Phillip Pullman’s (A)Theology

I will not see the film, The Golden Compass, nor will I read Phillip Pullman’s books upon which the movie is based…until the movie is available on DVD and I can borrow His Dark Materials from a library…perhaps sometime this summer when I’m back in the states on vacation.

I’m pretty sure that the film will be released here in the host country (possibly severely edited, possibly not) but my wife and I find it too hard to go the cinema now that we have four children aged 6 and under. As for the books…well, there are no good libraries here for us and I don’t think I care to the own books until I’ve read them. Nevertheless, I’ve taken some interest in the controversy that both the film and the books have stirred up. Consequently, I’ve spent this week visiting Pullman’s website and reading the interviews that he has linked there. Predictably, he has made some interesting comments in those interviews.

In one interview, Pullman is asked “Are you interested in theology?” and he responds in this way: “…yes, it’s an interesting question. The most important questions of all are the big religious ones: Is there a God? What is our purpose? And so on…” Today, that part of my brain which was processing this comment suddenly announced to the other parts of my brain, which were focused on getting a good cup of tea, that this is not actually the question that most people on the planet are asking. In fact, most people living today (as well as those who were living yesterday and the days before) do not ask the question “Is there a god?” but rather “Who is god?” (At least, that’s how I understand this.)

Yet, Pullman’s question remains: Is there a god? Of course, he’s thought about this a great deal and he has an answer ready should anyone ask. In the interviews linked to his website, the answer varies just a bit according to how the interviewer phrases the question. To one person who asked “Do you believe in God?” Pullman replied that he doesn’t see any “evidence for his existence”. However, confessing the limits of his own knowledge, Pullman conceded that god might very well exist. To another person who asked “Why do you hate God?” Pullman responded that he does not hate god but rather simply doesn’t believe he exists. In another interview, in answer to a separate question , Pullman offered that his “own belief is that God is dead”, which I guess is another way to say that God doesn’t exist.

Another comment from the interviews available at Pullman’s website which my brain has been processing this week goes like this:

“The Christian story gives us human beings a very important and prominent part. We are the ones who Jesus came to redeem from the consequences of sin, which our parents – you know. It is a very dramatic story and we are right at the heart of it, and a great deal depends on what we decide. This is an exciting position to be in, but unfortunately it doesn’t gel at all with the more convincing account that is given by Darwinian evolution – and the scientific account is far more persuasive intellectually. Far more persuasive.”

I’ve been wondering why it is that someone, who is as devoted to good story-telling as Pullman apparently is, finds a scientific answer to “the most important questions of all” more convincing than the highly dramatic Christian narrative? The answer seems to be that Darwinian evolution is more credible intellectually, yet Pullman, like all of us is much more than an intellect. One article I read described him in this way; “emotionally involved. He sits in the shed and makes it up and he weeps, yes, weeps copiously at the tragedies that unfold. He frightens himself and upsets himself and makes himself laugh.” Obviously, Pullman is a man with a heart as well as a brain.

So, I thought “Why would I prefer the scientific narrative over the Christian narrative?” I have an answer, but I confess that sharing it at this point would be unseemly. I’m afraid that in sharing it now, I would leave the impression that I was projecting my ideas onto Pullman, and I don’t want to do that. Generally, I disagree with the practice of attempting to psychoanalyze an author based on his works or even interviews about his work. While I certainly understand the temptation, I just don’t think I should do it.

Instead, let’s just leave off with the observation that, based on his comments in interviews, it’s easy to see how Pullman is a magnet for controversy.

NB: Last night while waiting for my son to finish at a friends birthday party, I sat in a restaurant reading an essay by CS Lewis. In it, I found him to be an unexpected admirer of what he called “the scientific outlook”, a story which is essentially the Darwinian story which Pullman says he finds so compelling. Leading into a dramatic summary of the scientific outlook, Lewis says,”Supposing this is a myth, is it not one of the finest myths which human imgination has yet produced?” I would reproduce the description except that it’s rather long. If you’re interested, you can read it in a collection of essays called, “The Weight of Glory” in the essay entitled “Is Theology Poetry“.

I’m beginning to think that Pullman is actually Lewis’ alter ego from an alternate universe.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Phillip Pullman’s (A)Theology

  1. Pingback: God, Show Yourself « ArMchair TheolOGian

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