By Annalee Newitz
FOR SEVERAL YEARS, I've heard Philip Pullman's young-adult fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials called an anti-religious response to the mega-Christian Chronicles of Narnia. Progressive fantasy about troubles with an otherworldly version of the Christian right? I'm there. So I snapped up Pullman's three novels—The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass—each named after a magical device that aids our heroes in a quest through parallel universes, including our own Oxford, England.
Right away, however, I discovered that these are not anti-religious novels. Certainly, there are some bad Christians, but there are also a God and tons of angels. Plus, all the universes are united via a spiritual substance called Dust—or, in our world, dark matter. Turns out that dark matter is a kind of psychic life-essence that fuels angels and souls.
The Dust thing really bugged me. I expect magic in fantasy worlds, but Pullman turns astrophysics into spiritual goo. It was a rhetorical move right out of Jesusland, where believers have managed to convert science into intelligent design. There's a difference between creating a magical world with its own rules and claiming that scientifically observable phenomena in our own world can actually be explained with angels.
So why has this trilogy been touted by the London Telegraph and countless grumpy evangelicals as anti-Christian? Probably because Pullman portrays the ruling Christian sects in an alternative England as bloodthirsty and cruel. In this enchanted version of our world, all humans have an animal familiar who represents an aspect of their souls—the emotional part that takes pleasure in worldly things.
The government is disturbed by the anti-Christian sensuality represented by the human-familiar bond and gives some Christians money to experiment with separating children from their familiars so that they won't ever become "fallen." After these operations, the "severed" children are mentally broken or so overwhelmed with grief that they kill themselves. It's a pretty nifty little allegory for all the freaky shit Christians have done to kids to crush their sexual urges.
But the problem here isn't Christianity itself. It's with a bunch of anti-pleasure adults who want to torture erotic desire out of kids in the name of God. In addition, as we learn in the later books, a similar social problem has emerged in the world of angels. The Christian God is actually a frail old creature being kept alive by fascistic, high-level angels who are using his reputation to re-establish the authority of the kingdom of heaven throughout all the parallel universes. And somehow, because our heroes are fighting to stop these power-mad angels and bad-actor Christians, we're supposed to think the book is anti-religion?
Perhaps the West is so steeped in Christian mythology that we can't imagine an outside to Christianity. Pullman gets to be anti-religious simply because he criticizes one aspect of Christianity. Instead of pushing hierarchy and sexual repression, he celebrates individualism and sexual expression—as long as everybody is heterosexual, in love and conforms to appropriate gender roles.
Lyra, an adventurous little girl from alternative Oxford who rescues a bunch of children from the evil Christian sect in The Golden Compass, defies God but remains in thrall to Biblical gender roles. The closer to puberty she gets, the more she hands off her power to violent, strong men. Eventually she reaches puberty and falls in love with Will, whose "subtle knife" can cut doorways between worlds. After the two young teens have sex, they radiate enough Dust to help save the world. This moment of sex-positivity is Pullman's way of signaling to us that the new "republic of heaven" will be better than the old one.
But many other tenets of Christianity remain intact: the belief that spirituality, rather than science, can explain the world; and the idea that it is "natural" for women to subordinate themselves to men. When Lyra returns to her Oxford, where only men attend university, she can only hope to be educated at a less-prestigious women's college. And her attachment to Will has robbed her of her only power: reading the golden compass of truth. If Lyra's transformation from hero to second-class citizen is what passes for anti-Christian storytelling, maybe we should be looking for a new way out of the religion problem.
Annalee Newitz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a surly media nerd who would rather open the doorways between worlds than kill a God who doesn't exist anyway.
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