Friday, August 3, 2012

On Reading "His Dark Materials"


I originally wrote this February, 2011 on a different blog, but decided to repost it here.

Lyra and Iorek
This week I read the entire His Dark Materials series.  I started with Golden Compass idly at about ten last Sunday just to give me something non-work-related to do before I went to bed.  I finished the Amber Spyglass yesterday evening sometime.  I put aside work and school and sleep (I slept in my office one night to get more reading time) and to some extent eating as I read through the series.

It's a really, really good book.



I remember when the movie was coming out, all the hubbub surrounding it due to its anti-religious and specifically anti-Christian messages.  And it's absolutely true.  The book isn't really anti-religious, as there are plenty of religions portrayed as wonderful and benevolent - it's really just anti-Christian, and Christianity is the only religion it addresses and defames.  So yeah, Christians have every right to be offended by the book.

Before I had ever read it, though, I only knew that it was blasphemous and that Christian leaders were calling for a boycott of it - so I put it in my mind that I would never go to see it or buy the book.  I didn't have any problem with seeing it or reading it, I just refused to let my money go to making someone rich for slandering Christ.  Since I was unlikely to ever read it, but as I was still curious, I read the entire Wikipedia synopsis and thought it sounded fascinating.  Excepting the main plot line, the fantasy setting of a multiverse with metaphysical machinery sounded like exactly the sort of thing I'd want in a story.

I had a friend who killed himself sometime over the summer.  I had known him through high school but we never really spoke much after we left for college.  One of the last conversations I had with him was him telling me to read the Golden Compass.  I refused because I wasn't interested in the plot line, he told me to stop listening to stupid Christian propaganda, and eventually I apologized to him (because I'm one of those evil child-murdering Christians) for being rude and dismissing his suggestion and told him I was going to read it and asked if he'd want to discuss the book with me (since I love a good book discussion).  He never replied, and it was a few weeks later that he killed himself, and since then I still felt an obligation to read this for him.

Not long ago, for want of something to do besides homework, I started driving to various used book stores around my town.  I found one having a 25¢ sale!  I got 40 books for $10!  While browsing a pretty high-end store closer to my school, there on the top shelf in a beautiful paperback binding was the Golden Compass.  So I got it, along with a handful of other books and set them all on a shelf in my apartment for the day I didn't have papers to grade and problem sets to complete.

I figured since I bought it used, the original author isn't getting any money from me.  If you think that's too much or too little, feel free to tell me so.

Anyway, it was a very good book that I would never allow any children of mine to read until they were young adults.  I'm very glad I read it for some of the cooler ideas that Pullman had, sad at some of the sillier notions of God and spirit that Pullman had, and upset over the kind of Christianity Pullman must have been familiar with growing up in England.  I figured that I'd share some thoughts on it.

The series begins explicitly referencing the Chronicles of Narnia.  The heroine, a young girl,  finds herself hiding in a wardrobe to avoid trouble, and while in there discovers that it is much larger than she thought and full of all kinds of fur coats.  The wardrobe is located in what is a men's lounge for distinguished people to discuss important topics, so there is absolutely no reason for it to be there at all if not to recall to the readers mind another girl who hid inside of a wardrobe, finding it much larger than she initially thought.

In the beginning of the first book we also hear a brief history of the Magisterium which sadly is too brief to explain how on earth there is Christianity in this world (an interesting question to me given the themes of Lewis' writing), but we are told that John Calvin became Pope, set up some sort of Inquisition court in charge of punishing heresy, and shortly thereafter the papacy dissolved and the Magisterium becomes run by various organizations competing for power, the most powerful of which being the Inquisition organization.  They also apparently have a Bible in this world, or at least they have the beginning of Genesis and a book called the Apocalypse of St. John (aka Revelation), only their Genesis (and they still use the KJV in this universe) is slightly different to account for the slightly different nature of human beings in this universe, namely that a physical embodiment of their soul appears in animal form outside of their body.

