Spoiler Alert! His Dark Materials

I’m currently sheltering at home and am lucky enough to work at a Catholic school where many of my work and ministry responsibilities can be done at home. One of the breaks I’m taking from normal work is to occasionally sift through 20 years of accumulated work emails, deleting where necessary, moving information off email when possible, and keeping only items that are absolutely necessary, to hopefully come out of this quarantine with both inbox zero and a lean, mean, archived emailing machine. (Of course, I must add that I generally keep a clean inbox, but I do tend to hoard digital files like a chipmunk preparing for winter!)

One of the older items (November 1, 2007 – almost 13 years ago!) was an email I sent to my then-administrator about the movie The Golden Compass (December 2007 release date) as, at the time, there was much social | media buzz about the books it was based on (His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman), especially concerning the anti-Christian slant of both writer and books. Our principal had sent out information to that effect, and this is my response (edited for clarity and for blog reading as opposed to email response), once again timely due to the BBC/HBO adaptation that came out last year (which I haven’t seen):

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS [ALERT] (just in case someone hasn’t read the books published 1995-2000, seen the movie from 2007, or seen the BBC/HBO adaption from last year)

The books come across as anti-religious, but they’re really more anti-authoritarian and anti-blindly-following-what-someone-else-is-telling-you. Pullman uses the imagery of the Catholic Church as the main antagonist, but it isn’t the Catholic Church of our world – it’s a church in another world; the religion it practices is part scientific, part religious. They have the trappings of our church (a pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, religious orders, etc.), but they’re more like scientists then religious experts (or perhaps it’s more correct to say they’re like religious experts in their world, but their faith is concerned with matters of physics, chemistry, technology, etc.).

The church in that world is corrupt with power, and they expect everyone to toe the line or there are pretty severe consequences (alluded to in the books, never explicitly mentioned), but in that it can mirror our own real world church at certain times in our history; it isn’t wrong in and of itself.

The story line is epic, taking place first in a world similar but different then our own, then taking place in our world, then taking place across multiple worlds. In the second and third books we find out that the creature worshiped in the main characters world is not God (our God) but an angel who has been masquerading as god since the beginning of human consciousness. In the third book that angel – named The Authority; now incredibly ancient and decrepit and barely handing on to life – has appointed other angels to continue the deception and to fight against a conglomeration of beings who want to overthrow it. Lyra and Will (the two main characters) find this angel encased in a crystal case – they open the case, and the angel “dies” in a shower of light.

In that sense, the two main characters “kill” “god”, but it isn’t the Creator that they kill (it’s the impostor angel, analogous to Lucifer for us), and they don’t really kill it, it just sort of gives up the will to live as it’s been alive and carrying on this deception for thousands of years, and it quite weary and tired.

There are other plots and subplots, and the main characters don’t always act in good ways (they break laws, for example, but it could be argued that these laws [church/canon laws that also double as civil laws] are unjust because they have been set up by an unjust authority and thus, in good conscience, must be fought against), and there is violence in the form of wars being fought in the third book and some skirmishes in the second book, but all in all there are still good themes:

  • redemption (in some of the secondary characters)
  • consequences of actions (seen in almost every character – when they act in morally ambiguous ways there are consequences they have to live with)
  • the goodness of creation (over and against a church that teaches that all matter is corrupt and sinful to an excessive degree)
  • the goodness of humanity (again, as opposed to a Zoroastrian or Gnostic view where matter is evil but spirit is good)
  • faith (in the community of friends and family, though never explicitly in God)
  • the ability of God to work through us even when we sin (not a theme the author would agree with, but I see it there)

I would say that the major themes of the book are very subtle and probably not picked up by younger children – for them, it’s an action-adventure-fantasy type of novel or movie. But for adults there are some very interesting themes to explore, especially in the book series. I would say that giving a blatant “don’t watch this movie” is excessive in my mind, but after reading the books and exploring them I think parents can make an informed choice about having their kids read or watch.

— End Original Email —

So that’s a view into my reading habits via a thirteen year old email – may God continue to move us to reading literature that can both challenge us and help us grow!

Blessings & Peace,