Benjamin Wiker: Sandra, this isn’t the first time you’ve taken on a contemporary author bent on distorting or attacking Christianity.
Sandra Miesel: In 2005, I co-authored The Da Vinci Hoax with Carl Olson for Ignatius Press. This was a detailed refutation of Dan Brown’s best-seller The Da Vinci Code. We felt compelled to defend the divinity of Our Lord and the trustworthiness of Holy Scripture. Our book had its maximum response when the movie version of Brown’s novel was released in 2006.
Wiker: But obviously both of you think Pullman’s children’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, and The Golden Compass, the movie now out on the first of the trilogy, are cause for even greater alarm.
Miesel: Dan Brown’s audience was adult but Pullman’s books were published for children, although adults read them, too. The Da Vinci Code was a ridiculous, poorly written book, important only because so many readers thought it was true. Pullman’s great literary gifts make his books far more hazardous because—as he himself says— they are directed to “undermining the basis of Christian belief.” Through the power of storytelling, Pullman hopes to turn his young readers against religious authority and authority in general while turning them toward sensory delights.
The Golden Compass movie has been mostly cleansed of anti-Christian elements and the majority of reviews have been negative. If it fails at the box office, the more overtly blasphemous second and third volumes will not be filmed. Nevertheless, the movie has already raised US sales of the trilogy by 500% in recent months, not to mention the toys, games, and other paraphernalia.
Pete Vere: The problem is not so much the first movie, but the books. I was asked to review the movie this past weekend. It exemplifies the one trait that will kill any epic fantasy at the box office: It’s boring!
The real danger is not the movie but the books. The two main characters are twelve-year-olds leading a rebelling against the Authority, whom Pullman defines in the trilogy’s third book by using most of the names for God found in the Old Testament. This is what it is. Let’s not forget that Pullman’s story is being marketed to children as young as nine. As a parent, I know what interpretation my children would latch on to if I allowed them to read Pullman’s books. And as a parent, I know that my children would want to read the books if they found the movie interesting.
Wiker: Had either of you read Pullman’s books before you had news of the movie production of The Golden Compass?
Miesel: I knew of Pullman’s trilogy but had avoided reading it because I was aware of its distasteful contents. Reading the books this fall was like having slow poison dripped into my veins. But I wanted to warn people so I wrote some articles about it for the Catholic press. Pete, who had been doing the same, suggested that we collaborate, resulting in Pied Piper of Atheism.
Vere: I had heard of them, however, I avoided reading them because there is so much better children’s fantasy out there that doesn’t insult the Catholic faith in particular or Christianity in general. A good example is Brian Jacques’ Redwallseries.
Wiker: Could you give us some overview of the trilogy? What makes it both so dangerous and so inviting? What particular attacks on Christianity are most shocking?
Vere: The first book tells the story of a twelve-year-old girl named Lyra who sets out to rescue her friend Roger from a Church that kidnaps children and subjects them to Nazi-like metaphysical and pseudo-scientific experiments. In the second book, we discover that one of the main characters is not leading a rebellion against the Church, but in the words of Pullman, “against the highest power of all. He’s gone a-searching for the dwelling place of the Authority Himself, and he’s a going to destroy Him.”
Wiker: And there is not doubt who this “Authority” is?
Vere: Again, Pullman defines the Authority in the third book as: “God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty – those were all names he gave himself.”
Miesel: Pullman turns Milton’s Paradise Lost upside down. His premise is that the wrong side won the ancient war in Heaven: the rebel angels were in the right. Then he mixes in bits of Gnosticism so that the Being that we worship as God—Yahweh himself—is an imposter and a tyrant. For Pullman, then, the Fall of Man was the beginning of wisdom, not a tragedy.
Furthermore, there is no Heaven or Hell, only a material “multiverse” containing billions of parallel worlds where history took different paths. Intelligent beings from these worlds unite to kill God the senile old Authority and replace his Kingdom of Heaven with a Republic of Heaven where everyone will be naturally wise and good.
Pullman’s protagonists are a pair of twelve year olds, Lyra and Will. They release the ghosts of the dead from Hades into oblivion, accidentally destroy the Authority, and reprise the roles of Eve and Adam to save the cosmos. Only Lyra appears in The Golden Compass which dramatizes her quest to rescue kidnapped children from monstrous, religiously motivated scientific experiments. The “compass” of the title is a clockwork divination device through which the fallen angels tell Lyra the “truth.”
Wiker: Pullman seems to have particular hatred of the Catholic Church, doesn’t he?
Miesel: Pullman’s unrelenting attack on Catholicism (here called the Magisterium) as a heresy-hunting, sex-obsessed theocracy offends Catholics, but his characters denounce all churches as enemies of joy and truth. His atheistic propaganda gets much more strident as the trilogy progresses until it finally overwhelms his story.
Wiker: Beyond his theological attacks on Christianity, does he attempt to undermine morality as well?
Miesel: Theology aside, Pullman’s books are objectionable for their violence including murder, suicide, euthanasia, mutilation, and cannibalism). Illicit sex is mentioned without disapproval and there are disturbing episodes of sensuality. Pullman never explicitly says that the children fornicate but it’s strongly implied.
Wiker: What do you think of protesting the movie?
Miesel: I haven’t seen the movie and don’t intend to. Noisy protests do nothing but generate publicity for The Golden Compass. I hope people will inform themselves about Pullman and quietly stay away from the movie. By all means discuss the trilogy with children but don’t buy them the books. Lodge carefully framed complaints if the trilogy turns up in school reading programs.
Wiker: Much has been made of the Harry Potter series, some Christians seeing dark elements, others declaring the whole thing entirely innocent. Is their anything innocent about Pullman’s trilogy?
Miesel: Both Pete and I have strongly defended Harry Potter, whose author and symbolic structure are Christian. There’s relatively little magic in Pullman’s His Dark Materials, although there are witches. (Their most elaborate spell doesn’t work and their pagan gods may be illusions). Pullman has a handful of decent characters, including Lee the cowboy aeronaut played by Sam Elliott in The Golden Compass. Despite their alarming name, his “daemons” aren’t diabolical in the least. They’re people’s psyches made visible in animal form. But there’s no escaping the profound unwholesomeness of Pullman’s trilogy.
Vere: Pullman’s use of magic and witches is probably the least objectionable thing in his trilogy. What is most objectionable is the blasphemy around which the story is based. From here is just flows into one objection after another. From denying God’s authorship of creation to mocking the bodily resurrection and eternal life, Pullman inverts practically every article of the Apostle’s Creed.
Wiker: Do you think we’ve entered a new phase of attack on Christianity through popular culture?
Miesel: Secular elites have been enthralled by Philip Pullman at least since The Golden Compass won the Carnegie Medal for children’s literature a dozen years ago. Mainstream media present him as brilliant and daring, a hero for “clear-eyed” people. His celebrity in post-Christian England may not cross the Atlantic but it won’t be for lack of publicity by our chattering classes. Depressing as it was to read Pullman’s interviews and profiles, I was even more troubled by the searing contempt for Christianity (and religion generally) shown by many of his readers who post on the Internet. They haven’t just rejected religion, they actively hate it, just like the readers who made atheist Richard Dawkins and his ilk non-fiction best-sellers. Because stories spread ideas better than tracts, I fear we’re going to see more anti-god entertainment than ever before.
Vere: Pullman’s movie might not have been possible twenty years ago, but neither, I feel, would Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. It is no coincidence that some of the Church’s greatest art has arisen in times of cultural persecution.