Monday, December 10, 2007

Is killing God serious?

Frank Furedi thinks that the controversy over The Golden Compass is yet another example of the infantalism that has infected public discourse in matters that were 'private' until not so long ago. With regard to the state of public debate, I can only agree. However, I don't think that he is right about The Golden Compass.

He quotes Pullman as saying that the Dark Materials trilogy is ‘about killing God’, but doesn't find this credible.

An atheist takes the view that there is simply no divine being or beings. In Pullman’s books, there is more than a hint of a divine presence. God exists, but He has an undistinguished and undignified role to play in the text. This is a God that is not worthy of praise. It is almost as if the author is pulled towards a mirror-image depiction of divine authority. Pullman’s critique of theological authority offers a hollowed-out version of the Word. His is a vision of a religion without any redeemable features.
Furedi is correct in pointing out that God is explicitly present in these books. According to Pullman's 'theology', the being addressed as God is not the creator, but merely one among many angels - an alpha-angel, so to speak, who took on sceptre and crown, gave himself out to be the Creator, and generally played up in the absence of an incredibly negligent Supreme Being.

I think this is merely an indication of Pullman's failure in his real, and very serious purpose - to undermine monotheistic religion through the genre of fantasy. Remember that the great practitioners of this form, the authors Pullman rails against, created and moulded this genre for quite the opposite reasons. From George MacDonald, arguably the first, though to Tolkein and Lewis, the intention was to depict a world soaked in God. The characters live and grow, fight and win in battles that are spiritual and whose outcomes are more or less those of Christian in Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come.

This is implicit in the form of most fantasy novels in that the actions of one character will affect the whole created world. In Pullman's trilogy, for example, it is through Lyra that the Fall brought about by Eve will be reversed. Lyra will redeem the Flesh so long oppressed by the evil (male) forces of Adamic religions. But to suppose that this can happen is to presuppose a meaningful universe, ie a universe unified and made meaningful by the existence of a Creator, one moreover more than a little interested in his creation.

Pullman doesn't want this. He has Lyra's mentor (ex-nun, physicist) assert the non-existence of the being that makes Lyra's whole story meaningful. This is the thrust of so much of the authorial interference that makes the third book a litle tedious. And when Lyra announces the republic of Heaven in the last line of the book, there is no hint at all that God might even be given an honorary post of life senator.

Nonetheless, the whole structure of Pullman's universe is built on the existence of a being that gives that universe meaning. I haven't read a huge number of fantasy books, but I've never read one that wasn't structured in the same way. If you want to kill God, fantasy is not the genre or place to do it - He goes down, so does your fantasy.

So I think that Pullman is serious in wanting to 'kill God' and that it is something about which believers are justified in saying their bit. I also think that Pullman's artistic vision is far superior to his politico-religious vision and that the second is fatally undermined by his own work.

[Saw the film yesterday with No. 2 Son. Will write soon.]


Riri said...

I think those who are trying to kill God should be careful not to generate as much literature about that as those who have tried to bring Him to life, lest they start to seem as desperate as each other. Surely that would damage their image ;-) I recommend cultivating a cool, disinterested image

Hazar Nesimi said...

I watch the movie yesterday! It was not as bad as I thought, quite the opposite, lovely done, but attempts to have the fantasy to kill all fantasy backfired, sometimes that girl sounded like a Kremlin ideologue. So if C.S Lewis and Tolkien had their Christianity stories in their tales, Pullman has the Mr Free Will calling the shots.