From Abstruse Goose
People got all in a fit about the "daemons" in the book, like it was demonic.  Which is kind of silly.  The word "daemon" or "demon" originally referred to something with agency and intelligence.  For instance, Maxwell's Demon is hardly demonic, nor is Laplace's.  The daemon's in the book are at several points explicitly connected to our concept of a soul, and the book even confirms the Christian notion of the threeness of human being - body, soul, spirit - just using "ghost" for "spirit" and "daemon" for "soul".  To anyone reading more than a single sentence of the book it is quite obvious that there is nothing dark or demonic about the book's daemons.  There's no reason to be upset over the word usage, especially when there are much bigger things to be upset over.

Very early in first book, as I said, we are assured that the Magisterium in the series is in fact the Christian Church.  There is very little Christian language used by anyone in the Magisterium, and in fact no one in the main characters' (Lyra's) universe even mentions Jesus once.  All the same, just in case we got any mischaracterizations about the intention of the work, we are reminded many times through the entire series that the Magisterium in the book is a Christian organization that exists in every universe with intelligent beings, including ours, and that they all operate in a manner synonymous with our own.  Our Christian Church is at least given a little slack since we're nice enough to let a nun leave her vows without killing her, but the ex-nun in question assures the reader that we're still every bit as much all-about smothering joy and knowledge as the more murderous forms of 'Christianity' in all the other universes.

Which brings me to a point about how Christianity is portrayed in the books: it has nothing at all to do with Jesus or the commands of the Bible.  I don't know if I should be more or less insulted by that fact.  One one hand, Pullman isn't really saying such horrible things about Christianity because he's describing a religion of austere legalism.  On another hand, he is attributing all sorts of false motives and beliefs to me in a way akin to libel.  I have no problem with the author's criticism of such evil institutions as the ones in the book, or his condemnation of man-made religious traditions like the "pre-emptive absolution" or the whole notion of clerical celibacy, because such things are an imposition on us from humans seeking spiritual control of others (which is rightly condemned) - I have a problem when he then goes on with, oh yeah, by the way, this is what Christian believe.

I realize that Pullman is probably more familiar with a tradition of Christianity far removed from my own and a tradition of Christianity far removed from the Bible's grace, and I realize that the Christian Church at some point largely apostatized from the Bible's sweet, simple message of grace, but it's just frustrating that the bleeding heart of Christianity - God's Grace to sinful humanity - is totally ignored in the entire characterization of Christians and replaced with a message of asceticism and moralism.

Whose fault is it, then, that Pullman apparently has no idea what grace is?

The only thing I can compare this to is a recent conversation with a friend about Blue Laws.  My state still has them, and we're considering repealing them.  What became clear was that I could present a much more compelling argument than they were about repealing blue laws, because my argument is based on the Bible.  There is nothing holy about Sunday besides human tradition, there is nothing immoral about alcohol besides abusing it, God created all things to be enjoyed and therefore let no one judge you by a sabbath day or what you eat or drink.  Don't destroy God's Kingdom for the sake of food, and keep what you believe about these things to yourself.  The Bible does tell us to avoid drunkenness and it tells us to praise God for the wine that makes men's hearts glad.

Appealing to the Bible is a better protection from religious abuse than is appealing to the "moral poverty" of religious "zealots".

I think the same goes for Pullman's book.  He's basically speaking to the depraved and unnatural things ascetics do for the sake of avoiding sin -- things like intercision, the process of severing the silver chain linking a human to their soul in order to prevent "sin" particles from accumulating on them.

The point of Christianity is not to avoid sin.  It is not to avoid accumulating sin through your life that you have to have forgiven through some process of penance and fasting and prayer.  The letters of Paul speak loudly and clearly that avoiding sin altogether in this world is impossible.  We will not be made whole until the next.  We look forward to the coming of Christ who will make us whole, and until then we trust in Him alone - not in any thing that we can ever do or say, but only in Him, who He is, what He has done - to make us complete in His own time and that until then we are justified and made right before God despite of however many "sin particles" we attract because God loved us first and sent His only Son to die for us.

With that in mind, almost none of Pullman's themes on Christianity make any sense.  You'd almost wonder what on earth he thought he was talking about, except for the many abuses of Christian organizations throughout history.  Christians have fallen away from the simple grace of God, preferring to add to it all kinds of silly things to make the Gospel "even better" than it already was, and thus you end up with a Christianity like Pullman's depiction of it.  And yet I could write a more powerful critique of that kind of man-made religion, and in fact Jesus DID give a much more striking and scathing and stirring condemnation of it in Matthew 23, not by denying God but by affirming him and his revelation.

