Thursday, January 10, 2008

Book: His Dark Materials

Sin is good, because without it we would not be fully human. This was the theme that stood out for me when reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, of which The Golden Compass in some countries printed under the title The Northern Lights – comprises the first book.

What I love about fantasy in general is that authors are free to create an entirely new world, and then infuse it with themes and ideas that mirror our own dreams, beliefs, hopes and fears. The Lord of the Rings explores the elements of temptation and choice; The Chronicles of Narnia is a story beautifully intertwined with Christian symbolism.

His Dark Materials is no different. On the surface, the story is about the adventures of two children who travel among many worlds, encountering a range of incredible creatures, friends and foes. But there are many different themes threaded into the story. On one level, the story is about the difficulties of growing up, becoming an adult and finding love. On another, it is about rebellion against authority, especially against religion that has abused power.

Pullman has turned the tables in this trilogy with a clever twist, one which has caused much of the controversy amongst Christians. In the story, God
referred to as the Authority is the villain. The angels who rebelled against God and were kicked out of heaven: they are part of the protagonist camp. The original Fall in the Garden of Eden is seen as a positive event, as it allowed humankind to mature and gain knowledge, like a child reaching the maturity of adulthood.

In the story, the Authority is once again increasing his tyrannical rule among many worlds, mainly through the use of the church (referred to as the Magisterium), and humans are poised on the edge of another great rebellion. Lyra Belacqua, the young girl and main character in the story, has a pivotal role to play in this war. It has been prophesied that she is the second Eve; she – together with her friend – will bring the downfall of the Authority by succumbing to temptation.


But the most interesting part of the story is the mysterious particle called Dust. Symbolically used by Pullman to refer to the concept of sin, Dust is only attracted to adults who have passed the ‘age of accountability’. The Magisterium attempts to destroy Dust, because without it, humans will lose their ability to rebel and will become totally subservient to the Authority. In other words, without Dust (i.e., sin), humans will lose their freewill.


And this last point got me thinking. I’ve heard many Christians stress the importance and positive nature of having freewill. But isn’t freewill impossible without sin? Will Christians become mindless robots when they finally enter the gates of heaven one day, free from their sinful nature? In Pullman’s view, having sin is what makes us fully human, as it provides us with freedom.

13 comments:

The Don said...

A really nice analysis. I haven't read the book since Uni so I will give them another go, I do remember them fondly and I have to admit this is one of the first times that I believe the christians had a reason to be upset. Children's literature has often been off limits to enlightenment and even secular ideas. The idea that secular fantasy authors might start subtlety influencing children towards scepticism and free thought is something that must be quite frightening for most Christians, who rely on submission and often ignorance.

CyberKitten said...

I don't really like using the word 'Sin' because of its religious overtones. However, I don't think Dust was 'Sin' per se. It may have been the *ability* to 'Sin' though - in other words Free Will (as you said). But I think it's more than that. It has something to do with higher brain function and self-awareness. It isn't just what makes humans human but what makes other creatures sentient as well (for example the Mulafa - the 'wheel' people in The Subtle Knife). So I don't agree with a simple 'Sin' interpretation of Dust.

Kevin said: The Golden Compass – in some countries printed under the title The Northern Lights...

Actually Northen Lights is the *original* UK title of the book. The American publishers (in their usual fashion) changed the title for unknown reasons.

Oh... The Authority isn't God. The Authority was the first of Gods angels (created out of Dust). He only masqueraded as God.

Anonymous said...

I do believe you mean "lose" in both cases, not "loose."

Kevin Parry said...

Cyberkitten wrote:
Actually Northen Lights is the *original* UK title of the book. The American publishers (in their usual fashion) changed the title for unknown reasons.

The copy I read was titled the 'Golden Compass'. I always found it a bit odd that within the text the Alethiometer was never referred to as such (well, as far as I remember). Only later did I learn of the title change, but wasn’t sure which one was the original. Thanks for the clarification.

Anonymous wrote:
I do believe you mean "lose" in both cases, not "loose."

Thank you! These have been corrected.

simon said...

Interesting thoughts. You seem to have quite successfully imposed your interpretation of "dust" onto a supposed Christian understanding of sin.
It is however wise to not judge Christianity on the basis of a novel. Moreover, never assess a belief system according to the institutions it produces. That would be like sterotyping every American citizen as supporting Bush politics.
A Biblical perspective actually teaches us that sin is nothing else than "missing the mark". Sin is not primarily doing something wrong like lying but missing your purpose. In this sense, sin becomes a state of being, not something that I do wrong. And even though living in sin is considered as wrong, it is not in God intention for us to be in ignorance of it. Actually you got that quite right, sin is necessary for us to recognize its very nature and rebel against it. So we do not rebel against God but sin in itself. God does not love ignorant people but people that exercise their free will. Only free will and the exstence of sin can produce devotion and abstinence of wrong doings.
I think you also forget that what people commonly refer to as sin does not only encourage free thinker but bondage. When you think of an addiction, you would probably agree that it is your habit that drives your actions not your free will. And so is it with sin.If people had freedom to heroin, it would not make them responsible junkies. Nodody questions atheist lifestyle gurus that try and teach us how to eliminate negative thinking in order to reach fulfillment. Arent they then implying that it is not our free will but something else that could control our beings

Jason Hughes said...

