Mutiny in Heaven

By JAMES PARKER  |  December 6, 2007

Or is he? What if this straight-up instructor in godlessness, whose confirmed intention is to winkle out the last trace of piety from the minds of his readers, turned out in the end to be a sort of cutting-edge Christian theologian? What if Pullman’s puncturing of the ecclesiastical gloom were actually just a healthy, crap-clearing way of allowing the real God to shine through? Enter the very charming Donna Freitas, 35-year-old assistant professor of religion at Boston University and co-author of Pullman exegesis Killing the Imposter God: Philip Pullman’s Spiritual Imagination in His Dark Materials (Josey-Bass).

“What I think is so amazing about Pullman,” says Freitas, “is that he’s doing feminist theology, he’s doing liberation theology, and he’s doing it gorgeously. And 12 million people have bought this trilogy! What a wonderful way to open their eyes to all of these underdog theologies, and to let them know that this stuff has been around for years — they just haven’t been told about it.”

Freitas and co-author Jason King are not the first to claim a buried religiosity for Pullman: no less august a figure than Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has praised His Dark Materials for the raising of questions that are “extraordinarily deep,” going on to say that he would not hesitate to recommend the books to children. And Pullman’s professed literary heroes are John Milton and William Blake, Christians both, though with their own twist on things — Twistians, perhaps we should call them.

But no one, in the rather large secondary literature spawned by the trilogy, has gone as far as Freitas and King in elaborating the specifically Christian themes in His Dark Materials. “We read this trilogy as a religious classic of considerable sophistication,” they write in their book. “Even as Pullman is killing off his medieval impostor God, he raises up for his readers a divinity fit for our age — one compatible at once with science, popular spirituality, and contemporary theology.” Is it possible that Pullman’s world of inquisitorial churchmen and rebellious angels is the new Narnia?

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MUSING HER RELIGION: BU professor Donna Freitas is a Pullman defender.
Waiter, there’s an armored bear in my Christianity
Freitas first read His Dark Materials as a fantasy geek rather than a theologian. “I read the whole thing before I knew he was an atheist,” she says. “I read the books as they were coming out. I didn’t care who he was — I just wanted to know how the story ended.” Pullman’s invention of the daemon — the magical, intimate creature in the form of a raven, or a mouse, or a panther, that accompanies every character in Lyra’s world, as a visible manifestation of his or her soul — immediately resonated. “I thought that was very feminist of him, because the idea that you would cultivate a relationship with your soul, interact with it, speaks to the concept of mutuality, which is a huge part of feminist studies. But it was in the third book, The Amber Spyglass, that it really exploded as a work of theology. I was reading it in graduate school and thinking, ‘Wow, there’s some amazing themes going on here. This is so rich! What a discussion we could have!’ I was invigorated.”

To summarize it crudely, His Dark Materials concerns the attempt by the powers that be — the Church, which is the earthly arm of a God called the Authority — to restrict inquiry into the nature of Dust. Dust, the key element in Pullman’s cosmogony, is a kind of celestial yeast: simultaneously the essence of life and its fulfillment, it is matter becoming conscious of itself, it is Love, it is (in Freitas’s terms) a God not welded to the throne but loose in the universe, unstoppable, effervescent, like the wild mustard seed spoken of by Jesus in Luke 13.

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