For many young readers, the fanfare greeting the publication of The Amber Spyglass in October rivaled that for Harry Potter IV. Publishers delayed this concluding volume in the fantasy trilogy known as His Dark Materials (Knopf) for 16 months, leading at least one desperate fan to send author Philip Pullman a photograph of a furry squirrel, with ultimatum attached: "Finish your book or the squirrel dies."
Marketed chiefly to teenagers, the critically acclaimed series makes Harry Potter look like the Chronicles of Narnia. His Dark Materials is a direct attack on Christianity, the church, and God Himself. Never has an overtly atheistic theme been so successfully peddled to young people.
His Dark Materials (a title borrowed from Milton) purports to recast the story of Paradise Lost, but in this version Satan, with his principle of cosmic rebellion, is the hero.
The Golden Compass, the first book of the trilogy, introduces Lyra Belaqua, a plucky 11-year-old living in an alternate version of Oxford University. In Lyra's world, the church holds all political power. A "daemon" who takes animal form accompanies every conscious being. The plot turns on the discovery of "Dust," elementary particles that may unlock the secret of life itself.
The church opposes this quest for Dust, and soon there is a rising rebellion that propels Lyra into the next book, The Subtle Knife, where she meets Will Parry, a youth from "our" world. After adventures involving witches, angels, and a knife that can cut through to parallel universes, Lyra's arch-enemy Mrs. Colter captures her, laying upon Will the obligation to rescue her and help uncover the secret of Dust in time to save the universe.
In the first two volumes, the author raises questions about selfhood, morality, free will, and destiny. Mr. Pullman presents himself as a tough-minded materialist of the 19th-century mold. To his credit, he does challenge some of the assumptions of our fuzzy postmodernist age; in his view, we must deal with reality as it is, actions do have consequences, truth exists and is worth seeking. The church, a bastion of self-righteousness and coercion, is obviously the "heavy."
But we're less sure what to make of the rebel leader, Lord Asriel. By the end of The Subtle Knife, it's clear that Asriel aims to overthrow God, not merely the church. In The Amber Spyglass, we learn that God (or, the "Authority") is not the creator, only the first being organized out of Dust: "And Dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself."
We learn that, after duping countless angels into worshipping him, the Authority has consolidated his power in an elaborate system of myths and laws. But now the "ancient of days" is so senile and useless it would be a mercy to kill him. That is precisely what happens during the chaotic Last Battle, when Mr. Pullman dispatches the Authority with a back-handed slap. Then he unveils Lyra and Will as the founding couple of a new order of free inquiry.
Though sometimes offensive, the trilogy is no threat to Christians who understand their faith; the author's sledgehammer polemicism and simplistic conclusions reveal he doesn't know what he's talking about. But the readers most vulnerable are the target audience: adolescents and young adults with no particular worldview.
Mr. Pullman's theme is that "the followers of wisdom have always tried to open minds; the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep them closed." Christianity is dismissed as "a powerful and convincing mistake," but there's no hint about what Christianity teaches, and Christ Himself is barely mentioned.
Mr. Pullman has criticized C.S. Lewis's Narnia series for "the sheer dishonesty of the narrative method," but though Lewis framed his conclusions in black and white, he also presented a basis for distinguishing heroes from villains. Mr. Pullman, equally black and white, has no moral criteria other than his disdain for authority.
Instead of facing the consequences of his atheism (the history of the 20th century would have furnished adequate material), Mr. Pullman lapses into sentimentality. His universe has a spiritual dimension after all, if only at the sub-atomic level, and Dust can be generated by-guess what?-adolescent sexual awakening. Thus, juvenile readers are first deceived into thinking they have "seen through" something they've not even seen (the truths of the Christian faith), then flattered that they have the keys to set the world right (indulging their sexual desires).
"Tell them true stories," pleads a character in The Amber Spyglass. Young people do indeed need true stories, but they won't find them in Mr. Pullman's dark materials.