Dispelling the myths
Published on October 26, 2004 By _Martin_ In Religion
Last year the BBC had a wonderful series of programs called The Big Read which had the aim of identifying the most popular books of all time amongst the British public. Famous public figures from politics, music, film and TV eulogised about their favourite books of all time and then the public voted.

One of the books which did very well is a series called His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. These ranked 3rd of all time. Whilst it is to be expected that there would be a bias towards more modern titles Benedict Allen presented an excellent summary which encouraged me to look into reading the books.

Now I'm not a big reader so this was quite an endeavour for me especially considering this is 1300 pages worth of trilogy. What really prompted my curiosity was the controversy that the series had caused. That is what I want to discuss here.

Whilst not wishing to discuss the storyline in depth the concern of some was that the book was aimed at children and contained a strong theological thread in the story. It's not giving too much away to say that some of the key characters are involved with religious bodies and have very questionable motives.

This prompted much uproar amongst various church bodies. This involved banning the book from many libraries where churches had a strong influence. Normally arguments about this sort of thing are when authors are basically portraying an aethist perspective claiming that "God" does not exist. This time however the zealots had something new to rant about because (again not really giving away much) there is no doubt that there is a "God" in Pullman's work, and the concepts of heaven and hell are definitely there.

Where the arguments are focussed is the fact that the role or the church and issues regarding power and it's abuse. Are they wrong? No, the book does question these issues and rightly so. Now before anyone thinks I am some raving aethiest, I was Christened into the Church of England and fundamentally believe in the majority of Christian teachings. Whether I believe the Bible as a historical record or a story designed to convey fundamental morality and ways of thinking is up to me.

The fact is that I have no "axe to grind" or "cross to bear" on this subject.

The book very heavily discusses the concept of body, spirit and soul as core to a complete person. It questions the motives of religion in terms of how it can be seen to be "heavy handed" in its approach to enforcing its beliefs. This is what makes a few people upset.

The fact is that these things must be discussed. Pullman is an intelligent writer. He never categorically defines right or wrong. Sure, the way he writes may lead to conclusions, but the fact is that the characters are complex and throughout the books you keep changing your mind as to whether these people are "good" or "bad".

This series of books is basically as deep as you want them to be. As a 12 or 13 year old you may find it an exciting adventure, but the odds are that the theological and philosophical aspects of the story will fundamentally pass over you. As a 31 year old I found it a thoroughly exciting ride and enjoyed the complexities of the characters. Hell, I even shed a few tears at the end!

The bottom line is that the minority of people who are creating a fuss over this book are either very narrow minded, or haven't actually read the books. I would suggest that those involved in religious teaching would actually find His Dark Materials a great discussion tool for their classes. There is nothing wrong with discussing these things and everyone is likely to come out better for having done so. These stories are fundamentally about the complexities of growing up and how different things become important. In my view, every child hitting their teenage years should read them.

If as a parent you have find views on the religious education your children have then I would strongly recommend that you read these books first. That way, if any questions are raised then you can at least discuss them in an informed manner. If you read the books and decide that you shouldn't let your children read them, well maybe you should reread what Mr Pullman says about religion and consider whether you are perpetuating the myth?

If you want to read the books you can find them on Amazon:
Amazon USA
Amazon UK

on Mar 26, 2006
I read His Dark Materials. A billion times. Best trilogy ever.