Tuesday, December 18, 2007

His Dark Magoguery

I’m still in touch enough with Christian Fundamentalism that I knew about the uproar over The Golden Compass long before it became a news story. I had only heard of Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy a little while before news of the movie came out. True, the first book came out a dozen years ago and I was somewhere in the neighborhood of the key demo, seeing as how I was 14 and an avid reader at the time. But I started reading Tom Clancy in the fourth grade and by the time I hit junior high I was firmly ensconced in a combination of techno-thriller and sci-fi and never really read or cared much about the fantasy genre. Either way, I learned of His Dark Materials at some point in the last year. Specifically, I learned that it was good storytelling and that the author made a big deal of his atheism. Then I learned about the movie, the great lengths the movie was supposedly going to in order to avoid controversy, and, eventually, the Christian backlash. Christian backlash tends to amuse me. It carries with it a panicked note that would seem to indicate that this one book, movie, or song will be able to, in and of itself, destroy a two thousand-year-old faith. It ultimately boils down to the deep, understandable dread of the fundamentalist, namely that fundamentalism of any stripe is a brittle “faith” built on an insubstantial foundation. Back in the early days of public atheism, the best friend to the atheist was, oddly enough, the Christian theologian. There was a time when a theologian in search of a way of handling apologetics would come up with the best possible argument against the existence of god or Jesus or for the a-historicity of Biblical claims, then refute them. It wasn’t the watered-down “apologetics” we find now with the utterly absurd notions of the Chick Tract or the hard-hitting “investigative journalism” of the 43,000 books in the Case for Christ series (nothing against Lee Strobel himself, but I was never overly impressed with The Case For Christ and I’ve been less impressed with each subsequent book in the theme. The “journalism” owes more to Buck Williams than Walter Winchell. Oh, and I have many, many things against Jack Chick). Point is, there was once a time when Christian theology wasn’t actually afraid of divergent viewpoints. In fact, it actively sought out diverging points. Yes, it was for the purpose of shooting them down with hard core theologizing, but I’m not complaining. It was, at least, interesting. Modern Fundamentalist Christianity is a belief system based on fear of anything that could possibly rock its “faith.” It spits on the traditions laid down by Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, and Paley. The uproar over The Golden Compass is a near-perfect illustration of just how anemic Christian theology and, therefore, the Christian faith has become. See, if I were, for some utterly bizarre reason, involved on the Christian side of a Christian/atheist debate wherein everyone pulled their opponents out of a hat, I would be hoping to pull Philip Pullman’s name. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, and Stephen Jay Gould (who might be fairly easy to beat now, what with the being dead thing) would have the advantage of rigorous scientific backgrounds. Arthur Miller and Jonathan Miller (no relation) have the advantage of being quite eloquent. Philip Pullman is just, well, shrill. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that I know he’s real and probably does believe the things he says he does, I’d say he’s a fantastic representation of a straw atheist. I’d also say he’s the atheist version of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, but Pullman actually knows how to write, create sympathetic characters, and his over-the-top exposition at least includes thoughts and ideas that are compelling enough to make it somewhat forgivable. Yes. I’ve read His Dark Materials. Every single one of the thousand-ish pages it contains. I enjoyed the books and actually stopped to think about a couple of the points Pullman made (even though they were in the exposition part of the book. But, hey, ham-handed delivery of a good/interesting thought doesn’t actually cover up a good/interesting thought all the time). Still, there was nothing in them that swayed my thinking on any religious topic. The closest it came was when he managed to state a couple of thoughts I have had or have heard in clearer and more succinct ways than I’d previously experienced. But that’s hardly something that can be described as compelling evidence for indoctrination. Thing is, there’s nothing in His Dark Materials that’s really compelling beyond the general fact that it's a fun story. I had to constantly remind myself that the world Pullman was building and the story he was telling from it were specifically designed for the destruction of the idea of the Christian god. If I hadn’t known that from the beginning I probably wouldn’t have really picked up on it. I’ve heard of a lot of people