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Phillip Pulman

A preachy rant against the Church

by Sarah Johnson

Like Alice, Philip Pullman, who has won the Whitbread Book of the Year award with
The Amber Spyglass, gives very good advice. "The more a writer has a purpose or didactic reason, the more he/she dampens the musical tones and harmonies of his work," he told (I quote a paraphrase) the Royal Society of Literature last year. When it comes to The Message, the author should, he said, "just shut up".

Unfortunately, like Alice, Pullman does not always take his own advice. His Dark Materials, the epic fantasy of which The Amber Spyglass is the concluding third part, has a clear "didactic reason": to put children and teenagers off all organised religion, especially Christianity, and in particular the Catholic Church; and to do so by propaganda and suggestion.

If you haven't read the books, you need to know that the major baddy is a vast organisation called, in its parallel universe, both the "Magisterium" and "the Church". Headed by a Pope who is protected by brutal Swiss Guards, every aspect of it is a caricature of the Roman Catholic Church, thrown together with the total disregard for even-handedness which marks a brilliant polemicist.

The Magisterium tortures heretics; its celibate priests are sadistic or ridiculously stupid, and it is engaged in a diabolical conspiracy against mankind. But though Magisterium nuns are seen comically crossing themselves, Pullman never engages with the meaning of the gesture: he keeps the Cross well out of his story. In over 1,200 pages Jesus is mentioned only once.

Having only been a Catholic for 10 years, I have not quite yet got used to being in a persecuted minority. "A lot of kids might think the real Catholic Church is actually like the Magisterium," I hazarded to my sensible non-Catholic friends, after reviewing the second book, reservedly, in The Times.

Don't be silly, said the sensible non-Catholic friends. The Magisterium is in a parallel universe. It is not meant to be the real Church. Oh, that's OK then. A fine writer like Pullman would not try such a cheap trick as to muddle up the "alternative reality" Church with the Church I love.

Then out came the third book and towards the end of it a scientist and ex-nun from our Church, our world - not the parallel one - describes her loss of faith: she became an atheist because she met a man she fancied.

"The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake," she declares, deriving the non-existence of God from her own unsuitability for a celibate life with astonishing non-logic. By now, the reader's head is packed with 1,000 pages of dreadful atrocities by the "Magisterium"; and Pullman neatly places the real-world Church into the frame he has built for its other-world caricature.

The words "Author's Message" do not merely leap from the text. They bound from it like an ill-tamed labrador, knocking delicate plot-lines off tables and churning Pullman's usually vivid prose into a preachy rant.

Why does he loathe the Catholic Church with an intensity that makes the Rev Ian Paisley look like Cardinal Newman? Pullman's knowledge of the modern Church, its work, its institutions, its people, appears scanty. His account of Mary's loss of faith is laughable. His experience of Christianity, it would seem, amounts to having read CS Lewis's Narnia books for the first time in adulthood.

Most uncomfortable for me has been the unfettered joy with which my media colleagues have eulogised a book which attacks a religious minority - my own.

"He writes like an angel," they coo. Yes, Pullman's glittering imaginative constructs certainly provoke reflection on the nature of the cosmos, of consciousness, of science.

But behind the adoration, I sense the steely strength of English anti-Catholic feeling: so polite, so cold, so insidious, so understated - you don't know it's there until it hits you, like a slap from a dowager's bony hand.

What if Pullman had replaced the Magisterium's crosses and churches with crescents and mosques? Not that he would have dared. Like any playground bully, Pullman knows which kids are least likely to kick him back.

A book can open a child's mind, or it can close it. It can open doors or, with tales of bogeymen, it can frighten the child away from an area of human experience - if the author chooses. It is sad that the one book which paved the way for better recognition of children's literature, by beating "adult" books to a major prize, had to be a book that seeks to close children's minds, while pretending to open them.

This article by Sarah Johnson was first published on February 1, 2002 and appeared in the 26th December 2003 issue of
The Catholic Herald.

Copyright ©;
The Catholic Herald 2003

Version: 2nd April 2006

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