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His Dark Materials contains criticisms of a controlling Church and forced removal of free will. Some of the parallels of the Magisterium to controlling hierarchies of cardinals, bishops can't be missed.

But these are quite popular as children's literature around the world.

Is this sub-text recognisable, and to what extent? Does this cause a problem in religious households (has the book met with resistance from Christian families)? Or can it simply be read at face value as a fantasy tale with heroes and villains.

I can see there are multiple views on this, as another post has recommended the Trilogy as a good follow-up read to Artemis Fowl

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    The question as stated seems more of a religious one than a literary one. – TML Aug 18 '11 at 18:37
  • @TML: I agree it does seem that way, the question as I formulated in my mind was whether the Christian aspects are obvious to those reading the books. – JoseK Aug 19 '11 at 5:53
  • I can appreciate what you're saying there, but I don't know that the question as it ended up written above makes it clear enough. Also, I'm not sure why it's tagged "censorship" - that just adds to the "bad subjective" aspect of the question given. I would like to see the question get reworked so that it encourages better answers, but I'm not sure how to do that without changing the intent of what you're trying to ask. – TML Aug 19 '11 at 6:04
  • Jose, I wish you would take another crack at editing this - I can't help but feel there is a desire for understanding here that you haven't quite expressed. Also, Errant wrote a rather nice answer, and I would like to see more like it! – Shog9 Aug 20 '11 at 1:11
  • One reason I wrote such a detailed answer was that the question was a bit weak. But it has merit, just needs a refocus. Perhaps "what are the anti-religious themes in HDM" – Errant Aug 20 '11 at 9:30
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This is always going to be a difficult question to answer (and it might get closed, I'm not sure whether it is within scope) but here goes... the answer is several fold..

Other books stole the thunder

I think there were other popular books at the time that were more obviously problematic to strict Christian households. Whilst Pullman is extremely critical of religion in general it is in some ways not very obvious.

Criticism is somewhat subtle

The criticism is not levelled specifically at a recognisable religion - for example there is no mention of Christianity in the book, and although areas of the Church do resemble Catholicism it is not laid on thickly.

I think this makes the criticism more palatable.

Indeed it was actually given praise by some of the more liberal elements of Christianity as being a good reminder against the danger of zealotry. (I think it is quite possible to read the books not as a criticism of religious faith, but a careful observation that not everything you believe in might be truth).

Faith actually plays a role in the books

In places the book actually places a lot of store in faith - the characters have little clue what Dust is, and although they scientifically (if haphazardly) try to find out, they tend to put a lot of faith in it being both benign and important (particularly Lyra and her reading of the alethiometer).

And in the end, after the Church is exposed for what it is (i.e. a lie) the question of a creator is left ambiguous.

Adam/Eve

More problematic, I feel, in the book is not the criticism of religion but the new portrayal of the Adam/Eve story. On the face of it this directly contradicts a lot of the teachings of modern religions, and is distinctly less subtle!

Then again the story is more complex than that; although it is about Adam/Eve & temptation on the face, Lyra and Will become utterly devoted to each other, which is probably a maxim that Christian households would approve of.

At its core the lesson from the book is that as you grow out of childhood the world becomes suddenly more real; more wonderful and more tragic. You are forced to make choices about your life that affect not only you, but the world around you (Lyra & Will's parting is tragic, and one of my most favourite endings to a book, incidentally).

I suspect this last part rescues the books in many respects - modern Christian homes are generally not so strict nowadays and so for most it appears to be a decent fantasy book with some key life lessons.

For the more strict doctrines, sure there are problems, and criticisms. But they were never very vocal (at least to my recollection).

  • very good alternate view (to what I was thinking) – JoseK Aug 18 '11 at 10:27
  • I've myself felt now the question is off-topic, and flagged to delete;) But you'll lose rep for your well thought answer. Hope my edits make the question better. – JoseK Aug 20 '11 at 7:29
  • I definitely think The question can be on topic! I'll post a suggestion – Errant Aug 20 '11 at 9:28
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    Hmm... I found it pretty unsubtle, but the most blatant criticisms are at the end of the amber spyglass, so drive-by critics don't see them. But Mary says "Christianity is a mistake." That's pretty straightforward. – Sean McMillan Oct 12 '11 at 15:31
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    “there is no mention of Christianity in the book” – I suggest you re-read the books. The first book explicitly states that the church is the Catholic church which has been taken over by Calvinism, and abolished the pope. Pullman was quite clear which church was meant here. – Konrad Rudolph Jul 27 '12 at 8:49
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I feel that the question is too subjective. However, another facet of it (which is objective) is not "What does a random subjective reader think upon reading", but an objective What did Pullman himself intend when writing the book?. There seems to be plenty of evidence to asnwer that:

  • From "The Last Word" - a Washington Post article on Pullman and "Dark Materials" - we have his direct quote: "I'm trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief." .

