The Human Soul: Protection from Pullman's Polemic

FAITH Magazine March - April 2008

Young Catholics are open to many influences and rarely see the evil that may be lurking behind some elements of popular culture. It is not always possible simply to shut them out. Young people need clear and careful guidance if they are not to feel that adults are just predictably “against” anything that is current and popular. Philip Pullman’s books and the films that are being made from them are a topical example. The following was originally written as a personal response to a confused fifteen year old who asked for clarity in the face of the growing controversy.

Dear Josh

 I can see why you like Phillip Pullman’s books. He is a talented writer who has a memorable way with words. He is particularly good at describing feelings and bringing out how his characters see the world at quite a deep level. He also has a rich imagination and he is good at pulling surprises. And like all good writers he knows how apparently ordinary events can have far reaching effects.

 But having said all that, what worries me is the picture of the world that he paints with all these clever gifts. He now says that he is just creating a fantasy world, but in fact he is trying to say things about the real world. And he is consciously trying to fill children’s imaginations with anti-Christian images. He’s actually trying to teach you and influence your way of thinking, but without being honest enough to tell you that. He admitted as much in an interview for the American newspaper several years ago when he said: “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief” (interview with Alona Wartofsky for The Washington PostMonday, February 19, 2001).

 In fact it seems to me that he is very mixed up about some very important things – the truth about God and humanity and the world. Sadly for him he doesn’t understand who God really is at all, which is pretty basic. He seems to have some serious misunderstandings about most Christian teachings. In fact he makes a lot of mistakes of simple logic. Like so many anti-Christian atheists he is not really a very clear thinker at all. Last but not least he has a very twisted view of the Church, which is why he rejects them.

 I can’t help thinking that his ‘daemon’ must be a ‘duck-billed platypus’! The platypus is a strange animal of the Australian marsupial family. It has fur like a mammal, feet like a frog and a beak like a duck... It is a living work of fantasy: slightly ridiculous yet strangely fascinating. But the platypus has a nasty and potentially lethal secret. Behind its left heel it has a stinging spike filled with deadly poison. Get too close to the curious little platypus and he will poison you. Do you see what I mean about his daemon?

 Actually Pullman’s use of the word “daemon” is interesting. It just means “spirit” in Greek, but he is trying to mess with your head here, and your imagination too. The “daemon” that each character in his books has is like a cross between a soul and a guardian angel. But Pullman is well aware that it sounds rather like “demon” and he wants you to get the idea that what Christians call evil is in fact good, and also that what we call good is actually evil. Think about that... What is this man really trying to do to children’s minds and imaginations with these books?

    He comes clean about the big message he wants to get across in these books later on in The Subtle Knife.

 “There are two great powers and they’ve been fighting ever since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit”. ( The Subtle Knife p.335)

 He is saying that you are either on the side of wisdom and decency, or you are on the side of obedience. Put another way this is saying that in order to be in favour of knowledge, wisdom and decency you have to be disobedient and rebellious. And by the same logic, he is saying that if you are on the side of obedience, then you will be the bitter enemy of knowledge and decency.

 This is what is called a “false contradiction”. There isn’t an either/or choice between truth and obedience. In fact it is humble people who find the truth, not those who are full of themselves. He thinks that it takes courage and daring to be disobedient. Whereas it takes real courage to be good in the face of temptation. It takes real strength to keep listening to God’s voice when your own desires (and other people!) are telling you to take the easy way, the more pleasurable way.

 Actually his idea of the “alethiometer” (which literally means “truth machine” in Greek) is an interesting one. I would say that each one of us does actually have our own spiritual compass that is built into our hearts and points us towards truth and goodness. It is called our conscience. But like the alethiometer, we have to learn to use it, and we have to be honest in listening and obeying it. The more we follow it, the better we become at being good and finding real truth. And by the same token, if we ignore and abuse our conscience (alethiometer) then it won’t work properly any more, and may lead us into darkness and loneliness that could even last for ever.

 Of course God doesn’t want that for us, so He also warns us and tells us the truth about right and wrong. There are times when we don’t want to listen to that, and self indulgence can look very attractive. That’s when God’s way can feel unattractive and we might be tempted to call Him oppressive and mean – just full of rules and limits.

 It’s a bit like if someone offers you drugs. They will tell you that the drugs will “free your mind”, that you are missing out on a new experience, that if you refuse you are being boring, that you are scared of your parents or conforming to the Church and its silly old rules ... etc. But actually these are lies. Drugs don’t make you free. They might make you feel “spaced out” for a little while, but that soon wears off and then you are a slave to the drug for the rest of your life – trapped in the misery of being an addict.

