Friday, November 30, 2007

Matt 24 watch, 40: Responding to Philip Pullman's cultural and ideological agenda in The Golden Compass

One week from today, Friday December 7th, 2007, will be the sixty-sixth anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack on American forces at Pearl Harbor that pulled an unwilling United States into the most bloody conflict to date, World War II.

On that day, Philip Pullman's movie version of his 1998 book, The Golden Compass will premiere in movie theatres across the USA, signalling a new phase in the ongoing civilisation-wide sustained assault on the Christian Church and gospel by various atheists, secularists and their fellow travellers.

In this phase, the intent is to capture the imaginations of our culture's youth, through a movie version of the Dark Materials series of books which was conceived of -- in Peter Hitchens' sadly apt terms -- as "a labour of loathing," in attempted direct literary rebuttal to the classic, seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia by the famous Oxford [and Cambridge] literature professor and Christian author and thinker, C. S. Lewis.

Is such critical language excessively harsh on my part?

Sadly, no.

To begin with, as Brent Bozell reports, Mr Pullman (from Wikipedia, a former part-time lecturer at Westminster College, Oxford; 1988 - 1996, "a supporter of the British Humanist Association
and an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society" and one of Britain's most outspoken atheists), has long since declared his attitude to the Chronicles of Narnia and Lewis' underlying Christian Faith:

"I thought they were loathsome," [Pullman] said of those books, "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" . . . . Pullman hates orthodox religion and "those who pervert and misuse religion, or any other kind of doctrine with a holy book and a priesthood and an apparatus of power that wields unchallengeable authority, in order to dominate and suppress human freedoms" . . . . The evil empire in this movie for children is called the "Magisterium," which is exactly the word Catholics use to describe the teaching authority of the Pope and his bishops. The books are more explicit, in which the evil institution is also called "The Church" and the higher-ups are the "Vatican Council" . . . . Pullman depicts priests as evil and murderous, drunk and probably perverted, and the Church as "a conspiracy against happiness and kindness" . . . . the menace in Pullman's trilogy isn't called the Caliphate, and its hideous monsters aren't mullahs. They are cardinals and priests, and the heroes are an atheist former nun and two rebellious gay male angels.
In short, the core premise of Mr Pullman's attitude and work, sadly but on good authority, is a lie, a blatant and brazen slander against the Christian Church: "a religion whose main creed seemed to be to despise and hate people unlike yourself."

Mr Pullman is a highly educated man, and so must be at least minimally aware of the existence of the Bible, and that in it is to be found the Sermon on the Mount, Matt 5 - 7, where we may easily read the core Christian creedal statement on ethics in Matt. 7:12 (echoing Moses' summary of the law in Leviticus 19:15 - 18), and commonly known as The Golden Rule:
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
Paul, in Rom 13:8 - 10, amplifies this principle:
RO 13:8 . . . he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself." 10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Now, of course, we painfully and only partly successfully struggle with the implications of what Peter Hocken has so aptly called "the glory and the shame."

That is, the long centuries of Church history and current experience beyond recounting both document that Christians are far from perfect, even if forgiven and that at our best, we are struggling through the grace of God to walk in those good works that God has laid out in advance for us to do. But one thing is certain, the core Christian creed cannot be "to despise and hate people unlike yourself."

We could go on to detail how he seriously misrepresents the substance of the Chronicles of Narnia and the Christian faith, but that is only by way of showing that the intent is questionable.

What is more directly relevant is the topsy-turvy, world turned upside down moral and worldview programme evident in the books and the upcoming public release of the movie. As Hitchens goes on to tellingly summarise:
. . . while Narnia is under the care of a benevolent, kindly creator, Pullman’s chaotic universe has no ultimate good authority, controlling and redeeming all. God, or someone claiming to be God, dies meaninglessly in the third volume of his trilogy. There is life after death, but it is a dark, squalid misery from which oblivion is a welcome release . . . . Pullman’s saga begins just as Lewis’s does with a girl hiding in a wardrobe and finding more than she bargained for. It is almost as if he wants to turn Narnia upside-down and then jump on it. While Lewis portrays rationalist atheists as comically ghastly and joyless, Pullman depicts priests as evil and murderous, drunk and probably perverted, and the Church as a conspiracy against happiness and kindness.

Challenged about his assault, Pullman professes enthusiasm for something called the Republic of Heaven, whatever that means. He also says that he draws many of his ideas from Milton’s Paradise Lost. No doubt he does, but much of his thinking could also have been taken from the pages of the Guardian, or from politically correct staff-room conversation in a thousand state schools. Among the good characters in his trilogy are gypsies, an African prince, a homosexual angel and a renegade nun who abandons her faith but who willingly obeys orders from another angel (orientation unknown) who speaks to her through a computer screen.