Near the end of the book you have a priest wandering in to an alien universe where there are rational creatures who have developed the ability to roll about on wheels.  The priest briefly considers evangelizing them, which "of course" means insisting to them how evil and sinful it is that they're rolling about on wheels and that in order to please God they have to give it up at once.  What on earth makes the priest think that?  There's nothing in the Bible that says that.  These beings don't even have a Bible.  Forgetting the Bible, there is absolutely nothing about rolling around on wheels rather than walking that would even suggest sinfulness.  The priest in his travels had to come through our world which was full of cars and didn't say a word.  The point Pullman is trying to make seems to be that the intention of religion is to keep you from having fun and living to the fullest, and again I have to wonder how much he understands Christianity.  The law was made for man and not man for the law, and Christian children go rollerskating as often as any other.

There are other things besides.

The reason I wouldn't ever let my children read the book (assuming I ever have children) isn't so much the portrayal of Christians -- since I intend to actually raise them as Christians they'll be ale to spot the errors in Pullman's understanding -- but rather the portrayal of morality that develops near the end of the first book.  It begins by affirming very powerfully the goodness of honor and of keeping promises, of telling the truth to others, of protecting people, loving people who are strange and other, and of the goodness of human friendships, as well as a dozen other moral lessons I don't feel like listing.  And then it begins to change as Lyra, the main character, begins to discover her habit of lying.  She is apparently very good at deceiving people with stories and for the rest of the trilogy this becomes her pride role of service to the other protagonists.  This ability of tricking people is always praised by others, and even if not always brings about a good and desirable result (at least until the last hundred or so pages of the last book where suddenly Pullman seems to change his notion of honesty).

Lyra also decides that it is safe to follow a friend of hers precisely because her truth-telling device tells her that her friend is a murderer.  Someone else might be cowardly or finicky, but a murderer you can trust.  That kind of thing continues, and once you see it you can even read it back to the beginning, that Lyra has an obsession with powerful and dangerous men and the books go to great lengths to glorify political and physical strength.  All of the men Lyra loves are able to command and kill, and she comes to trust Will because she learns that he's killed someone.  Throughout the second book and some of the third, anytime something happens to upset her, she starts screaming for someone to come and kill the offending person.  Someone steals her alethiometer and she shrieks that she wants someone to make him die.

There is a lot else about Lyra's character and the way others react to her that would make me want to make sure children of mine never read it until they're old enough to handle adult themes like insipid brats screaming for strongmen to make people die.

Another thing that struck me is Pullman's portrayal of women.  It is very ironic, given that he is on record blasting Narnia for being "sexist".  Compare Lucy to Lyra.  Lucy is probably more feminine than Lyra.  Compared to the other characters in either story she loves more, is more compassionate, is more gentle and kind, and is less interested in feuds and fighting.  She is curious, always discovering something and therefore finding Aslan the most.  She is the most deeply valued by all the characters around her and makes the most profound insights.  She isn't subject to any of the males around her, even if she does defer to them.  With her gentleness and caring spirit, she instantly becomes like a mother to anyone she encounters.  Compare this to Lyra's attitude toward Will or Iorek (the bear king), where her attitude is almost one of a dog in submission to a human master.  After meeting Will, she exerts a conscious and stated desire to obey whatever he says and go wherever he goes and only do something if he lets her because she's just supposed to.  If you add to this the portrayal of Mrs. Coulter, I feel overall a much more pessimistic attitude of women in Pullman's book than in Narnia.  At least, if I wanted to argue that anything I didn't like was racist and sexist because I didn't like it (which I don't do, but is the modus operandi of my ideological counterparts), I could make a better case for HDM than Narnia.

There are some other things, like in Pullman's multiverse soul and spirit are made of matter, and in Pullman's universe God is made of matter (and it is very explicit this matter-god is the God of the Bible), and in fact conscious thought is made of matter.  Anything that exists is matter.  I could also make the case that the story just loses all sense of itself somewhere midway through the third book where it goes from an inversion of Paradise Lost to just a pre-teen love story, but by now I've said enough negative stuff maybe you have no idea why I'm saying the book is good.

