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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Rowan Williams and Philip Pullman

A couple of years ago I bought the first book in a fantasy trilogy - His Dark Materials, by writer Philip Pullman. Here's part of what Wikipedia says of the trilogy ...

The trilogy follows the coming of age of two main characters, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry, as they wander through a multiverse and a backdrop of epic events. The story begins in Northern Lights with fantasy elements such as gypsies, witches, and armored bears. As the trilogy progresses, it acquires allegorical layers of meaning, introducing a broad range of ideas fields such as metaphysics, quantum physics, philosophy (especially religious philosophy), and Biblical symbolism.

One of the things I liked best about that first book, The Golden Compass, was the introduction of the idea of personal Dæmons (not demons :-) ...

One defining aspect of Pullman's story is his concept of dæmons. In several universes in the trilogy's world, including that where Lyra Belacqua, the story's protagonist, is born, the human soul is manifested throughout life as an animal-shaped "dæmon" that always stays near its human counterpart. Dæmons can talk to their humans and to each other. During childhood, the dæmon can change its shape at will, but upon adolescence it settles into one form. The final form reveals the person's true nature and personality, implying that these stabilize after adolescence.

One of the controversial things about the trilogy is its largely unflattering view of Christianity. On that subject, I came across an interview/conversation between the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams and the author of His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman, in which they explore how literature, theatre, poetry and film convey religious experience, as well as the significance of mythology, gnosticism and the deeply held conviction of many that things are not what they seem :-). The whole interview can be read here, but I've posted some of it below ...

- Pullman and Williams

Dr Rowan Williams:
I suppose one of the questions I would like to hear more about from Philip is what has happened to Jesus in the church in this world [of His Dark Materials], because one of the interesting things for me in the model of the church in the plays and the books, is it's a church, as it were, without redemption.

It's entirely about control. And although I know that's how a lot of people do see the church, you won't be surprised to know that that's not exactly how I see it. Chance would be a fine thing! There is also the other question which I raised last week about the fascinating figure of The Authority in the books and the plays, who is God for all practical purposes in lots of people's eyes, but yet, of course, is not the Creator. So those are of course the kinds of differences that I am intrigued by here.

Philip Pullman:
Well, to answer the question about Jesus first, no, he doesn't figure in the teaching of the church, as I described the church in the story. I think he's mentioned once, in the context of this notion of wisdom that works secretly and quietly, not in the great courts and palaces of the earth, but among ordinary people and so on. And there are some teachers who have embodied this quality, but whose teaching has perhaps been perverted or twisted or turned, and been used in a fashion that they themselves didn't either desire or expect or could see happening.

So there's a sort of reference to the teaching of Jesus which I may return to in the next book - but I don't want to anticipate too much because I've found that if I tell people what I'm going to write about, I don't write it, something happens to prevent it, so I'd better not anticipate that too much. But I'm conscious that that is a question that has been sort of hovering over people's understanding of the story anyway.

The figure of The Authority is rather easier. In the sort of creation myth that underlies His Dark Materials, which is never fully explicit but which I was discovering as I was writing it, the notion is that there never was a Creator, instead there was matter, and this matter gradually became conscious of itself and developed Dust. Dust sort of precedes from matter as a way of understanding itself. The Authority was the first figure that condensed, as it were, in this way and from then on he was the oldest, the most powerful, the most authoritative. And all the other angels at first believed he was the Creator and then some angels decided that he wasn't, and so we had the temptation and the Fall etc - all that sort of stuff came from that.

And the figure of Authority who dies in the story is well, one of the metaphors I use. In the passage I wrote about his description, he was as light as paper - in other words he has a reality which is only symbolic. It's not real, and the last expression on his face is that of profound and exhausted relief. That was important for me. That's not something you can easily show with a puppet to the back of the theatre.

(Big Snip)

Which leads us to Mel Gibson. Have you seen that film?

I haven't seen it.

Nor have I, so we can talk about it! That's all right.

We're allowed opinions without the constraints of reality!

He is presumably selling his film on the basis that it is very realistic. I mean people are thinking that they're getting close to seeing what happened.

What fascinates me about the phenomenon, is that churches apparently are spending thousands of pounds buying, block booking tickets and giving them away to atheists in the hope that by seeing someone tortured to death we'll reform.

It's a real concern I think because - I don't mean atheists reforming, though that'd be nice! - the question of how you represent what Christians believe is the pivotal event in the history of the universe is no simple one and I don't think can ever be answered.