The bad are to be found among the religious, the respectable and the well-off. A particular villain is discovered at his opulent home. Pullman writes with feeling, ‘Everything Will could see spoke of wealth and power, the sort of informal settled superiority that some upper-class English people still took for granted.’ Pullman has also assailed Lewis for being racist, a charge that simply doesn’t stick. One of Lewis’s noblest characters is the dark-skinned Calormene, Emeth, while the vilest is the White Witch. He also suggests that Lewis is monumentally disparaging of women. As Michael Ward points out, this, too, is absurd . . . . His other angry charges against Lewis, that he sends Susan Pevensie to hell because she likes lipstick and nylons, and that he kills all the children because he prefers death to life, are equally questionable.
The intended effect of this is potentially devastating.

For, as Dr Wade Bradshaw of L'Abri Fellowship, UK aptly summarises:
The understanding of our culture increasingly is that the Christian God is seen as primitive, old-fashioned and immoral. The terrible thing is that non-Christians will say that to you but, increasingly, as I speak to Christians who are going to church, they have this nagging sense that they may be in agreement with them - that God is primitive, immoral and old-fashioned. In other words, that the church no longer occupies the moral high ground . . . It is as if . . . I was trying to call them up to what is clearly good and true and right and they kept acting like I was trying to call them down to something . . . Can you see if the church does not understand this dynamic, that we are proclaiming these people to be sinners in need of reconciliation with the real God and they are thinking, whether clearly or not, 'if there were a God why would I go to yours? Because I already consider myself morally superior to your God.'
This tellingly, sadly, echoes what we read in Romans 1, now speaking to a culture that has for twenty centuries had to confront the gospel:
RO 1:18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

RO 1:21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. [Some would add: In the old days, in temples, now often on TV or in textbooks, magazines and museums.]

RO 1:24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator--who is forever praised . . . . RO 1:28 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity . . .
It is therefore extremely ironic that a peak, turnaround moment in the series of books is the point where Lyra, the twelve year old heroine, invited on by the former nun turned atheist, comes of age sexually (explicitly, apparently only through a kiss), but in a moral context that -- from the reaction of several credible critics -- can be seen as inviting the young reader to far more than that. [Cf Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass (New York: Random House Children's Books, 2000), pp. 68, 80.]

Most telling, perhaps is an excerpt from the novel, in which a fallen angel speaks:
The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty – those were all names he gave himself. He was never the creator. He was an angel like ourselves – the first angel, true, the most powerful, but he was formed of Dust as we are, and Dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself.
In short, the core message of this series of novels and the movie is an attempt to turn our youth against the God of the Bible, and to make it seem plausible that evolutionary materialism has credibly accounted for mind (and morals as a key function of mind).

Not so fast!

This attempt at anti-God bigotry gliding into materialism fails, for it glibly glides over the very serious and long since unmet challenges faced by materialism on precisely these points. Indeed -- and unsurprisingly given Pullman's hostility -- it was the very same C S Lewis who in his apologetics works eloquently, forcibly and repeatedly brought the mid twentieth century world's attention to the issue of the evident incoherence of materialism.

From my summary at an introductory level:

Philosophical materialism . . . argues that the cosmos is the product of chance interactions of matter and energy, within the constraint of the laws of nature. Therefore, all phenomena in the universe, without residue, are determined by the working of purposeless laws acting on material objects, under the direct or indirect control of chance.

But human thought, clearly a phenomenon in the universe, must now fit into this picture. Thus, what we subjectively experience as "thoughts" and "conclusions" can only be understood materialistically as unintended by-products of the natural forces which cause and control the electro-chemical events going on in neural networks in our brains. (These forces are viewed as ultimately physical, but are taken to be partly mediated through a complex pattern of genetic inheritance and psycho-social conditioning, within the framework of human culture.)

Therefore, if materialism is true, the "thoughts" we have and the "conclusions" we reach, without residue, are produced and controlled by forces that are irrelevant to purpose, truth, or validity. Of course, the conclusions of such arguments may still happen to be true, by lucky coincidence — but we have no rational grounds for relying on the “reasoning” that has led us to feel that we have “proved” them. And, if our materialist friends then say: “But, we can always apply scientific tests, through observation, experiment and measurement,” then we must note that to demonstrate that such tests provide empirical support to their theories requires the use of the very process of reasoning which they have discredited!

Thus, evolutionary materialism reduces reason itself to the status of illusion. But, immediately, that includes “Materialism.” For instance, Marxists commonly deride opponents for their “bourgeois class conditioning” — but what of the effect of their own class origins? Freudians frequently dismiss qualms about their loosening of moral restraints by alluding to the impact of strict potty training on their “up-tight” critics — but doesn’t this cut both ways? And, should we not simply ask a Behaviourist whether s/he is simply another operantly conditioned rat trapped in the cosmic maze?

