The Republic of Heaven

I just finished reading the Philip Pullman trilogy, His Dark Materials.

I loved it. Definitely different.

Good stuff:

Strength, wisdom, truth, and courtesy are treated as strong virtues. I don’t mean in a preachy way, but in the way characters and their interactions are drawn. Particular emphasis comes on truth in the third book, particularly the truth of reality vs. fantasy, the reality principle as a saving principle.

Good and evil are attributed to actions, not people, mixed together in everyone — no purely good guys and purely bad guys. On the other hand there is a definite slant — the good guys are more justified or excused for their bad behaviors, some are even portrayed as necessary (particularly lying or other deceptions) and the bad guys show remarkably few good qualities.

Interesting characters and creatures, including armored bears, miniature human-like beings called Gallivespians, diamond-framed creatures, and so on. Also, interesting use of the word daemon. A person’s daemon is an animal, a counterpart, a sort of external soul.

Interesting mix of science and religion — physicists are called experimental theologians, sort of a joke on how naturalists complain that since we can’t detect God with scientific apparatus, he either doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter.

Just plain good and interesting writing — characters, plot, settings, inventions, etc.

Theology stuff:

This world involves a Christian God who is merely an angel, created like the others, aged and dying, who has set himself up as king, pretending to be the creator. People should rebel against this false authority, tearing down the Kingdom of heaven and replacing it with a republic.

The errors of church history are in abundance — corruption, fear, darkmindedness, taking eternal matters into their own hands. I’m not sure if I noticed a single church person who demonstrates love, kindness, or faith; the exception might be the former nun, Mary, but perhaps it’s these qualities that lead her to abandon the church.

The church is concerned with sin and wants to get rid of it. The protagonist Lyra is supposed to be a new Eve facing a new temptation, and rather than risk a new Fall, the church is prepared to kill her. The church would rather have everyone dead than sinning. While the story doesn’t exactly pretend there’s nothing evil, it does seem to misunderstand what sin is — Lyra’s temptation is sexual love, which according to Christianity is a wonderful, beautiful thing, ordained by God for us, albeit within the bounds of marriage. The stuff that the church thinks is sin — Dust, Shadows, the experience gained in growing up — is actually beautiful: golden, shining particles of light. The stuff that the story thinks is sin — betrayal, discourtesy, the wrong kind of pride — is bad but not presented as an insurmountable problem. It is assumed that people can overcome or at least compensate for real sins, without any need for church or God, by increasing their good behaviors, which is assumed to be in their power.

Therefore, there is absolutely no Jesus. His name is mentioned once or twice, and some wear crucifixes, but in all the talk of sin and death and church there is no mention of Jesus as a redeemer, healer, or anything other than an empty name, not even a symbol. He’s not even presented as an empty name — the story makes no effort to show him up as useless, it just ignores him completely.

Other comments:

Life is portrayed as better than death, even if life involves pain, because life is conscious. And yet the ghosts in the world of the dead — conscious, not in pain exactly, but just bored and empty — are freed to see the light and air once again and then dissolve with relief, allowing their no-longer-conscious, no-longer-a-self atoms to become part of everything else. That seems to be a major contradiction.

The main characters are 12 years old when they fall in love and — well, at least kiss quite passionately. I’m not sure if actual sex is implied or not.

The reversals in this story — God as the enemy, but particularly the tragedy of the Fall in Eden presented as the triumphant beginning of wisdom and experience, remind me of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. But I think I remember something saying that Pullman admired Blake.

Pullman on creationism: “As for disgraceful betrayals of wisdom such as the pretense that there is something called “creation science” and we ought to give it equal time in schools with proper science — I’m ashamed to belong to a human race that is so sunk in abject ignorance and willful stupidity.” (Sure. Very convincing. What a well-reasoned argument, with plenty of evidence to back it up. No trace of ridicule or contempt or name-calling at all.)

Pullman on Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia: “I read them when I’d already grown up, and I thought they were loathsome, full of bullying and sneering, propaganda, basically, on behalf of a religion whose main creed seemed to be to despise and hate people unlike yourself.” (I don’t think Lewis’ stories portray bullying and sneering as positive qualities, and while I also think it’s unfair that Tolkien and Lewis both pit good tall blonds against bad short dark swarthy folks, I don’t think the appearance precedes the evil — in other words, I think these writers had real evil in mind, and then gave the evil its appearance, rather than attributing evil based on that appearance. If these authors did have any racial or ethnic prejudice, I’m not sure that implies that they didn’t also have a real sense of evil not tied to racial or ethnic identity.)

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