The book is fantastic.  I disagree with the author's philosophy and intention, but his story crafting is incredible and the imagination of his world is fascinating.

I'm a scientist and I loved the metaphysical technology.  Lyra's universe is like a metaphysical steampunk world, which is exhilarating.  In Lyra's world they have developed a clockwork mechanism that acts as a spy.  It's very small and runs entirely off of gears, but they have attached to the mainspring a dark spirit and they use the anger to the spirit to perpetually wind the mainspring so that the clockwork robot doesn't wind down.  Brilliant!

The main device in the first book (which is not the titular "golden compass" but which really should be) is called an alethiometer - truth measurer - that runs off of the "sin" particles called Dust.  Apparently it was supposed to act as a compass to track the planets as a normal compass tracks north but that purpose failed.  You can ask it a question by turning levers, and the conscious matter called Dust will respond in what I suppose is a mechanical, physical way to turn a compass needle to point at various symbols giving an answer.

The most fascinating to me had to be the subtle knife.  Firstly, such a brilliant name for it!  Subtle.  The knife has a blade that asymptotically tapers off to nothing.  It is so thin that it can pierce and cut any material whatsoever as easily as if it were butter.  The tip extends out, becoming more focused than presumably the Planck length, being able to pierce the separation between worlds and open little portals from one to the next.  This one really got me thinking, because technically one atom length is the thinest you can have any material, and for a metal blade that one atom would be a pretty thick atom.  I started thinking of "physical" ways to construct something like that by means of the wave functions and probability distributions.  It would also violate the uncertainty principle.  You would have to have it that it wasn't the atoms of the knife, but something like the probability distribution of the knife, and so the blade of the knife wouldn't be there, but merely a probability of there being a knife.  The more I thought about it, the more cool this became.  I started thinking about maybe there's a machine that can force a material to assume any arbitrarily programmed functional distribution, and you program it with something like Gabriel's trumpet (except then the knife would be infinitely long and so that wouldn't work).  Or maybe it doesn't have to be that thin and one atom thick is enough - then we already have a material like that, called graphene!  Could we use graphene as a knife?

Fictionally speaking, the physical problem with the subtle knife is the particulate nature of matter.  But if there were, say, a universe where matter was continuous?  Then it'd be easy to make a knife edge like that!

Another really cool thing that got left off in the third book, was the nature of these ghostly things called Specters.  In the second book it is revealed that they were discovered in the experiments of scientists to divide matter up more and more.  They just kept cutting it up smaller until they got to things they couldn't cut more, but then they cut them anyway and then the Specters came out, having been curled up tight inside of the atomic nuclei.  It's a really cool image.  For one, it draws a parallel between the subtle knife and atomic energy (and the parallel is made in another place for arguing why the children must use it lest anyone else does).  The idea that in some universes gluons and pions and conscious beings who if cut, rather than exploding in a release of energy like they do here, fold out and physically attack you was also really neat.  In the third book this changes and Specters become lame and unexciting beings from some abysmal universe, but in the second book they're really cool.

But it isn't just the technology, but also the worlds themselves.  The armored bears have a manner and a culture that is completely different from human culture.  They have a way of thinking that is not like human thinking and thus a way of being different from the human way of being.  The humans of Lyra's world have a way of interacting with their daemon's that is at once intuitive, like we all have daemon's and we're used to handling them.  The story of Citagazze, the portal world, is intriguing and compelling, and the story is griping, running from place to place in a constant pursuit.

One more brilliant tidbit, is the vocabulary.  Since Lyra's universe developed differently from ours, the technology developed differently and thus the names given to it are different.  It was very clever of the author to think of not just alternate words but alternate etymologies of the words.  The main example is the use of "anbaric" for "electric".  Our word "electric" from the Greek word "electrum", which means "amber".  Lyra's word "anbaric" comes from the Latin word "anbar", meaning "amber".  That, along with how well thought-out the different cultures and universes are, all add to making the story more like a description of an actual living, breathing parallel universe, just as likely as our own but slightly different.