So... Sin encourages free thinking, but also bondage.... Sin is a state of being, but also addicting like heroin (heroin, or the taking of, being an ACTION you do over and over)...

Do I have that right?

I'm sorry, and perhaps it is me, but your whole argument seems self-contradicting at the core.

1. So, being a free-thinker, you are defaultly sinning, thus being a sinner in a "state of being" type of sense,
2. and even though free-thinking is what brought you to the logical conclusion that there is no god, this isn't rebellion against god but an addiction to using our brains in an attempt to alleviate ignorance about our lives,
3. which has the added benefit of placing us in further ignorance about god, who, although he loves that we think, it is the addictive free-thinking and exercising of our free will (that he supposedly gavce us)
4. that led us away from him to begin with, against his ultimate plan in which free-thinking and free will were supposed to drive us TO him...

Please tell me where I got it wrong...

simon said...

Ok...well I thought a bit about what I wrote yesterday and I think there are a lot of things which I did not explain well enough. And admittedly the heroin example shed more confusion than light. So lets start this whole thing again, even though I may not finish right now. Please disregard my previous comment right for now.
My post was written primarily as a response to the false view on Christianity in the main post.
I tried to explain that Christianity understands sin as not accepting Jesus as the way to salvation and living his plan for our life, in other words missing the mark. I am not expecting anyone to believe this but this is essentilly the core understanding of sin from a Christian view.
To me the assumption that sin equals freedom is contradictory to the core. It does not take a Christian to realize that there is a gap between our material self and the spirit so to say. How often does it happen that we want to do something but find ourself prohibited by our own emtions, laziness etc. Just because most people dont stick to New Years resolution, does this mean that they lacked the intetion/will? Certainly not, it implies that the self is not a free being by nature. We in constant conflict with body, soul and spirit.
The criticism that has been brought against Christianity in this blog stems out of a old modernist tradition that did not reject the essence of Christian faith but the institutions it has produced in society. It was never Gods intetion to have a church that exercises coercive power over humankind

Kevin Parry said...

Hi Simon

I agree with you that sin is a horrible concept, and I agree with Cyberkitten's comment that sin has negative religious overtones, and that Pullman was trying to use Dust as a positive description of human nature. After some thought, I think I may have oversimplified the description of Dust (and maybe the idea of sin) in my original post.

My main issue with your idea of sin is that when I stand before God one day, I will judged - not on who I am or what I've done in this life - but on what I am, and what I believe. I don't find this just - or maybe I'm still misinterpreting the idea of sin.

Thanks for your comments, and I hope to hear more of your thoughts.

CyberKitten said...

Kevin said: when I stand before God one day, I will judged...

I thought you were an Atheist...? [looks confused]

Welcome back BTW. I was missing your postings.

Kevin Parry said...

Hi cyberkitten

Sorry, that 'when' should have been an 'if'. I must learn to read through my comments carefully before I post :-)

Things have been really busy on this side, especially at work, and I haven't had that much time to ponder my beliefs and write posts. For me it takes time to put my thoughts down into paper, and being a perfectionist I sometimes spend far too much time (more than is necessary) tweaking and adjusting the post until I feel it adequately brings across what I'm thinking. So I only really get to write during weekends

Thanks for all your comments and thoughts, and for visiting on a regular basis.

CyberKitten said...

Kevin said: Sorry, that 'when' should have been an 'if'. I must learn to read through my comments carefully before I post :-)

I know exactly what you mean... [grin]

Kevin said: For me it takes time to put my thoughts down into paper, and being a perfectionist I sometimes spend far too much time (more than is necessary) tweaking and adjusting the post until I feel it adequately brings across what I'm thinking.

I sometime rush things and at other times are too lazy - though still feel compelled to post 'something' on a regular basis. Anything deep and profound I tend to write at weekends too - when I'm not off doing other things.

Kevin said: Thanks for all your comments and thoughts, and for visiting on a regular basis.

Always a pleasure. You've got a very interesting Blog here. It's pretty much always a rewarding place to visit.

Mike said...

I just finished the series and loved them. I'm a Christian and I found Pullman's ideas to be very intriguing. You say that dust is sin, but the way I interpreted it is that dust is not sin, but original sin. Sin as most think of it today is the act of sinning or a state we are in or out of depending on the grace of God. The way I read HDM is that Pullman was stating that original sin changed humans, that dust is the the part of us that gives us knowledge of good and evil, like the serpent said. The first part of Genesis 3:7 is rather interesting and was perhaps inspiring to Pullman. "Genesis 3:7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened..."

Kevin Parry said...

Hi Mike

Thanks for visiting. I agree with you: I think Pullman was alluding to the effects of original sin (which provides us with the positive trait of knowledge) rather than the act of sinning (which carries negative connotations). As I wrote in a previous comment, I think I read a little too much into the meaning of Dust when I wrote the original post.