Pullman's Dark Materials
In terms of popularity and themes, the Pullman trilogy is sometimes compared with fantasy books like A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. The latter comparison is interesting, because I have recently come across a shift in evaluation of the Potter series offered by a few reviewers, orthodox Christian thinkers who are somewhat more thoughtful, and usually more discerning about neopaganism than is Rowan Williams. They now maintain that Pullman’s novels are so obviously a corrupt mythology and so overtly anti-Christian that by comparison the Potter books, which do not display open or aggressive hostility against Christianity, fall within acceptable parameters of healthy fantasy. This is an easy conclusion to jump to, but a superficial one.
It is one of Satan’s most effective and time-tested strategies in his war against mankind to afflict us with a blatant evil (for example, the dark imagination of authors like Pullman), and then to offer an apparently lesser evil (the murky imagination of authors like J. K. Rowling) as an alternative, even as an antidote to the more blatant evil. Then, we jump hastily for the quick solution, the lesser evil, forgetting that it may be the lesser evil with which Satan wishes to infest the world.
Well-intentioned adults are always asking themselves: “What cultural material can I give to my children, my students, my young parishioners that contains some positive values, will get them reading and make them literate and avoid the worst evils of our times?” A laudable motive, but a flawed solution. The ancient enemy of mankind knows us very, very well. And he knows that only a small minority of people can be seduced directly into overt evil. Yet a majority, it now seems, have been led to just that, in the sense of deriving much pleasure from, and giving tacit approval to, what in real life is overtly evil. They have been charmed and dazzled by incremental mixtures of good and evil, and by the underlying presumption that we shall decide what is good and evil and how the “good” is to overcome the “evil.”
The success of Satan’s strategies depends upon the weaknesses of human nature (which are operative regardless of how simple or how brilliant one may be), especially our ignorance of spiritual warfare and our vulnerability to impressions. Human beings tend to choose the “balanced” approach, the middle zone or point between two opposing poles, the poles of absolute good and an apparent absolute evil. Thus, when we are confused by powerful cultural impressions we can perceive these poles as something other than what they are. Planetary poles shift. Cultural poles also shift, mutate, slide. And the poles in men’s minds are more unstable than these.
The true center is never the exact mid-point between these poles, because when a Pullman appears in the cultural matrix, pushing the poles, a Rowling will suddenly seem (by comparison) to be sane and wise. She will appear to be situated at the reasonable and moderate center, and that is precisely, of course, where reasonable and moderate people want to be. Who among us desires to be the “lunatic fringe” (as Rowling has categorized her Christian critics)? Who among us desires to be a book-burning fundamentalist (as we have been endlessly caricatured by pro-Potter critics)? These warps in the psychology of perception have their source in that abiding problem in the people of God, during both Old and New Testament eras: We keep forgetting. We keep forgetting that culture forms consciousness, and hence conscience, and hence actions. We keep forgetting that we are at war until the end of time. We keep forgetting that the seducer of mankind is the “subtlest of cr! eatures.” We keep forgetting that he is the master impressionist par excellence, a smoke-and-mirrors fallen angel who, through dark materials used with the appearance of light, little by little eases us into a mentality where we find ourselves calling good that which is evil, and evil that which is good. And not really knowing how we got there.
And what further distortion, along with negative consequences, will we see in the years to come as a generation enthralled by Rowling and Pullman becomes more and more dominant? During her recent tour of North America, J. K. Rowling has said several times in interviews, “Christians hate Harry,” and “Christians hate me.” The subliminal message here for the hundreds of millions of young people who identify with Harry and idolize Rowling is: Christians hate you! What will be the long term effects of this kind of propaganda?
Pullman has his tens of millions of young readers. Rowling has her hundreds of millions. But Rowling has played a major role in paving the way for Pullman. Both have pushed and warped the poles in men’s minds. They exercise complementary functions in the corruption of the contemporary imagination, and their differences are in degree not in kind. No one would deny their civil right to write and publish what they write and publish. My point here is, Christians should not be promoting either of them. Why are so many Christian commentators promoting them, especially the Potter series? What is missing in these opinion-shapers’ understanding? What goes wrong when a part of human discernment is inflated to an absolute, overwhelming all other faculties of discernment? Why, moreover, have we become so desperate to find the bits of good floating in a soup of evil? Is it because we are starving for real nourishment?
If we hope to shake off the illusions of corrupt culture, and if we hope to develop an authentic integration of faith and culture, we must first seek the true center, which is above.
Michael D. O’Brien