Anyway, like I said, it was a very good book.  I missed sleep for the sake of reading it and am now behind in all of my classes, and I feel none the worse for it.  I do recommend it, and you can probably get it at a used book store for about $5.  Setting the main plot line aside, it really is a fascinating story and the author has put plenty of thought into making his story seem alive to the reader.

I'm sure that I have more to say, but I have 80 papers to grade by tomorrow.

9 comments:

Grace said...

I just happened upon your blog and really like it (I read all your archives: the background makes it hard to read though; you might consider changing it as white on black causes eye strain in readers), in particular your book reviews (since I also like fantasy/sci fi).

One of my very favorite is the Dark Materials series, so I very much enjoyed reading your review (which is quite insightful; I found your comments about the subtle knife especially interesting).

I do disagree with some of your negative comments though.

1. I am not religious so naturally have quite a different perspective on the religious elements. I grew up in a non-religious household, meaning it was never discussed one way or the other, so that any ideas I developed were purely from casual exposure in the outside world. In other words I was an objective observer as a child. And a primary thing that immediately struck me about religion (at least of the American Christian variety) is that it does tend to be exactly as Pullman describes, legalistic, judgmental, deliberately intellectually shallow, and used as an excuse to seek power over others. It was actually a huge disappointment to me, because initially I was very interested in religion (I too love CS Lewis). It's true that there are plenty of Christians who are not this way; but it's also true that they are the minority, and that pretty much all churches/organized religious bodies are much more like the Magisterium than conveying a sweet message of grace.

2. Pullman's message is fundamentally anti-Christian, but not really for the reasons described above (which is really just a condemnation of organized religion, as opposed to religious belief). It's a difference in values instead: one is supposed to focus on the earth and life NOW, rather than heaven and the afterlife. It's a bit like the distinction discussed by Orwell in his essay about Gandhi (have you read it? very interesting things to say about religion). The concept of grace and being made whole is therefore irrelevant.

3. I strongly disagree with you about the sexism in this series versus the Narnia series. I have read that series many times, and enjoyed it, but as a female its sexism is very obvious. There are few female characters (even the animals are almost all male), and they are all clearly subordinate to the males, with the (partial) exception of Lucy and the Witch (who is a cliched evil seductress). The range of possibilities for women is also greatly reduced: men can sin and be forgiven (Edmund, Eustace) but women can't: one misstep and that's it (the Witch, Susan). And while men can be scholars, warriors, gentle and/or strong, women only get one role: support personnel (like Mrs Beaver bustling around feeding people, or Lucy, whose gift is healing). If they don't want this role, then they are punished (see above). Even God is clearly male.

In His Dark Materials, there are many more female characters, in a multitude of roles (scholar, mother, warrior, bratty kid, wise advisor, etc), who are far more psychologically complicated. Mrs Coulter, the equivalent of the Witch, is evil but also has good impulses; in fact, in the end she regrets her past choices and even sacrifices herself to save others (just like Aslan!). The very concept of daemons is anti-sexist (that we each have both a male and female nature).

Sorry for the epic comment, but I found your post very interesting so wanted to share my thoughts.

Reece said...

Hey Grace, thanks for commenting!

I'm glad you liked the blog! I'll consider your suggestion of changing the background color. I actually have it the way for the opposite reason; to reduce eye-strain. So if it's not working, then I should probably try a new strategy. I'm glad you mentioned it.

As regards the Subtle Knife, I'm actually a grad student in physics, and for a short period of time my research project was in "2D-nanosheets". We were trying to make an atom-thick sheet of Titanium Dioxide. I signed up for it mostly because I wanted to know how the Subtle Knife would work in real life. I'm pretty sure that a thing thin enough to pierce between dimensions (I guess below Planck length?) would have a non-zero chance of accidentally rending atomic bonds in a stray nucleus and sparking a nuclear explosion, but then I haven't actually worked that out.

1) I am religious, but I actually had the same upbringing as you. "I grew up in a non-religious household, meaning it was never discussed one way or the other, so that any ideas I developed were purely from casual exposure in the outside world. In other words I was an objective observer as a child." I learned most of what I knew about Christians from Saturday Night Live parodies and Daily Show critiques of them, probably up until I was 18 or 19. I don't know how many Christians you know, but we're quite used to being described as you describe us. I'm sorry you've had that experience; I don't know any believers who act that way (except crazy people on the internet) but then I'm not you and haven't had your same experiences.

