27 November 2007

Found difficult and left untried

One of the most lovingly worn books on my shelves, read and re-read by me, borrowed and devoured by half a dozen friends, is The Secret History, Donna Tartt's elegant and cynical tale of classics, murder, madness, and fate. I was reminded of it earlier today when pondering the storm that's building over The Golden Compass.

There's a scene in The Secret History where Julian, teacher and mentor to the narrator and his friends, expresses some concern that Bunny - one of his pupils - might be considering some kind of religious life. Richard, the narrator, believes that despite his affection for Dante and Giotto, Julian secretly regards Christianity as no more than a degenerate cult carried to extravagant lengths. Julian wonders whether Bunny's girlfriend Marion might be somehow to blame, and asks Richard if Marion is a Catholic. Richard replies that he thinks she's a Presbyterian.
'A Presbyterian? Really?' he said, dismayed.
'I believe so.'
'Well, whatever one thinks of the Roman Church, it is a worthy and powerful foe. I could accept that kind of conversion with grace. But I shall be very disappointed indeed if we lose him to the Presbyterians.'
You might wonder what this has to do with Philip Pullman, and the row that's brewing over the film that really ought to be called Northern Lights. Give me a minute. You'll see.

'There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction'
Just to sketch in what's been happening, and in case you've been asleep over the last while, The Golden Compass is the first part of a putative trilogy, based on Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. It seems that in America the Catholic League is urging families to boycott the film, claiming that it's bait to lure children to the book upon which it's based, where they'll come under the sway of the author's 'pernicious atheist agenda'.

Pullman's response has reportedly been a mixture of indignation and disgust - he's dismissed the League's leaders as 'nitwits' and wondered where they've gotten the idea that he's a militant atheist. The League President has responded by quoting interviews where Pullman says that his books are about killing God, that Tolkien would have deplored them, and that C.S. Lewis would have thought he was doing the Devil's work for trying - as he claimed - to undermine the basis of Christian belief.

As it happens, it's a bit unfair to call Pullman an atheist; his unbelief isn't absolute, as can be seen when, for instance, he says that 'If we're talking on the scale of human life and the things we see around us, I'm an atheist. There's no God here. There never was. But if you go out into the vastness of space, well, I'm not so sure. On that level, I'm an agnostic.'

So he's not quite an atheist, but he's openly stated that his books are largely written with a view to undermining Christian belief. Okay. So why then has Rowan Williams, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury been singing their praises and recommending that they be taught in religious education classes?

'These are human things which human beings have constructed in order to wield power'
Well, commenting on the staged version of the trilogy a few years ago, with reference to the books, Williams agrees that the story is about killing God, but asks which God is it who gets killed, and whether any Christian would find Pullman's 'Authority' recognisable as God. The Authority, after all, is a created, fallible, mortal being that had merely arrogated power to himself. And as Williams points out, the Church in Pullman's world -- or at least that of Lyra Belacqua, his heroine and the protagonist of Northern Lights -- is a church without Christ, well aware of the Authority's failings, and trapped in a perpetual and murderous anxiety about the fate of its 'God'. In effect, Williams says that if God were as Pullman presents him we would have to kill him, and that if the Church were as Pullman describes it it ought to be destroyed.

And, having read the books myself, albeit not for a few years, I think he's right, up to a point.

The Archbishop observes that it's pretty obvious that the Church evidently strikes Pullman - most of the time - as being a desperate and oppressive tyranny. The question, though, is surely 'Which Church?' The Archbishop's own Church of England? One of the Orthodox churches? Maybe one of the tens of thousands of Protestant churches? It can hardly be an invisible church of the Elect, can it?

At first sight the answer would seem to be 'The Catholic Church'; the Magisterium of Lyra's world - the world in which the first part of the trilogy is set - certainly resembles it. 'Magisterium' is a Catholic term, after all, referring to the Church's teaching authority; so too is 'oblation', a term we see in the General Oblation Board, the villains of Northern Lights. Pullman's Magisterium has cardinals, bishops, and priests. Granted, this is a variant of the Catholic Church in which John Calvin had become Pope and moved the headquarters of the Church from Rome to Geneva, but it's still the Catholic Church, isn't it?

Well, yes and no.

'I am a Church of England atheist, and a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist...'
I read the three His Dark Materials books, as I said, a few years ago, borrowing them from an Anglican friend who's now training to be a vicar. His feeling about them was that they were brilliantly written but that their theology was 'all over the place'. I loved the first one, finding it a heady mix of Milton, C.S. Lewis, and Michael Moorcock -- and the Moorcock influence is palpable in all three books -- but felt that following the first book's rather troubling climax Pullman began to lose control of his material. The Subtle Knife still worked for me mainly because I found Will a rather more interesting and sympathetic character than Lyra, but The Amber Spyglass, for all the plaudits with which its been showered, struck me as a mess, its story having being sacrificed to the author's clumsy and overbearing agenda.

One thing I really noticed about it at the time, though, was that there was no way that His Dark Materials, for all its apparent digs at the Catholic Church, could have been written by anyone who had ever known the Church from within. This certainly wasn't the work of an embittered ex-Catholic -- I've read enough of that! It just didn't feel Catholic enough. You can spot Catholic writers -- and that term in this respect encompasses those who've rejected the Church as much as those who haven't -- a mile off.

And indeed, if you do any checking at all, you'll find that Pullman's background is not Catholic. His grandfather, in whose house Pullman spent much of his childhood following his father's death, was a Church of England clergyman in Norfolk. Pullman says that to a great degree he was brought up by his grandfather, which involved lots of going to church, going to Sunday school, listening to Bible stories, and -- he says -- not questioning anything.

That explains a lot. It explains why he's able to conceive of an apparently Catholic Church without the apostolic authority and unifying force of the Petrine ministry, why he seems unaware that the Church has always thought of Jesus as a second Adam and apparently thought of Mary as a second Eve for almost as long, and above all why he clearly doesn't get that for Catholics, stuff counts.

'Every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling'
So what? Well, Pullman tends to claim that his main objection to institutionalised religion is what he sees as its tendency towards tyranny, and insists that:
'It's not just Christianity I'm getting at. The reason that the forms of religion in the books seem to be Christian is because that's the world I'm familiar with. That's the world I grew up in and I knew. If I had been brought up an orthodox Jew, I would no doubt find things to criticise in that religion. But I don't know that world as well as I know Christianity.'
But the thing is, the 'forms of religion' that Pullman caricatures in his books are Catholic forms, and yet it's quite clear that he's anything but familiar with Catholic Christianity. So why then is he setting up the Catholic Church as the villain of his tale?

The Catholic Church is the natural villain of the piece for the same reasons that it's the villain of The Da Vinci Code and for countless other potboilers, and I don't just mean that it's largely down -- although it surely is -- to centuries of ingrained and ignorant anti-Catholic prejudice within Protestant culture.

There's a more fundamental and intuitive reason than that for casting the Church as a villain. Take a look at that quote from The Secret History again: 'whatever one thinks of the Roman Church, it is a worthy and powerful foe'.

Can you think of even one other religious organisation of which that could be said, one other that proclaims the lineage, that makes the claims, that has the reach of the Catholic Church?

Looked at in the wrong light, this could almost be taken as a complement.

1 comment:

Kyle R. Cupp said...

Thank you for posting this. It’s helpful for me to read views that approach subjects from slightly different angles by asking pertinent but outside-the-mainstream questions.