But I thought the pivotal event was the resurrection which doesn't come in [to The Passion].

The pivotal event is the whole of that Easter complex, if you like, not just the resurrection, which is why a realistic representation of the crucifixion on it's own won't say what has to be said. And curiously, along the history of the church, the way it's been done in the church's liturgy and art very often doesn't seem very realistic in that sense.

You walk through the experience of Holy Week from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday in a sort of ritual way: picking up a bit of the gospels here, a bit of the prophets and the psalms there; performing certain ritual acts (in the Catholic tradition particularly); watching through the night; participating in a very curious and distinctive liturgy for Good Friday, with the bare cross being brought in and unveiled. All of that is an attempt to say what a mere recitation of the story, or a mere photograph, couldn't say.

There's much more to the interview, with questions asked of both the Archbishop and of Pullman afterwards.


Blogger Paula said...

Crystal, i liked also the trilogy, specially the the idea of Dæmons.:-). A very interesting mixture as you wrote also...for me was a step further to the place where I am now, I mean was an oppportunity to ask questions and dig for answers...I read about gnosis on that time, I was intrigued and fascinated for a while but eventualy I felt that Gnosticism is not able to fed me in the long run.
Anyway it is very captivating and it makes a wonderful entertainment.:-)

7:32 AM  
Blogger Darius said...

I guess you know me by now... so a "fantasy trilogy" seems like just the right place for theology/metaphysics of any kind!

Dust, Authority, Creator, forms... To me, the more people try to spell out the details of The Big Picture, the more skeptical I am that anyone on earth has ever been in any position to take a snapshot of The Big Picture or otherwise get his or her head around it.

Not that I haven't enjoyed this kind of speculation myself. It can be fun, and sometimes thought-provoking. I just can't seem to take any of it with full seriousness, whether it comes from an atheist or theologian.

I've always loved the line from Job where God speaks to Job from out of the whirlwind: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?"

8:11 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Paula. I only ended up reading the first book of the trilogy, but I did like the animal companion Dæmons.

There's a lot about Gnosticism that's attractive but I wouldn't want to believe in it for no other reason than that it's pessistic, exclusive, and dualistic ... it appeals to people's weaknesses and fears (imho) ... their desire to be one of the few with the secret knowledge, the desire to see their true selves as their spirit alone and their bodies as unworthy, etc.

Heh - there must be something about gnosticism that scares or disturbs me, because it doesn't take much to get me ranting about it :-)

11:51 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Darius.

It's true for me too ... the more detailed and specific a theory of the truth is, the harder it is for me to believe, if only because it seems like it would work for fewer people, and The Truth should work for everyone.

But on the other hand, it does seem like more particulat theories have more power somehow.

I don't like that quote from Job. To me it shows a God who thinks he's too important to have to respond to the suffering of his "creature". Where's the love? :-)

11:58 AM  
Blogger Darius said...

Crystal, I can understand feeling that way about Job.

On the other hand, that's real life. Whatever is going on here sure isn't all love all the time. But I think if people ever get their act together, even though there would still be suffering, there would be so much less of it - and it wouldn't be filled, as it is now, all over the planet, with rage at the other people who cause it or let it happen.

Just that would transform life as we experience it now. It might not be heaven, but it sure would be further from hell than our present address!

To me the more detailed theories have less power, because it suggests you could churn out any number of them. Unlike theories in science, metaphysics and theology doesn't have to answer to anything because it's all supposed to be happening in realms beyond us all, which we nevertheless have a curiously unending number of things to point out about them! So to me the particularity suggests word-play - how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. (Which actually WAS a theological debate at some point in the Middle Ages - I read a bit of it!)

6:00 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


I feel a conflict between the bad things that happen (to so many) and the God who is love (John), but I'm not going to resolve it by either deciding God isn't love, isn't good, doesn't exist ... or by deciding that the ways of (the good and powerful) God are mysterious. I'm sticking with God is good but in the dog house until I can figure everything out ... it's hard to live with incongruity but at least I feel honest :-) does that even make any sense?

It's true that religious beliefs can't be proven, at least to others, but sometimes religious experience proves it to individuals. It's subjective but maybe no less valid?

7:32 PM  
Blogger Darius said...

That does make sense - holding the belief and recognizing the incongruity.

To me this would be different from considering one's experience to privately prove the veracity of one's beliefs. Considering oneself to have proof, the incongruity would cease to exist. And if one did possess a private proof or personal revelation, it seems to me that it would no longer be belief or faith, but certain knowledge.

6:20 PM  

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