This article was first published on Culturewatch.org in 2002. I have developed my views on Philip Pullman and his work significantly since then and I no longer quite agree all the points made in this article. See my book Dark Matter: A Thinking Fan’s Guide to Philip Pullman for more developed ideas.
Philip Pullman is a brilliant writer. That’s why he won the Whitbread Award last year — the first time a children’s author has ever won the main prize. Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass – the trilogy of books collectively called His Dark Materials – are fabulously inventive, spine-tinglingly exciting and completely gripping.
Pullman says stories are vital: ‘they entertain and they teach; they help us both enjoy life and endure it. After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.’
Some Christians have got very twitchy about JK Rowling’s Harry Potter stories whose purpose is solely to entertain. But I don’t hear many people making a fuss about Pullman’s stories, which – at first sight – appear to have an explicitly anti-Christian agenda.
He portrays the Church as being authoritarian and cruel. God is not the creator, merely the first angel who enslaved the others to his will. Fallen angels are champions of freedom, truth and wisdom. The books’ two heroes find themselves at the centre of a cosmic battle to destroy the kingdom of Heaven and establish a Republic of Heaven instead.
Pullman says: ‘The book depicts the Temptation and Fall not as the source of all woe and misery – but as the beginning of true human freedom, something to be celebrated, not lamented. And the Tempter is not an evil being like Satan, prompted by malice and envy, but a figure who might stand for Wisdom.’
Philip Pullman clearly has problems with certain aspects of Christian history – the Inquisition, witch trials and burning heretics. Perhaps he’s had very negative personal experiences of Christianity.
And yet he seems so passionately committed to values that are thoroughly Christian. Freedom, loyalty, courage, compassion, duty, sacrifice and a sense of calling are all part of being a Christian, too.
Pullman puts a high value on truth and integrity. There’s a great irony here. His heroes have Christian qualities but are fighting against God and his people – all of whom are clearly the bad guys. His central character discovers the value of true stories yet Pullman directs his attack at a false caricature of Christianity – a version that has nothing in common with true Christian faith.
But it is fiction of course. The God he describes in His Dark Materials is certainly not the God that I worship, and the portrayal of Christianity is not one that I identify with from my own experience.
Maybe Pullman’s view of Christians is not quite as cynical as he seems to suggest. Perhaps he’s simply attacking the warped versions of Christianity which have sprung up through history and which are still around in our own world. These are gross misrepresentations of what it means to live in relationship with God and should be condemned.
But sadly, Pullman really is attacking the idea of God and the Christian Church – this is how he sees the Christian church, and he is deeply hostile to it. In my mind it’s a great shame that he has weakened a terrific story by sinking into intolerant propaganda against a faith which he does not seem to really understand.