 It’s the same with all things that are called ‘sin’. God doesn’t forbid them because He is a killjoy, but because He does really want you to be free and happy. God wants us to grow up to be as full of life and joy as He is Himself. He said so in the Bible: “I have come that you may have life and have it to the full”. He also said: “I want you to be with me where I am, so that you may see the glory I had before the beginning of the world” and “I want my own happiness to be in you”. You will find all these things in St. John’s Gospel. So it is not the Church who wants to cut your “daemon” away from you and leave you cold and soul-less. Far from it. It is the devil who wants to do that by telling you that you should rebel against God and kill Him in your heart by refusing his wisdomand love.

 Actually it is the saints who are really alive and free. They are shining with joy and care for others. They each have their own unique stories of courage and adventure. You could say, if you like, that they have all acquired golden daemons, beautiful and powerful, loving and lovable. This is the result of living in grace – that is living in friendship with God. Yes, this is what God wants – not grovelling slaves, but friends who do what is good because they love Him who is Good. They love Him with all their heart, mind and strength.

 Jesus said: “I do not call you servants, I call you friends, because I have made known to you all that I know from my Father” (also from St. John’s Gospel). It is sin that makes us into sad liars, cheats, murderers, drug and sex addicts, thieves, greedy, jealous and selfish people who are really soul-less and boring, miserable, grey and cold in heart. Everything we call sin is like the Spectres of Indifference, it gradually consumes your soul and eats away your spiritual strength. Wicked things are like sweets that eat away at your teeth – they taste nice when you eat them, but they do you harm in the long run.

 This brings me to Phillip Pullman’s biggest misunderstanding about Christian teaching. He gets it all wrong about Original Sin. Very wrong indeed. But I wonder whether he really wants to know what Catholic teaching is, because he deliberately puts words into the Bible that are not there. On page 371 of The Golden Compass he gets Lyra to read from the Book of Genesis. What she reads out is this:

 “And the serpent said to the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and your daemons shall assume their true forms, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to reveal the true form of your daemon, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also to her husband with her; and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they saw the true forms of their daemons and spoke with them. But when the man and the woman knew their own daemons, they knew that a great change had come upon them, for until that moment it had seemed that they were atone with all the creatures of the earth and the air and there was no difference between them: And they saw the difference and they knew good and evil: and they were ashamed and they sewed fig leaves together to cover their nakedness”.
 All the words I have put in italics here are completely made up by Philip Pullman. Lots of his readers might think that this is simply what the Bible says. I think it is a very, very dishonest of him not to point this out.

 He seems to think that committing sin was a good idea and brought some real benefits. Actually it just messed things up for us all, because it damaged our personal alethiometers and made our beautiful God-given “daemons” (which are really our souls – daemon is just the Greek word for “spirit, but I suspect Pullman is subtly trying to get you to think “demons” or evil spirits as good and friendly things) very sad and sickly indeed!

 Of course it’s got nothing to do with so called ‘dark matter’, if that exists. That would just be part of the balanced structure of the universe. What sin does is upset the balance of creation by going against the Law that makes everything work together in harmony.

 Needless to say, God does not want that. He helps us to mend our consciences and to change the direction of our hearts. Actually our built-in alethiometers are not just instruments for telling truth from falsehood and right from wrong. It will point us towards God Himself. Yes, if we use it with prayer then we can actually come to know God in Person, and love Him as a real experience of light and laughter that will last for ever.

 If we search for Him this way, then we get beyond the feeling that God’s law is just saying “Thou shallt not” all the time. We find that He is not a boring, cruel “Authority”, who wants to kill our joy. He is overflowing with Love, Life and Peace that He wants to share with us. So naturally He helps and encourages us along the way towards Him, even if that does means correcting us sometimes and calling us back from going down the wrong path. To crown it all He has shown Himself to us by becoming Man in Jesus. And as you rightly pointed out, He bridged the gulf that sin made between us and heaven with His own Body on the Cross. Now He lives among us and gives us Himself through the sacraments, so we can now find Him and listen to Him and follow Him and love Him in our own human, downto earth way. That’s what the Church is really all about.

 While it is possible to appreciate Philip Phullman’s books as well written works of imagination and an engaging adventure story, you should be very careful about taking on board what he is trying to tell you. Unfortunately with well written stories this tends to happen subconsciously, that is, without you noticing it. The author’s way of looking at the world just slips into your imagination and starts to influence your own mental outlook. So perhaps you can see why we need to be on our guard when reading this kind of material. We have to take the subtle knife of faith and reason to what he is saying and expose the gaping holes in his thinking and the massive distortions in what he says about the Catholic faith.

 Take care
With much love,

Uncle Phil  

Faith Magazine