2) The point about heaven and hell versus now is sort of a false dichotomy. Anywhere you go on this planet, there are Christians there, often at great personal expense and danger, trying to give immediate physical help to the lowliest people of society. That is, helping them with life NOW. Further to this, Christian moral principles, at least as outlined in Colossians 3, are compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving whatever grievances, and over all of these love; those sound pretty useful to everyday life now, to me. The fact that we can also help them with the afterlife is just icing on the cake.

I have not read Orwell's essay on Ghandi; I can't promise that I will, but I will make a note of it if I have a free afternoon ever.

3) I'm sorry you disagree with me about sexism in the two series. I can see your point. What about Aravis the Tarkheena from Horse and His Boy? (That's my favorite of the series, btw) She starts out as a villainous character and turns out to be a female protagonist. I don't think Lewis was meaning to imply that only men can be redeemed and women can't, I think it just happened that very few of the women in his story were.

I do agree, there are very few female characters. I remember reading a thing in Douglas Hofstadter's Eternal Golden Braid about him realizing he only made characters female when it was necessary for them to play a romantic role. I know xkcd has received criticism for much the same thing. So you may be right; Lewis may have included a paucity of female characters. But then his book "Till We Have Faces" (great book) is entirely about a strong female character who becomes a warrior queen, comes to meet "Aslan" (or Eros, as in this book's case), and is remembered after as a wise ruler who made sound judgements in court; so if he skipped on female leads then I don't think it was intentional, or reflective of a scorn of women. I'm sure Lewis did have very conservative views as regards gender roles in men and women, though, and you may disagree with those.

4) I'm sorry to disagree with you after you said such nice things about my blog :P Hopefully you won't see my reply as antagonistic to you. Epic comments are always welcome, especially ones that so kindly point out errors.

Grace said...

Haha, actually I love it when people disagree with me (assuming they are being logical instead of insulting): how boring if everyone thought the same way. I see you changed the background: much better! (Here's an interesting paper on the subject: http://lite.mst.edu/media/research/ctel/documents/LITE-2003-04.pdf).

Till We Have Faces is I think the only Lewis book I haven't read: so I will have to check it out when I have the opportunity. The Horse and His Boy is one of my favorites too (though I think the TLWW is the best), because I like Bree so much; but the character of Aravis is kind of depressing. By the end of the book she seems to shrink and lose all individuality (ending by being portrayed giggling over clothes in authorially dismissive fashion, which just...ugh).

Lewis tends to think of women as FEMALES, rather than as people, first. In other words, men are the default, while being female is an important defining characteristic. This bias runs through all of his work, even some of the religious stuff. Of course he's not alone in this (hello most of literature!), and it's a reflection of his era/cultural background, but I still don't like it. I imagine he would be rather dismissive of me if we met in person (because I am the wrong gender).

As far as religion goes, most "Christians" I've known were not very religious. If asked they would say they believed, but their beliefs didn't seem to influence their daily behavior in any significant way, for better or worse (I think Lewis talks about this). Among the people I've known personally who DID take it seriously, it mostly seemed to have one of two effects: 1. to make them unhappy (crying because they were worried their non-believer parents would go to hell, having weird hang-ups about sex which led them to make terrible relationship decisions, etc) or 2. to make them self-satisfied and self-righteous (because now they had divine backing for their decisions, all self-doubt was removed: something that generally is not desirable, since it's what keeps people humble and open-minded). I was only friends with the first type (finding the second type unbearable) though, so the second type may actually be more complex than I am describing. I haven't personally known anyone who was more of the saintly type (though I've read about them, very inspiring) but perhaps that's just my bad luck.

I think the difference between the humanist attitude (which Pullman advocates) and the religious one is in the search for solutions. If a child is hungry, the religious person will appeal to the morality of others to feed it (like by asking for donations); the humanist will be interested in changing the surrounding system so that the problem doesn't arise (like by genetically engineering crops to have higher productivity, or by encouraging trade so that the country will be more prosperous and therefore able to feed its people). One attitude assumes "the poor will always be with us"; the other assumes that everything is infinitely improvable. Humanists are also anti-suffering (the plan is to eliminate it altogether someday, any suffering now is just an unfortunate relic of bad systems); the religious see great value in suffering and indeed believe it is necessary (how else will you become a better person?). They are quite different (though I agree many, even most, "religious" people in the modern world are actually humanists).

