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His Dark Materials: The Seductive Power of Atheist Children’s Novels

I was greeted this morning by an ad for tonight’s premiere on HBO and AmazonPrime of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Adapted to film by the BBC from his series of childrens novels, His Dark Materials presents a fantasy world, just as captivating as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.

The symbolism evoked by Pullman’s “Magisterium,” the evil antagonistic empire, that the 12-year heroine, Lyra, must contend against, is meant to represent the Roman Catholic Church. But evangelical Protestants should not be too smug in Pullman’s denunciation of Rome as tyrannical. Mark my word, His Dark Materials is targeted as an attack on a Christian worldview, as a whole.

Soon after Pullman finished writing these children novels in 2003, he marveled at just how little criticism he received, in comparison to the scrutiny of J.K. Rowling’s novels. Pullman states, “Harry Potter’s been taking all the flak…. Meanwhile, I’ve been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God.”

Pullman does not hide the fact that His Dark Materials is meant to convey a world that is completely opposed to the Christian world of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. Pullman has publicly characterized Lewis’ Narnia series as “blatantly racist,” “monumentally disparaging of women, “immoral,” and “evil.”  Yet some Christians have been generous in considering His Dark Materials as more of a critique of religious dogmatism, and less of a full-throttled subversion of Christianity, properly understood. Furthermore, while some readers of Lewis have at times accused the Chronicles of Narnia as being “preachy,” it could equally be said that His Dark Materials is just as “preachy,” if not more so, in promoting atheism.

Rumor has it that HBO/BBC’s His Dark Materials intends to remove the most objectionable parts of the story, that admittedly sank the 2007 movie, that first tried to bring Pullman’s novels to film. But no matter how well viewers will take to the new film series, His Dark Materials will most probably generate a lot of interest. Pullman is an engaging and exceptional writer, even if the message is deeply flawed, according to Christian literary scholar, Alan Jacobs. Christians should be prepared to think through how they should respond, when a new generation of young, children readers begin to consume Philip Pullman’s books.

Here is Christianity Today’s take on His Dark Materials.


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