oneself. By beginning the story with Lyra and her daemon, we are given a clue to Pullman’s commitment to a world where human consciousness is the most foundational reality. More importantly, because consciousness comes from an elementary particle called Dust, a “particle we can record, measure, [and] study,”14 we see Pullman’s commitment to a world of materialism. Even while making room for the mysterious nature of consciousness, Pullman binds it together with matter in a way that strips it of any supernatural possibility. This belief that matter is foundational is a hidden assumption that informs how Pullman characterizes God. Within a materialistic framework, God is necessarily another material being with no metaphysical claim to authority. What Pullman means by “God” is very different from what Christians mean by the same word.
This foundational assumption about the kind of world we are living in sets the tone for most of what follows in His Dark Materials. The closest thing we get to the divine in Pullman’s world is human consciousness, and that is why the relationship between humans and their daemons is elevated to the most sacred of bonds. It is also why one of the most violating and anti-godly things the Magisterium could do is perform “intercisions” on children to separate them from their daemons, or really, themselves.15 In Philosophy of Religion, authors Stephen Evans and Zachary Manis identify this version of sacred union with oneself as a monistic belief, such that the divine is merely an “awareness of the soul as pure selfhood or consciousness.”16
In His Dark Materials, the most important or “godly” relationship we have is the one we have with ourselves. And although many Christians would agree that love for oneself is a good thing when properly understood, it quickly devolves into vacuous narcissism when wrenched from the context of love for something wholly “Other.” Additionally, if matter is all there is, then we are left with the logical problem of matter bringing itself into existence. Louis Markos, a professor of English, points out that “interestingly, in Paradise Lost, Milton has Satan claim (illogically) that he created himself,”17and Pullman seems once again to follow in his hero’s footsteps.
Who Created God?
If Pullman’s goal was to undermine Christian belief, he literally fails from the beginning. Because of his starting point, an a priori commitment to the world of matter, Pullman cuts himself off from ever honestly dealing with the God of Christianity. He merely imagines Him away. Rather than addressing the claims of the Christian God, eternally existing before the world began, Pullman casts Him as one more created being in the universe — finite and creaturely. Many Christian philosophical arguments for God’s existence rest on the logic that, because the material universe is contingent, it had to have a cause. And because the ultimate cause cannot itself be contingent, the first cause must necessarily be uncreated and eternal. This is what we call God. But, as Markos tells us, “many moderns misunderstand this argument and ask, ‘if God created us, then who created God?’”18 Buried in the question is the assumption that God must be material, a created and contingent being. But that is precisely what the Christian God cannot be. With Pullman’s understanding of God, it makes sense that he imagines the church to be wholly corrupt. But then again, even in his world, it seems we have no one to blame for that but ourselves.
Fixing our eyes on the created instead of the Creator is nothing new. Mankind has been imaginatively remaking God in our own image ever since we were given minds to do so. Whether it’s the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” god of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster,19 the “moral monster” god of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens,20 or the “complex villain” god of Philip Pullman,21 these gods all have one thing in common: they are not “God” at all, but mere straw men, unworthy of a defense. The reason we must ask, “What do you mean by ‘God’?” is because there is often a failure of the imagination to envision God as anything apart from a mirror-image of ourselves. It’s far too easy to get trapped inside a closed system, unable to “pierce the dome”22 and reach beyond the confines of our own little material worlds. The skeptic finds himself like Satan in Paradise Lost who “in the midst of a world of light and love, of song and feast and dance…could find nothing to think of more interesting than his own prestige.”23
A Path Forward
We might agree with Pullman on one thing: the beginning of a story truly does set the tone for everything that comes after it. Without an openness to the possibility of a supernatural world, direct arguments for God’s existence can take an unproductive path. Perhaps when it comes to His Dark Materials, a better question to ask is, “What kind of story are we living in?” Does our story begin and end only with matter? Or, are there doors in the walls of the world,24 gateways that lead us out from the confines of this closed system to the numinous and transcendent? Philosopher Peter Kreeft reminds us that there are indeed doors everywhere: joy, art, beauty, children, the miracle of our own existence, our rational minds, and the very longing itself for something outside of this world.25 And, of course, there is the greatest Door of all, Christ, who tells us in John 10:9 that He is the gate and whoever enters through Him will be saved. All of these other doors are really “about the divine Logos, the Mind of God.”26
The most painful intercision in His Dark Materials is not the one that exists between humans and daemons, but the separation Pullman creates between the Creator and the created. Pullman is a masterful storyteller, but in the name of freedom, he ultimately amputates himself from the Source of that mastery — the Life behind all life, the Reason behind all reason, and the Creator behind the creative minds we’ve been given that grant us the ability to imagine stories in the first place.
