His Dark Materials: Of Criticism and Contempt

Phillip Pullman is well known as the author of the controversial book trilogy, His Dark Materials. After an unsuccessful film adaptation in 2007, HBO has made the trilogy into a much more successful TV-series, now in its second season.

The story follows the twelve-year-old girl, Lyra Belaqua, on a series of adventures through multiple worlds. Lyra’s own world is ruled by the Magisterium, a ruthless religious organization that suppresses scientific discovery and keeps everyone under tight-fisted control. Lyra’s adventures begin when she overhears her uncle, Asriel, urging the scholars of Jordan College to fund his campaign to fight for academic freedom against the Magisterium.

Though the books themselves make for pretty good reading, Pullman has been criticized for the anti-Christian themes in his books. Pullman is not shy about these themes. In fact, he has openly stated, “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.” Pullman casts organized Christianity as the enemy—a barbaric, superstitious, suppressive institution whose devotees are stupid religious fanatics and power-hungry tyrants. Ultimately, God (or “the Authority” as he is called) is really just a senile old angel, while the demons who rebelled against him (as told in Paradise Lost) are really the good guys.

Pullman has also been accused of promoting lying, hatred of parents, glorifying witchcraft and sorcery, encouraging homosexuality, and celebrating the occult. In light of this, many Christians worry that Pullman’s views will lead readers down a dangerous path. Though some of these charges are mislaid (I don’t think Pullman wants to promote lying or hatred of parents for example), there can be no doubt that His Dark Materials does intentionally subvert Christianity and some aspects of traditional morality.

Before we look at Pullman’s criticisms of Christianity, I want to first defend Pullman’s right to write a series of books criticizing Christianity. He is certainly free and welcome to do that if he wants to, and we need not be outraged by it. Even if we disagree about the content, we do not have the right to prevent his books from being written, sold, or adapted to the screen. If we don’t like his books, as Pullman himself says, we can complain about them, critique them, or write our own books.

With all that said, let’s consider Pullman’s critique of Christianity. To understand it, we have to look at C. S. Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia. His Dark Materials is often referred to as the “anti-Narnia.” Pullman first encountered Narnia while he was a teacher, and he has not held back about how much he despises Narnia and Lewis. According to Pullman,

“Lewis was celebrating, upholding certain activities and attitudes which I am explicitly against, such as bullying, racism, misogyny. Girls are no good, says C.S. Lewis. Girls are only good as long as they act like boys. If they’re tough, they’re okay, but intrinsically they’re inferior. People with dark skins who probably come from somewhere sinister like the East, and almost inevitably smell of garlic, are always a sign of evil or danger.”

Pullman also argues that Lewis shows “contempt” for the natural world, while Pullman’s own stories celebrate the goodness of the world.

“When you look at what C. S. Lewis is saying, his message is so anti-life, so cruel, so unjust. The view that the Narnia books have for the material world is one of almost undisguised contempt.”

These are just two of many vitriolic statements Pullman has made against Lewis and Narnia. This hatred of Narnia seems to have fueled Pullman’s own writing, so much so that Peter Hitchens has called Pullman’s His Dark Materials “a labour of loathing.” His Dark Materials thus seems to be a direct subversion of Narnia. It even begins, like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, with a young girl in a wardrobe discovering another world.

Pullman uses His Dark Materials to subvert Christianity as well. Organized Christianity (clearly represented by the Magisterium) is the enemy—an oppressive institution that intentionally keeps people in the dark, promotes fear, represses sexual feelings, and uses torture to punish heretics.

Sadly, there have been times in history when Christianity as an institution has looked very much like the Magisterium—oppressive, domineering, corrupt, and fear-mongering. It is also true that Christians have sometimes despised the natural world and attempted to repress sex as a bad thing. Pullman is certainly right to take issue with these things. And to be fair, it is not as though there is nothing morally good in His Dark Materials. Pullman does want to promote love, free-thought, kindness, and loyalty.

The ultimate problem here is not that Pullman criticizes Christianity or casts it in negative terms. Critics of Christianity throughout the centuries have offered all kinds of helpful things to the faith. Some people have even argued that Pullman’s portrayal of Christianity is useful, because it helps us to see what we don’t want to be.

The problem is that Pullman’s criticism of Christianity, and of C. S. Lewis in particular, is simply not very good criticism. Constructive criticism not only tells us what is wrong with something, it also helps us to better understand the thing itself—what the purpose of a thing is, what might be good in it, why it might have come about in the first place, how it went wrong, and what might be done to correct it. Pullman, unfortunately, offers very little in the way of good criticism. In the end, Pullman’s criticism of Lewis and Christianity really doesn’t tell us much about Lewis or Christianity; what it does tell us is how much Pullman hates Lewis and Christianity. Pullman’s criticism smells more like contempt.

