Censorship, Lyra, and the Scoundrel Christ: A Love Letter to Philip Pullman

A long time ago in a land we once called high school, a movie came out that I was sure was going to exceed the meaning of the word awesome. I had already seen and fallen in love with the film adaptations of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, my second favorite fantasy story (and third favorite Medieval Studies curiosity story, after Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Avi’s Midnight Magic.) I had become so obsessed with the LotR films (as they are affectionately called) that I spent my days watching videos like this:

If the Lord of the Rings adaptation could work, then my favorite series, His Dark Materials, might have a ghost of a chance. And with Sir Ian “Gandalf, Richard III, general BAMF” McKellan as Iorek Byrnison and Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel, how could it go wrong?

How much would I have paid to see him and Nicole Kidman do Asriel and Marisa’s final scene in The Amber Spyglass? ANYTHING. ANYTHING!

Except something kind of did go wrong. The religion and politics, which were a main feature of the story, were excised from the feature film adaptation from New Line Cinema, the same studio that did The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. New Line feared that the book’s “atheist” positions would polarize audiences against the film adaptation. Perhaps they were right to be worried. Many Catholic and Evangelical organizations declaimed the film, saying that the series involves two children “killing God.”

His Dark Materials was conceived as an answer to both Milton’s Paradise Lost and what Pullman called the “blatant[ly] racis[t]” and “monumentally disparaging of girls and women” piece of Catholic “propaganda” that is C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia.

(And sorry folks, but he’s pretty much right. Edmund, the betrayer of the family who endangers all of their lives, gets to go straight to Aslan’s Country [Heaven] along with the rest of his family in a violent but quick train crash, but Susan, who is “no longer a friend to Narnia,” because she is “interested in nothing except nylons and lipsticks and invitations,” is left behind to try to pick up the pieces as the story ends. That is what we call a double standard, Mr. Lewis. Neil Gaiman has a marvelous short story in his Fragile Things collection called “The Problem of Susan” that addresses the issue with more breadth and wisdom than I can ever hope to muster.)

Pullman has acknowledged that his books are intentionally subversive, that His Dark Materials really is about killing God, at least in the rhetorical sense. And you know what? One of my closest friends loves Narnia, while still acknowledging its problematic nature. If she feels okay having  nostalgic feelings about a book that is really, really chauvinistic, if not flat out misogynist, then I can like a book that’s about killing God. Because if you get to read a book that promotes your parents’ religion, so do I.

His Dark Materials had multiple strong female characters (but no “strong female characters”) and was filled with men who loved and respected them, who struggled with their own crises of morality and masculinity. Like the best children’s books, it argued that we should respect children, because their fortitude is infinite. Also, there are armored bears. And gazelles with square wheels for feet.

And yet, as far as killing God goes, [Spoilers for the books ahead] there’s no character really called God. There is an “Authority,” an infirm old man, who is being manipulated by the angels and misquoted by the Magisterium. He did not create worlds as far as he knows, he just appeared first in an already formed world. He is miserable and manipulated. In a lot of ways, in context, ending things for him seems like a mercy. You can take all contention up with that in terms of what Pullman is saying about our own time, but the point is, the “God” killed in The Amber Spyglass is not the God I’ve been evangelized to about by a lot of my friends. They told me that God was infinite, omnipotent, alternately loving and wrathful, more powerful than I (or anyone else) could possibly imagine.

So people started inviting me to Facebook groups that were boycotting the film version of the first book, The Golden Compass, which, again, had none of the religious themes of Pullman’s books. The concept of Dust was introduced but never explained to mean “Sin,” the way Milton uses it directly, or even the way Lewis uses it indirectly.

So I wrote a Facebook note (a new concept for me, as I was a college freshman at the time) :

Religious leaders have been trying to censor certain ideas since the beginning of time. Sometimes they actually seem to have their hearts in the right place. If people are sheep, we don’t want to confuse them, but as Tim Burton so aptly put, “We’re not sheep.” I’m fine with you not liking the ideas you perceive to be in Golden Compass, but are you actually going to believe what people tell you about the plot of a film when they themselves haven’t even seen it? Nobody “kills God” until the third book (and that point is arguable), and the director has already said that he is going to avoid any religious allegory in the series to maintain appeal in the United States, so there, you’ve won. Why not give it a chance? It’ll at least inform your argument against the sinners who see it.

