Monday, 17 November 2008

Northern Flights (of Fancy)

I found Philip Pullman's Northern Lights (filmed as The Golden Compass) in the Op Shop so I bought it. I'd heard a bit about how terrible he was so I thought I'd look-see for myself.

It's a strange book for an atheist to write.

In the first chapter there was a reference to Pope John Calvin. A not so subtle dig at Christians, although it either showed a huge ignorance or a just as huge indifference. That Calvin could be a pope or that Calvin would be the kind of pope portrayed is laughable. That every person has a daemon companion (pronounced demon according to the note at the start) is perhaps a dig at Christians also. At any rate it should make most Christians uncomfortable, and this use of the word daemons alone is enough for me not to recommend the book.

So after a slow start the book gets interesting. Maybe shopping with Mrs Coulter would amuse my daughters, but we'll never know. For me the tension was a bit dull, waiting for some tension to develop. When it does, however, he does a fine job of it. Lyra's adventures are fun and though an unusual protagonist she does become an endearing one.

But this is the funny thing. For a book that has been touted to be so anti-Christian and deliberately too, it seems to not be really trying. The church is everywhere in the background, but none of the villains are church people directly. The church is just the political backdrop against which they work. In fact, the protagonist's anti-church hero ends up being more evil than the bad guys operating under official church sanction. Either Pullman is being very subtle and lulling us before he pulls out some big guns in later books or he is missing the mark.

It's also a funny book for an atheist to write because it is full of spiritual stuff. I am cynical about new pagans who write modern fantasies with their made up worlds and creatures attacking the church - which is historical. It is laughable for an atheist in his supposed attack on Christianity to make up talking bears, quasi-spiritual beings called daemons, witches who ride tree branches, other worlds seen in the aurora. He's batting for the wrong side here. You can't argue for the nonexistence of a spiritual being with other spiritual beings and phenomena. You've opened the door.

If his intent is to discredit the church or faith, he also misses the mark because in order to make his official church doctrines look foolish he has to change the Bible to fit his world. The Bible he sets up for critique and the church he subtly discredits is not the real Bible and not the real church. In fact the church as portrays it does not resemble the church at all.

Unless he is able to convince someone who doesn't know better that that is what the church is really like, his book is not a powerful atheist work. Whether the sharp knives come out in later books we will wait and see. Would I encourage my kids to read it? No. Would I call the marines if they did stumble across it in the library or read it in class? No. I'd just want to talk about it.

Post Script
What I found really ironic was that in the book I found one of the most apt and most sensible approaches to the whole predestination/freewill debate in the conversation between the witch and the aeronaut. Although she uses the word fate, I believe the sentiment is correct when we think about God's sovereignty and our self determination. She says, "We are all subject to the fates. But we must all act as if we are not," I believe this summarises our Christian understanding of sovereignty and human responsibility. If God is in control, why should I do anything? "We are all subject to God's sovereignty. But we must all act as if we are not."
But the big question, "What is an atheist doing talking about Fate anyway?"

Seven White bears out of Ten but not recommended.

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