who were not exactly Christians to begin with who found his message annoying or didn’t even notice it was there in the first place. And until the movie was about to come out I have never once heard of the books from a Christian context. It’s weird, because I’ve either heard of them described as wonderful fantasy tales or decried in the same way I dislike C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy (I was rather interested by the first, ground my teeth to nubs trying to wade through the second, said, “Are you kidding?” and quit shortly in to the third. I think I handled Narnia in much the same way). Either way, Fundamentalist Christians all over the US got whipped up in to a frothy lather over The Golden Compass. They took all kinds of issue with the fact that (gasp!) the writer is an atheist, got all crazy with a couple of random quotes, then used the fact that any and all mention of god or church or religion was basically excised from the movie as proof of some sort of vast atheist conspiracy to indoctrinate poor, vulnerable Christian children and freaked out. Over nothing. Really. There is nothing for a person with a robust faith and a little bit of logical acumen to fear from Philip Pullman’s trilogy. The “Authority” of His Dark Materials is so very alien from any representation of god I’ve ever seen that there’s no real point of connect (and this is coming from a guy who refers to the god theory behind most Fundamentalist Christian thought as “The Cosmic Jackass God,” so that’s a fairly strong statement there). The universes are populated by beings that share names with beings that occupy popular mythological and religious writings but that aren’t really the same thing. Oh, and as for the big uproar about every person in Lyra’s universe having “daemons” as a symbol of the evil of Pullman’s world: I have little doubt that there was some intended mischief there, but a “daemon” and a “demon” are two very different concepts. The former is a class of mythological beings that are neither god nor human but that are there in the interface of people with the divine. The latter, is, of course, an agent of Satan. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that there’s at least one place in the trilogy where Pullman makes it a point to lay out the fact that he’s aware of the difference. The concept of the daemon, in fact, precedes the Christian demon due to the fact that Christianity appropriated and misapplied the word. Pullman’s daemon is a Greek classical construct and, as far as I can tell, is appropriately applied to the concept in which he uses it. But, see, knowing those things would require some modicum of research on the part of the hyperventilating Christian right. It’s much easier to pull down random quotes and start a hubbub than it is to read a book and look to see if there’s any particular reason why the author used a word that you think is the same as this other word but spelled it differently. I’m afraid there’s a reason for that. I’ve already said that there’s no reason for a person of robust faith and a tiny bit of logical acumen to fear His Dark Materials. The fact of the matter is, though, that Fundamentalism is the exact opposite of a “robust faith.” It is so brittle, so unsteady on its foundations, that it can’t bear to take that hit from an outsider with a really cool fantasy story built in to a poorly conceived conception of a god. Far from boycotting his works, Christians should be joining Philip Pullman in trying to kill The Authority of His Dark Materials. Or, at least, they should be figuring out how to explain that The Authority is nothing like the god found in the Bible. Perhaps, though, it’s taken as a given that it’s easier to attack a message than to read and contemplate it. And, maybe, the god most fundamentalists worship is too uncomfortably close to Pullman’s Authority and they’re afraid to admit it. I really couldn’t tell you which one it is, though. I should just get back to that whole Mythology Project thing. Just as soon as I figure out how to actually write Part 2 of Mythology in the Third Age without hating it. It's kind of important...

1 comment:

jamoche said...

Point is, there was once a time when Christian theology wasn’t actually afraid of divergent viewpoints. In fact, it actively sought out diverging points. Yes, it was for the purpose of shooting them down with hard core theologizing, but I’m not complaining. It was, at least, interesting.

You've just pegged what I found attractive about Catholicism when I started getting back into religion (having been turned off it by being a nominal generic Protestant in the heart of the Bible Belt) - whereas all the anti-Catholic websites had long lists of What Is Wrong About Catholicism (generally the same list, with no explanation of why any given item is on it - the big giveaway is the objection to "wax candles"), the Catholic websites had detailed explanations of why those list items were incorrect, along with citations and loads of research to back them up.

-- here from slacktivist