In the end, materialism is based on self-defeating logic, and only survives because people often fail (or, sometimes, refuse) to think through just what their beliefs really mean.

As a further consequence, materialism can have no basis, other than arbitrary or whimsical choice and balances of power in the community, for determining what is to be accepted as True or False, Good or Evil. So, Morality, Truth, Meaning, and, at length, Man, are dead.

Plainly, there is a lot more to the Pullman story than meets the eye!

Let this reported excerpt from an interview with Pullman serve as a warning, then:
"I've been surprised by how little criticism I've got. Harry Potter's been taking all the flak. I'm a great fan of J.K. Rowling, but the people - mainly from America's Bible Belt - who complain that Harry Potter promotes Satanism or witchcraft obviously haven't got enough in their lives. Meanwhile, I've been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God."
So, let us therefore beware of the rhetorical and imaginative power of artful stories and associated well-executed movies that become a now often-repeated Christmas or Easter-spoiler argument by story-telling, for a set of evolutionary materialist claims that cannot stand reasonable scrutiny, and against a gospel that can. END


UPDATE, Dec 02:
An exchange with a friendly but critically minded reader leads me to conclude that I should note on the implications of my use of secondary sources above, as opposed to basing my remarks primarily on direct reading and/or watching. First, it is always a risk to use authorities, no matter how "credible" they may seem, as no authority is better than his/her facts, reasoning and assumptions as well as attitudes.

Having said that, it is also true -- as C S Lewis pointed out -- that 99+% of practical arguments are crucially dependent on authorities [starting with the dictionary and one's teachers, moving on to claimed witnesses and experts of one stripe or another, etc, etc].
The question also raises the issue of the adequacy of evidence for history in general, as for most of history we have no direct access to the real-life situation and must rely on witnesses or authorities of one form or another. Similarly, we are in no position to prove for ourselves from scratch in any significant area of knowledge, and so we must determine criteria for accepting the testimony of such potentially fallible authorities and witnesses. That is for instance the challenge Thomas Didymus faced:
Thomas, who has been one of the core group of disciples for several years, and who happened to be absent when Jesus appeared to the group of disciples that first Easter Sunday evening, refused to believe their collective testimony (and, we may infer, the implications of the by then notoriously empty tomb). Instead, he demanded to physically inspect Jesus' wounds. That is, far from being a paragon of epistemic virtue, he was in the position of one who refused to believe credible testimony and accessible corroborating physical evidence -- which is, by dint of the finitude and fallibility of human nature, the only access to most of history that we have a right to expect.

So, while Jesus did graciously grant him his request, Our Risen Lord was entirely justified to advert to the fact that we cannot properly demand direct physical access to historical events as a condition of believing them. Therefore, "blessed are those who have not seen and yet [having heard and heeded credible testimony and record, cf. vv 30 - 31!] have believed." And, indeed, millions across twenty centuries (including the author of this note) have done so, and have indeed experienced the miracle of the new birth and its result: eternal life -- JN 17:3: "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" -- just as Jesus promised.

That is, we plainly have an epistemic duty to respond appropriately to credible evidence, through exercising reasonable faith.

That in turn means we have to balance several things, among others: (i) the risk of error vs the risk of silence in the face of the need for prudent action, (ii) the risk of loss of credibility on having to acknowledge error, (iii) the issue that we are often tempted to accept things that fit our preconceptions too easily, (iv) the opposed risk that we are prone to reject those that do not unless they surmount an unrealistically high criterion of evidence, and much more.

This raises the issue of judging when something is adequately warranted to accept as [a] possible or then [b] likely or then [c] highly likely or then [d] morally certain or then [e] demonstrably certain. (A good test of that is degree of corroboration across independent witnesses or authorities, joined to correspondence with a wide range of reliable facts in the situation, and onward to being coherent and elegantly simple but not simplistic as an explanation across alternatives. Cf Greenleaf's set of courtroom-tested rules of thumb here.)

As of now, I believe there is sufficient corroboration to accept that the above main post is substantially accurate -- note how, e.g., I highlight that there is only explicitly a "first kiss" in the series of novels, but in a context that is apparently undermining of moral and/or even prudential restraint on too-early sexuality -- and as a whole requires us to act on prudence even in the face of possible errors.

Should further information arise that materially alters the balance of that judgement, I will make a note of it and notify regular correspondents.


Jason said...

Thank you so much Gordon for this post. I recently read an article from Dr. Albert Mohler about His Dark Materials, and while I have neither read the books nor watched the movies, I am as concerned as anyone about the battle for our childrens' hearts and minds, as played out in the popular media.

Rowley Whitehead pointed me on to your blog and your posts are great.

Keep 'em coming! God Bless.

J (from Barbados)

Gordon said...

Hi Jason

Thanks for the kind thoughts.

Greet Rowley for me.

The past few days have been a bit dicey on web access.