Reece said...

I started re-reading Horse and His Boy last night. I don't remember Aravis giggling over clothing. I remember her explicitly despising all of her female friends who do giggle over clothing and fawn over husbands and the like. Maybe this changes at the end of the book? I also remember that Susan doesn't come to Narnia any more because she becomes more interested in "lipstick and nylons".

And what about Jill Pole? And Polly?

Lewis was also a life-long bachelor (or mostly anyway) and an academic, so females were probably mostly a foreign species to him. (They are to me, anyway).

All the same, if offered the chance, I would much rather spend a day with Mrs. Beaver than Serafina Pekkala. Or Lucy than Lyra. Actually, I'd rather just be by myself for the rest of my life on an island than spend a day with Serafina Pekkala.

Female characters in Narnia are distinct from male characters in Narnia; this is true. Like Mrs. Beaver fusses over the children and feeds them and sends them on their way. Why is that bad? Are you saying that women who are motherly and kind to children are less valuable than anyone else? If female characters contribute to the story in stereotypically feminine ways, I guess it's technically "sexist" in that it makes a distinction of gender, but then so do bathrooms and department stores. Again, I would much much MUCH rather be around Mrs. Beaver than Serafina Pekkala. One is pleasant, kind, and loving, while the other is... well... Serafina Pekkala.

I know plenty of people who call themselves Christian are are in fact humanists or moralistic therapeutic deists. None of the actual Christians that I know are as you describe them. Even if they were, your description of the Christians that you know as sad and depressive makes no sense in light of your earlier statement that the Christians you know are like the Magisterium.

Likewise, none of the churches I have been to have been as you described them, and I've been to a lot of churches.

The Christians that I know are kind, thoughtful, honest people who want to love others as well as they can, are always upset if they fail to do so in some way, pray a lot, and try to live by the example of the Bible. They aren't particularly holy or saintly, they're just normal people who love Jesus and want to be like him.

I don't know how you've gone through life without meeting anyone like that, and I'm sorry that you haven't. Knowing other Christians has been one of the greatest joys in my life.

I can't argue with you about humanism. You're probably right. That probably is one of the distinctions between the two. And I could see how, in terms of pragmatics, the humanist view would make more sense.

Grace said...

I laughed out loud when you started talking about Serafina Pekkala (who is totally lame though I don't have a good explanation as to why: the concept of a witch warrior queen is cool after all).

I don't have any problem with women being motherly and kind (I actually have a small child of my own, so it would be weird if I did); I just don't like that being the ONLY role allotted to women. Even for myself, I'm a housewife (or SAHM, whatever terminology you prefer), so being "motherly" is an important part of my life: but it's not the only part and I have many other interests, personality facets, etc. It's damaging to reduce an entire gender to a single role/box (just like it would be to portray men only as tough, emotionless warriors, which is common in general media if not in Lewis). It also makes it easy to dismiss things like caring for children as "for girls", when truthfully it ought to be something of importance to everybody regardless of gender (which is one reason I liked the daemons so much, it's a good reminder that everyone has both male and female traits, even if not in equal proportion).

Reading over my posts makes me realize that I didn't put things well about the Magisterium. To me, the Magisterium represents religious institutions; but that's not the same thing as the believers within the institutions. There are literally hundreds of examples of truly horrible behavior on the part of religious institutions (like the whole Inquisition), even though for the most part individual adherents are kind, well-meaning people. (I would argue that you could say the same about many other large institutions, like multinational corporations, universities and political parties: something about distributed responsibility seems to have a bad effect on people.)

I haven't been to that many churches, because when I went it depressed me (the materialism and waste of resources used on building/decorating them, the deliberate ignorance peddled, the way so many people were just going through the motions out of a vague sense of obligation). I might just have gone to the wrong places though and thus gotten a wrong impression (they were mostly mainstream Protestant).

