Sunday Bookchat

December 2, 2007

This isn’t a Philip Pullman fan site or anything, but this long interview between Pullman and a writer for Christianity Today on His Dark Materials and the film version of The Golden Compass is so good and so probing that I wanted to call it to everyone’s attention:

I don’t expect Christians to see God as a metaphor, but that’s what he is. Perhaps it might be clearer to call him a character in fiction, and a very interesting one too: one of the greatest and most complex villains of all — savage, petty, boastful and jealous, and yet capable of moments of tenderness and extremes of arbitrary affection — for David, for example. But he’s not real, any more than Hamlet or Mr Pickwick are real. They are real in the context of their stories, but you won’t find them in the phone book

. . . snip . . .

As for Narnia — I’ve expressed my detestation for that series on several occasions and at length, so I won’t say very much about it here, except to note something that some commentators miss when lumping Lewis and Tolkien together, which is this: that Tolkien was a Catholic, for whom the basic issues of life were not in question, because the Church had all the answers. So nowhere in The Lord of the Rings is there a moment’s doubt about those big questions. No-one is in any doubt about what’s good or bad; everyone knows where the good is, and what to do about the bad. Enormous as it is, TLOTR is consequently trivial. Narnia, on the other hand, is the work of a Protestant — and an Ulster Protestant at that, for whom the individual interaction with the Bible and with God was a matter of daily struggle and endless moral questioning. That’s the Protestant tradition. So in Narnia the big questions are urgent and compelling and vital: is there a God? Who is it? How can I recognise him? What must I do to be good? I profoundly disagree with the answers that Lewis offers — in fact, as I say, I detest them — but Narnia is a work of serious religious engagement in a way that TLOTR could never be.

At one point, the interviewer asks Pullman about a certain half-smart criticism of His Dark Materials — that the good guys in the story practice exactly the sort of virtuous, self-sacrificing behavior that Christians celebrate. Pullman’s response:

What on earth gives Christians to right to assume that love and self-sacrifice have to be called Christian virtues? They are virtues, full stop. If there is an exclusively religious sin (not exclusively Christian, but certainly clearly visible among some Christians) it is the claim that all virtue belongs to their sect, all vice to others. It is so clearly wrong, so clearly stupid, so clearly counter-productive, that it leads the unbiased observer to assume that you’re not allowed in the religious club unless you leave your intelligence at the door.

The interviewer, Peter Chattaway, also has some interesting thoughts on the film version of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and the nature of existence.

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