Appreciating Philip Pullman

He may be the next best thing to the Antichrist, but (as with the AntiChrist) not all that Philip Pullman says is false. Even in the “His Dark Materials” series, he acknowledges (in the words of William Blake)

A truth that’s told with bad intent
beats all the lies you can invent.

Some of his insights and assertions are true and valuable. And as I said before, what he has to say is intelligent. I believe this is what enticed the Archbishop of Canterbury to engage with Pullman in two interviews (the second of which is here).

Together with reading his “His Dark Materials” series, the interview with Rowan Williams and the lecture Pullman himself gave entitled “The Republic of Heaven”, have led me to appreciate that Pullman all the more.

So here is a short list of points in which I agree with him:

  • Above all, he appreciates the role of narrative, story and myth in giving meaning to life
  • He recognises that the Bible had so much effect because it contained so many stories and not just “laws and genealogies”
  • He acknowledges that Jesus “was one of the greatest storytellers there’s ever been”
  • He acknowledges the human need for “heaven”, which he equates (fairly rightly) with the experience of “joy”
  • He says that this joy “will involve a passionate love of the physical world, this world, of food and drink and sex and music and laughter” (Lewis, Tolkien and I would have added tobacco and said “Amen”)
  • Correspondingly, he wants to uphold that the “here and now” has infinite value, and is not simply to be seen in terms of the value it has for any kind of “afterlife”
  • He recognises the attraction of gnosticism for modern people but rightly rejects it as a false religion because it rejects flesh/matter (“No wonder it appeals. The trouble is, it’s not true”)
  • Equally he rejects dualism (not only God, but Satan is dead, in Pullman’s reckoning)
  • He is “agin” the postmodernist position “that there is no turth and it depends upon where you are”–but notably he “couldn’t tell you why”
  • He has valid criticisms of the Narnia Chronicles although he appreciates Lewis’ non-fiction critical essays
  • He is convinced of the need for “meaning” in our existence, and acknowledges that “the religion that’s now dead” (ie. Christianity) “did give us that in full measure”
  • He acknowledges that “one of the most deadly and oppressive consequences of the death of God is this sense of meaningless or alienation”
  • He does not idealise the “innocence” of children, but values growing up (St Paul also spoke of this, contrasting the milk that infants digest and the meat that adults are able to handle)
  • He has an intense appreciation for the beauty of the world
  • He recognises that good and evil have their existence in the human heart
  • He rejects Platonism
  • He understands the two most important questions about our origins: “What brought us here?” and “What are we here for?”
  • He knows that he needs to come up with a myth which talks “about death in terms that are as true as they can be to what we know from the facts, and it must do what the Christian myth did, and provide some sort of hope or consolation”

On all these counts, Mr Pullman is right.

And points on which I think he has it all twisted:

  • He doesn’t understand the role of Jesus in Christianity
  • He doesn’t understand the doctrine of God in Christianity
  • He doesn’t understand the doctrine of Creation in Christianity.

As if that wasn’t enough to be going on with, there are also the facts that:

  • He has admitted to having no idea what the word “spiritual” means (in fact, all his “spiritual” creatures, like spectres and angels, are suspiciously “material”)
  • He doesn’t understand the positive value of “authority”
  • He imagines that “experience” and “wisdom” and “knowledge” will lead to liberation
  • For him, matter is eternal, rather than spirit
  • He believes that just because modern people believe they can live without God, that God is therefore “dead” (this is, he says, “the most important subject I know”)
  • He belongs to the school of Milton critics that believes Satan is the real hero of the story (Nb. However, it is interesting to note that Milton wrote his Paridise epics as a reposte against Catholic theology, especially Dante)
  • He believes that the “Fall” was a “good thing” and is what makes us fully human
  • He connects the Fall with sex (because Milton does) and believes that it “is something that happens to all of us when we move from childhood through adolescence to adulthood”
  • He does not properly appreciate that a “logos/rational” understanding of religion has a valid place along with a “narrative/mythological” expression of religious understanding
  • He dismisses Tolkien’s works as “infantile fantasy”
  • Despite his emphasis on “joy”, his novels are distinctly devoid of humour
  • He sees subservience “to the whim of some celestial monarch” as a negative thing which curtails “freedom”
  • He accuses Tolkien of omitting sex from his works (“how children arrive must be a complete mystery”) despite the fact that Tolkien litters his stories with family trees, tales of courtship, and marriages (eg. Samwise’s marriage to Rose and the consequent children)
  • He has a lack of appreciation for the brokenness and evil in the world
  • He doesn’t understand the role of Aristotelianism in Catholic theology
  • He embraces neo-Darwinism and the doctrine that we are random accidents of natural selection, but still wants to assert that “from now on” there is “meaning”
  • He thinks that “Christian heaven” is “where we went when we died if we did what we were told.”

On all these counts, Mr Pullman is wrong. I guess we have to balance the good with the bad in this case, eh what?

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One Response to Appreciating Philip Pullman

  1. John Weidner says:

    These are two very impressive lists. Thanks!

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