I would agree that most Christians are kind, thoughtful and honest, who are trying to do their best to be good human beings: but I don't see this as a Christian thing, because it's true for most people in general (I currently live in Asia, so most people around me are not Christian).

I do think Christianity often makes people sad (because if you really believe it, you are supposed to be conscious of your great inadequacy at all times: there is something to this--how else can you improve?--but it can easily become pathological). But then I am a humanist and want others to live happy, rather than meaningful, lives (oddly, I prefer the reverse for myself: not sure what that implies).

Reece said...

I'm glad you thought it was funny :) I was kind of afraid it'd offend you.

I actually read part of your blog the other day, until I started feeling kind of like a weirdo for looking at so many pictures of a strange woman and her small daughter... but I think it's wonderful that you spend so much time with your little girl, who is absolutely adorable.

The daemon thing was pretty neat. I reminded me of Jung's Anima/Animus archetypes. I was just thinking this morning, that I wish I had one, and that if I did it would probably be a cat. Or maybe I just want a cat... either would be nice.

What do you think it means for someone to have a daemon the same gender as themselves?

I read a book recently by female authors, and I remember screaming internally at the characterizations of men; they were either way too effeminate, or over-the-top crude and bombastic. It was like the authors had no idea what men were like; they were just MALE. I guess that's the same reaction you're having.

I agree, most people want to think of themselves as good. And ostensibly Christian organizations have done terrible things in the past. No argument here on either of those two fronts.

I am an evangelical. I mostly go to evangelical Methodist churches (as opposed to mainline Methodist churches), but I've been to others. Not saying evangelical Methodist churches make people great, just those are the kind I've been to. Most of the Christians I know are also evangelicals. "Evangelical" means, amongst other things, that I believe Scripture is the final authority in issues of faith and morals.

The stuff about constantly thinking about your inadequacy, I know what you mean. It would seem depressing. The amazing thing is that it isn't. It's actually incredibly liberating. I guess normally admitting personal faults causes a lot of inner turmoil and lack of self-worth. For me, it doesn't; it actually makes me feel better. Loads better.

But then I have friends who come to the same realizations, and they share them with me, and it can make me uncomfortable when they call themselves things like "despicable wretch" and such like. I don't think of them as wretches; to me they're awesome. So I can see why, from the outside, it does seem like it'd make you sad.

I dunno how to put it, really. It's a kind of freedom to not have to cling to every last conceit of morality in an effort to keep my self-esteem afloat. My Christian friends constantly reaffirm me, and God constantly reaffirms me, and I have self-esteem enough without needing to pretend to self-righteousness. And I've noticed a direct positive correlation between how active one is in prayer and how happy they are in life. I mean, I know some Christians who could be camp counselors for the Care Bears, is how happy they are (those people I kind of need to take in short bursts...).

I don't know what kind of impression you got. Maybe you got the right one? Maybe the people you met were judgmental hypocrites and completely miserable and you just saw through them. I'm sorry that you haven't had the opportunity to meet the people that I have, as my friends totally rock :)

I can't really speak as to humanism, as I don't know much about it. I'm sure that if I started where you start, I would find it to be quite the most sensible course of action. I don't know if I used to be a humanist or not. But it adds up, and even if it doesn't, it's what I'm used to from TV, school, my parents, and the government, so it's probably what I'd believe by default if I didn't have my own beliefs. And I can't criticize a desire to make people happy; that sounds like a good idea, actually.

I dunno what else to say on that front, so I'll just stop talking :P

Oran said...

This conversation has been interesting and pleasant to read. Thank you both. :)

Unknown said...

Just found your blog for the first time so sorry about the defib on the post, but I completely agree with your assessment that the books are anti-Christian. I am, like you it seems, a physicist. And I'm an atheist, but I don't find it illogical to have faith in a higher power. I find it illogical when people go on in life being angry that their parents made them get up on Sunday morning to go to church or practice the Sabbath or observe Ramadan or whatever other inconveniencing thing people have bad memories of. I got the sense when I read these books that Philip Pullman is angsty about Christianity, and in a very immature and uninformed way that makes it hard for me to take his work seriously. This is, of course, compounded by the fact (as you pointed out) that he doesn't levy the same criticisms on any other faith in these books.

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