In an increasingly materialistic culture, the job of the Christian apologist is a challenging one. First, we ourselves must remember what we mean by “God.” We need to stay deeply connected to our Creator, to remember our role as image bearers of the God behind it all — the Unmoved Mover27 not limited by space and time, the uncreated and infinite Light of the World who breathed the whole world into existence, the God in whom we “live and move and have our being.”28 Then perhaps like Lewis and Tolkien, we can begin to cast better heavenly visions by writing stories and creating art that flip Pullman’s upside-down world back right-side-up and whisper that there is something more at the back of the universe that we cannot see. And finally, we can live out the life of Christ, who being truly Divine and truly human is Himself the bridge between the transcendent and the immanent, both beyond us and among us.
And if the beginnings of stories matter, as Pullman claims, then perhaps we should also keep close the stunning fact that the Author of our own story was very intentional in how He began His own narrative. “In the beginning, God…”29
Nicole Howe holds an MA in Cultural Apologetics from Houston Baptist University. She is the editor of and a regular contributor to the quarterly publication, An Unexpected Journal, and a regular contributor to Cultivating magazine.
- Philip Pullman, Northern Lights (Scholastic, 1995, published in North America as The Golden Compass [Alfred A. Knopf, 1996]); The Subtle Knife (Scholastic, 1997); and The Amber Spyglass (Scholastic, 2000); His Dark Materials (TV series), written by Jack Thorne, HBO, 2019 to present.
- Alona Wartosfsky, “The Last Word,” The Washington Post, February 19, 2001, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/2001/02/19/the-last-word/4bad376f-4ab7-441c-9c50-afc7e63dd192/.
- Helena de Bertodano, “I am of the Devil’s party,” The Telegraph, January 29, 2002, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/donotmigrate/3572490/I-am-of-the-Devils-party.html.
- C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (London: Oxford University Press, 1942), 95, via Portal Conservador, https://portalconservador.com/livros/C-S-Lewis-A-Preface-to-Paradise-Lost.pdf.
- Mike Collett-White, “’Compass’ under fire over religious content,” Reuters, November 28, 2007, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-goldencompass-religion/compass-under-fire-over-religious-content-idUSL2772517320071128
- Philip Pullman, “Philip Pullman’s Introduction to Paradise Lost,” The British Library, https://www.bl.uk/restoration-18th-century-literature/articles/philip-pullmans-introduction-to-paradise-lost.
- C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 68.
- Philip Pullman, ”Question and Answers,” March 6, 2009, Philip Pullman, https://www.philip-pullman.com/qas?searchtext=&page=5.
- Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, 67.
- Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, 67.
- Pullman, “Philip Pullman’s Introduction to Paradise Lost.”
- Malcolm Guite, “Waiting on the Word: Malcolm Guite Speaks at St Paul’s Cathedral,” YouTube, December 9, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_w8ey2q28ZY.
- Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), 40.
- “Betrayal,” His Dark Materials, written by Jack Thorne, based on the work of Philip Pullman, season 1, episode 8, performance by James McAvoy (Lord Asriel), Bad Wolf and New Line Productions, 2018.
- Orthodox Christian belief maintains that the separation between the body and soul is indeed horrific. This is what we call death. It is a heartbreaking consequence of the fall, and why we place our hope in the resurrection of Christ where body and soul become one again. Wholeness is indeed a key feature in a Christian understanding of healing, but includes union with God, who is wholly other and separate from ourselves.
- Stephen Evans and Zachary Manis, Philosophy of Religion, second edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 100.
- Louis Markos, Apologetics for the Twenty-first Century (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 125.
- Markos, Apologetics for the 21st Century, 125.
- Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, https://www.spaghettimonster.org/about/; cf. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008), 15, 76, 78.
- See Dawkins, The God Delusion, 51, 282; Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011).
- Petter T. Chattaway, “Philip Pullman — The Extended E-mail Interview,” Patheos, November 28, 2007, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/filmchat/2007/11/philip-pullman-the-extended-e-mail-interview.html.
- Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, (New York: Random House, 1963), 81.
- Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost, 96.
- Peter Kreeft, Doors in the Walls of the World (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2018), 8.
- Kreeft, Doors in the Walls of the World, 117.
- Kreeft, Doors in the Walls of the World, 117.
- A concept derived from St. Thomas Aquinas and his “Five Ways,” which lays out five arguments for the existence of God. A helpful summary of his arguments can be found in Peter Kreeft, A Shorter Summa: The Essential Philosophical Passages of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993).
- Acts 17:28 NIV.
- Genesis 1:1 NIV.