  • A second less punching quote from the same interview is "Mr. Lewis would think I was doing the Devil's work." (referring to Narnia author C.S.Lewis)

Basically, Pullman's motivations are pretty obvious and explicit in the book. Some of the main "sacred cows" he's out to slay are:

  • The whole original sin and loss of paradise concept (based on both the text themselves and his interviews).

  • The concept of Creator (i'll avoid details as to avoid spoilers)

  • It is known that Pullman really hates Lewis, but I can't help thinking that Lewis would have quite like Pullman. I find that the books of both authors work in ways that neither author probably intended. – matt_black Jan 14 '12 at 23:42
  • When I read Narnia as a child (4th grade), the Christian subtext went right over my head. I'd wager the same thing happens to children who read Pullman. That said, I didn't much like Pullman's book (I only read the first one), not so much because of the subtle religion-bashing, but because of the world-view behind said bashing: I don't like reading about things, people, and places that are not sympathetic, and/or which don't preserve the illusion that there is hope in this world. – Martha May 4 '12 at 15:43
  • @Martha Lewis managed to make his subtext subtler. Calling the knife "subtle" does not make it so. – sq33G Feb 11 '16 at 20:08
  • @sq33G: I find the Narnia books not all that subtle either, but perhaps they are more insidious – I warned my children. The subtlety of the knife is a red herring. An interesting distinction: Pullman warns generally against religion gone wrong, while C.S. Lewis tries to win people for a specific religion, indeed, I suspect for one sect/church within it, the Church of England. (Tolkien was, if I remember right, disappointed with him when he got religion for not joining the Roman Catholic church.) Look out for the mad/bad/god argument as applied to Lucy in the Lion, the Witch and the wardrobe! – PJTraill Nov 9 '17 at 20:35
  • @sq33G: P.S. Though I warned my children, you should not conclude that I warned them off Narnia – on the contrary, I wanted to read the books to them, but thought they should be aware of the attempts to influence them. – PJTraill Nov 9 '17 at 21:04
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Is this sub-text recognisable, and to what extent?

There is no subtext. The first book states explicitly that the church in Lyra’s world is the Catholic church which has in the past been taken over by Calvinism and has abolished the pope.

The third book gets even more direct in some regards, and explicitly expands the criticism to all organised religion.

The “magisterium”, on the other hand, is an innovation of the film adaptation to make the church criticism less obvious. The books had no such qualms.

has the book met with resistance from Christian families

Definitely. The Catholic League in the USA in particular has criticised the book heavily – but then again, these guys seem to fly off their handle quite easily (see Wikipedia article) – much easier, in fact, than the remainder of the Catholic church.

On the other hand, the Archbishop of Canterbury has defended the book as a “thought-provoking exploration of themes of faith, power and humanity,” [Rational Wiki] and has recommended that it be included in schools’ curricula.

Or can it simply be read at face value as a fantasy tale with heroes and villains.

It can be – and quite a gripping one at that. But this is definitely ignoring some core aspects of the books.

I can see there are multiple views on this

Not necessarily. I think people are fairly unanimous in their views that the books constitute a quite heavy critique of organised religion. (As DVK quoted above, Pullman has explicitly written those books as an anti-Narnia.) What people differ about is whether they condone or condemn those criticisms, and, if they condemn them, whether they may still enjoy the books (which I’ve heard from several people).

But whether you like it or not, the attack on the church forms a central part of the books; both as the author’s message – but feel free to ignore that – and for the narrative.

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There's nothing anti-christian in the Dark Materials books as such, in the sense that the religion depicted bears no relationship to actually-existing christianity.

Religious readers (or any thinking person) might object to the bizarre world-view put forward by the author (Lyra can trust the young boy because he is a murderer; the nun feels sexual attraction, therefore no-one should be a nun, and the like). Hardline religious readers might be offended by a depiction of god as a sort of decrepit ghost in a flying castle.

The group who have been most offended by the book seem to be Roman Catholics, because the Church of those books is fairly obviously a cipher for the Roman Catholic Church, and the book contains a number of clumsy swipes at that church and its practices (for example the pre-confession of the assassin-priest).

  • Downvoter: explain yourself. – Marcin Aug 2 '12 at 16:46

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