To show contempt for something is to despise it or to see it as beneath one’s consideration. For Pullman to say that Lewis is “celebrating” bullying, racism, and misogyny is an extreme misrepresentation. It is true that Lewis has been accused of holding some prejudicial views and for perhaps not having the highest view of women, but those who have read widely in Lewis will find that Pullman’s charge stretches the evidence far beyond anything Lewis would have thought or said. (For a thoughtful, critical answer to these charges, and other helpful criticism of Lewis see The Lion’s World by Rowan Williams and The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis).

As to Lewis despising the natural world, all I can say is that I don’t know how Pullman came to that conclusion. While Lewis certainly was influenced by Platonism (which has sometimes led Christians to devalue the material world), we do not see contempt for the natural world in Narnia or in Lewis’s other writings. For Lewis, the material world is good, even if it is not all there is.

However, Pullman goes even further in his contempt for Lewis. In an interview, Pullman says that if there is a Hell, Lewis is burning there because of something he wrote in The Magician’s Nephew. It is interesting that someone who does not believe in Hell is quite willing to cast Lewis into it for something he wrote in a work of fiction. Sadly, this contempt and lack of generosity is abundant in Pullman’s writings.

In his own books, Pullman is no more generous to Christianity than he is to Lewis. In His Dark Materials, Pullman never once offers any nuance in his portrayal of Christians. They are only fear-mongering scoundrels; stupid religious fanatics; or violent, oppressive tyrants. In one interview, Pullman asserts, “Everybody who claims to know there is a God seems to use that as an excuse for exercising power over other people.” These kinds of claims are exaggerated at best and slanderous at worst. They simply do not align with reality.

Pullman has failed to wrestle with the fact that Christianity has brought much good into the world. He doesn’t acknowledge the fact that the virtues of love and kindness are born out of the nature of God, as described by the Christian worldview. He ignores the reality that Christianity has been instrumental in promoting education, founding hospitals, and caring for the poor, the sick, and the dying. He fails to acknowledge that belief in life after death was the very thing that led many Christians back into the world with renewed fervor to love it and the people who inhabit it. In Pullman’s presentation of Christianity as repressive of all natural and sexual feeling, he simply has not grappled with the conversation about desire in the Christian tradition nor evaluated any of the recent work of the Christian writer Christopher West, which celebrates the goodness of the body and sexuality. Finally, Pullman fails to account for the fact that even when the church was corrupt, there were always reformers seeking to bring it back into alignment with the teachings of Scripture.

In the end, Pullman’s refutation of Lewis and Christianity is really a refutation of his own caricature of Lewis and Christianity. Any helpful comment that he might have to make in criticism of Christianity or Lewis is obscured by his clear hatred for them.

To my mind, the most dangerous thing in Pullman’s writing is his contempt for those he disagrees with, as demonstrated by his vitriolic statements against Lewis and his one-sided presentation of Christianity. Contempt is dangerous, because despising someone or thinking that someone is beneath our consideration due to the ideas they hold is the soil from which abuse and dehumanization spring.

When we consistently demean and malign other people or talk about them as if they were total fools and wicked scumbags, we are not many steps off from exploiting them for our own purposes or thinking that the world would just be better off without them. That this is the case is clear from the historical record of the enslavement of African-Americans, the persecution of the Jews, and many other instances of abuse. And we are seeing this kind of rhetoric against people today—whether it is against wealthy capitalists, liberal democrats, Christians, or minorities. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Pullman would be in favor of any of this; I’m confident he would be against all of these abuses. I am also not suggesting that reading Pullman’s books is a slippery slope that will automatically lead us into that sort of thinking. However, if contempt is all we have for something or someone, we had best beware. We may be on a dangerous road.

For the record, a book that painted atheism as the reason for all evil in the world, or portrayed all atheists as fools without any evidence or logic for their beliefs, would be just as dishonest and contemptuous as Pullman’s portrayal of Christianity in His Dark Materials. Christians have been guilty of doing this, too. It would be nice and easy if we could just blame Christianity or atheism for all the problems in the world, but things are never that simple.

In conclusion, there is no need to fear Pullman or any other critic of Christianity. We do well to listen to them carefully to see what they have to say. Even under his contempt, Pullman may still have something to offer by way of critique. However, good criticism must go beyond mere contempt. True criticism must look carefully at the source and give it as fair a treatment as possible. Pullman’s critique of Christianity fails in this regard. But even so, Christian love demands that we give Pullman himself a fair shake.

If contempt really is the seedbed of dehumanization, we ought to call it out wherever we see it, even if we find it in our own hearts. The ultimate counter to something that we don’t like is not more contempt, but love—love that sees the other person, listens to their story, and chooses to see them in the best possible light, even when we disagree. This is hard to do, but fortunately, the love of Jesus that we have to share is big enough for everyone; even Pullman, even you, even me.

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Ben Keiser

Ben Keiser is a writer, teacher, and student of theology, whose chief interests include biblical theology of heaven and earth, C. S. Lewis, and early Christianity in the first three centuries. Ben has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Liberty University. He resides in Colorado where you can often find him hiking in the mountains.