I’d like to point out that I don’t agree with lots of things I’ve seen in films. I hate the forced patriotism of Pearl Harbor, the blatant, pedantic, and simplistic allegory of Chronicles of Narnia, and the combative tone of Fahrenheit 9/11, but this whole boycott thing can get out of hand so quickly. One of Scorsese’s greatest films is called The Last Temptation of Christ, based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. The film explore Jesus Christ as a man who has crises of faith like everyone, and still chooses to sacrifice himself. Honestly, the film gave me more respect for Christians, but almost every major church attacked it for blasphemy. It’s EWs #6 most controversial movie of all time, and it is an incredible film with great acting by some very important actors including Harvey Keitel and Willem Dafoe.


It should be noted that before theGolden Compass film there was an stage adaptation that did very well in London’s West End and was revived shortly after its first run, despite its great length (two three-hour sections.) Perhaps this Christian outrage is a purely American thing, and that’s just sad if you think about it. We who have been home to Thoreau and other “non-Christian” artists should be proud of our heritage as questioners of the religious status quo. Our acceptance of Quakers and other forms of Protestantism is testament to that.

When has just refusing to listen solved any argument? And how can you believe in a God that’s so easily threatened? I mean, he or she is God, isn’t s/he? I haven’t tagged the people who sent me invitations to these groups because I don’t want to embarrass them, but I do hope you read this at some point. As a filmmaker and an audience member, I accept your decision to boycott, but please, don’t invite me to these groups anymore. If you are going to judge a book series that changed my childhood for the better, just as I’m sure the Bible did for you (which I might mention, is also full of intolerant and disrespectful things like the abuse and murder of adulterers, homosexuals, illegitimate children, etc.), don’t do it within my knowledge, because it does hurt me, just as this film apparently hurt you.

Hopefully my writing has improved, but I wanted to dredge this up because I realized I was developing an idea that I hold very dearly to my heart to this day: Open dialogue is better than censorship and it is not my (or anyone else’s) job to make you feel better if you’re offended by art. Art is a cipher for our own beliefs. It always has been. People who tend to be attracted to Christian and especially Catholic theology enjoy the work of C.S. Lewis, just as I, raised by two Humanist Atheists, enjoy the work of Philip Pullman. Politicians apologize. Artists create.

And now, Pullman has gone for a topic even more inflammatory than challenging C.S. Lewis.

[From io9]

He raised the ire of readers all over the world with his sideways glance at the Catholic Church in the series “His Dark Materials.” With his new novel, Philip Pullman imagines a Jesus that had, yes, an evil twin brother.

Never one to shy away from religion — given that his Dark Materials series openly questioned the tenets of the Catholic church — Philip Pullman, in his new book, takes things one step further.The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, out this Wednesday, posits the question: What if Mary gave birth to twin sons, Jesus and Christ? And what if Jesus was much like the savior familiar from the Gospels, but Christ was a wee bit like Judas, tempting him and, eventually, betraying him?

Okay, so now I can’t even argue allegory, the way the Lewis defenders can. But you know what? It’s not Philip Pullman’s job to make the Christians on either side of the Atlantic happy. As he said:

This man is more tactful than Richard Dawkins and just as smart. I am so proud to be one of his disciples. I can’t wait to get the book. Maybe it will be as good as Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Maybe it will even bring some people closer to God. Who knows? If you don’t like it, write something. Make some art.

1 thought on “Censorship, Lyra, and the Scoundrel Christ: A Love Letter to Philip Pullman

  1. And hey – thanks for reminding me about this. Nice facebook post.

    But I will happily boycott the rest of the Dark Materials films because the first one was a DREADFUL slash-and-burn through everything that was good about the book. Man – I nearly walked out (actually – I might have; I can’t really remember now). Erasing the religious comment was a relatively minor sin within its general strip-mining of the human imagination.

    Actually – what I hated most, in hindsight, was the graphic design for the boat which I think had both sails and an engine. Or wings. Or something. I took that more personally than the dropping the reference to Catholicism. Hmm – some do say I need to work on my priorities.

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