His Dark Materials Puts Atheism Ahead of Plot

You’ll pick this up quite quickly when you watch the first episode of HBO’s new dramatization of His Dark Materials. A body called the Magisterium holds a centuries-long dominion over the earthly realm. It spews doctrine; it crushes heresy; it circumscribes knowledge and inhibits discussion. Its priests are everywhere, like secret police. It’s also stealing children.

This is English dissent, closer to 1984 than The Hobbit. An amped-up, totalitarian version of the Catholic Church is running the show, twisting your mind and smashing your dreams like Metallica’s “Master of Puppets,” and the stage is set for a good-versus-evil face-off between dogma/censorship and the heroic spirit of free inquiry.

The latter is represented by the swaggering Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), who bursts into the hushed scholarly precincts of Jordan College, Oxford, with a severed head in a cooler and some photographs that appear to suggest the existence of Dust—a mysterious, elemental substance secreted by the universe in response to human consciousness.

The Magisterium abhors the idea of Dust; Dust interferes with the top-down distribution of celestial power. “This kind of heresy is of the highest priority to the Magisterium,” hisses a hollow-eyed cleric to his snaky enforcer. “I shall take it to the cardinal.” “Yes, Father,” says the snaky enforcer.

His Dark Materials is a kind of romance of unbelief. In the North, in the shimmering bands of the aurora borealis, reality becomes transparent; other worlds are glimpsed, worlds beyond the reach of the Magisterium. The North means knowledge, which is the story’s glittering magnetic pole. Young Lyra, the foundling heroine with urchin tendencies, yearns instinctively to go there.

In Pullman’s fiction, Lyra’s choice is to travel, to investigate, to think freely—or to have her spirit be mangled by the ghastly devices of the Magisterium. In the real world, our world, there is of course another Church: the Church of Francis of Assisi and Dorothy Day, of radical advocacy, of finding Jesus in dispossession, at the edge of society. But this Church, which has an energy quite as emancipated and revolutionary as anything Lyra will find in the North, is not the caricature that Pullman’s romance requires.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Pullman’s 2010 counterfactual retelling of the events of the Gospels, is for me a more fiercely imaginative encounter with Christianity, and a fairer fight. Here’s Jesus, and Jesus is okay—more than okay; he’s a rebel and a trickster and an overturner, in love with the people, a proper republican in the Pullman sense of the word: instinctively fraternal and anti-institutional, spreading his rough-and-ready enlightenments across the horizontal axis.

Pullman’s Jesus doesn’t do miracles—no magic here—but he does change people. The paralyzed man is “so strengthened and inspired by the atmosphere Jesus had created” that he picks up his bed and walks. Jesus’s words are hugely powerful, rendered by Pullman as if in a first-class idiomatic translation: “Those who look at poverty and hunger without concern, and turn away with a laugh on their lips, will be cursed; they will have plenty to mourn about; they will weep for ever.”

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