Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Clergy should get a Compass

This past year, I read (or actually listened to the audiobooks) of an enchanting, beautiful, and disturbing trilogy of books called His Dark Materials. The first part of the series, called The Golden Compass will be released by New Line Cinemas this December and look like they're going to be a hit. The trailer begins with a reference to the successful LOTR trilogy that New Line also masterfully brought to screen, and the two books are both epic and engrossing. They also both have strong undercurrents of religion and spirituality. However, while Tolkien had a positive view of religion, which shone through in his epic, Philip Pullman's view of religion is fairly negative and can also be seen in the pages of His Dark Materials. God is referred to as "The Authority" in the Golden Compass, the church is a dominating bureaucracy that stands in the way of innovation and discovery for fear of the truth behind what might be discovered. Children are tortured in a physical, emotional, and spiritual way by the church, and the heroes of the novel are on a quest to aid an uprising against the Kingdom of Heaven on a Miltonian kind of Armageddon.

Now, I'm not someone who would ever advise one to censor what they read because of objectionable material. Instead, I would encourage everyone I know to read these books. I think they are wonderful--wonder full. But, as a clergy person, I'm happy that I have read and delved into Lyra Belaqua's world (the parallel universe that the main character lives in) to explore it before most of my parishioners have been exposed to it. I'm sure they will have questions, and I prefer to be prepared. Many of our parishioners will be exposed to the Golden Compass this Dec. and many will then pick up the books to read. I'm not sure how far down the rabbit hole New Line will go in the presentation of Pullman's original themes and metaphysics, but the book is quite enchanting and persuasive, and it will do us good to be able to respond knowledgeably and engagingly. I recommend a summer diet of Pulmann, Milton, and Blake (Pulmann's two chief inspirations). As Blake once did, the metaphysics of the book challenge the traditional metaphysic of Christianity, except Pullman has physics at play in his construction of another metaphysic as well. I suppose you could call Pullman's a quantum metaphysic. An excerpt from the second book, The Subtle Knife, of the rebel angel Balthamos addressing Lyra (the main character) “It's an angel speaking, Balthamos said quietly. The authority, God, the creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, the King, the Father, the Almighty - those were all names he gave himself. He was never the Creator. He was an angel like ourselves; the first angel too, the most powerful. But he was formed of dust as we are, and dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself.”

On another note, after reading the whole trilogy, I do believe that Pullman could be quite persuaded by Process Theology, but perhaps that is the subject of another post (or book).

I envy all of you who will now pick up His Dark Materials for the first time now and be able to fall into discovery of the world of armored bears, witches, Will, Balloon flying Texans, daemons, and the like. If you don't have time to read, the audio book is excellent, (BBC production including Pullman as the narrator's voice) and can be listened to in the car (although you may find yourself driving more just to listen).

Oh, and lest I fail to mention it, Pullman is presenting the metaphysic that is contained in the book to advance the story, not to "describe our world, per se." Here's a clip from a BBC interview: BBC: "So, this is an account of where our beliefs, all kinds of beliefs, come from?
PP: No. I wouldn't say it like that. It might turn out to be an account of where my beliefs have come from, but first and foremost, it's a story. You see, I didn't set out to write this thing in order to embody a myth. The myth was something for my own private needs. I needed to have something; some sort of solid ground on which the rest could be erected. But the most important thing as far as the reader is concerned, is the story of what happens: Event succeeding event, explanations of things that were mysterious, gradually becoming apparent. Consequence is being worked out, and so on. That's how stories work, and I'm concerned with a story rather than anything else."

I think that Pullman is dead on in the interview and also in the "moral" of the book that our stories will ultimately save us. I think we in this day and age get too caught up in the discrepancies of "fact" and "fiction" and forget about the much larger power of story or myth. Why does Jesus still find such resonance in our culture 2000 years later? Because he told stories.

I'm attaching a BBC interview with Pullman on a program called "Belief" here.

And a link to the "fansite" for all things Pullman here.


1 comment:

  1. Nathan, I absolutely LOVED these books! My husband is an elementary school teacher who turned me onto them after reading them (because he had graded many a book report on them!) I totally and completely agree with your thoughts here. Great read, thoughtful, and provocative!