Philip Pullman, the best-selling author with a widely advertised contempt for organised religion, has found an unlikely champion in the Archbishop of Canterbury who has risked the wrath of fundamentalists by praising the National Theatre’s adaptation of the author’s His Dark Materials as a “near miraculous triumph”.
Rowan Williams, already regarded with some suspicion by conservative evangelicals for his liberal social views, writes in today’s Guardian: “This extraordinary theatrical adventure sets a creative religious agenda in a way hard to parallel in recent literature and performance.”
In a private address to religious leaders and academics at Downing Street on Monday night, Dr Williams even went so far as to suggest that study of the Pullman trilogy could form part of schools’ religious education syllabuses. Such praise is a far cry from the Association of Christian Teachers, who have condemned it as shameless blasphemy.
What Dr Williams appears to have spotted, which Pullman’s critics have not, is that the author’s ire is directed less at religious values than at institutions, particularly Catholicism. The author was partly brought up by his Anglican clergyman grandfather.
The archbishop argues that Pullman has a perverse view of religion. “I read the books and the plays as a sort of thought experiment: this is after all an alternative world, or set of worlds,” he said.
“What would the church look like, what would it inevitably be, if it believed only in a God who could be rendered powerless and killed and needed unceasing protection? It would be a desperate, repressive tyranny.
“Pullman’s views are clear; but he is a good enough writer to leave some spaces. This is a church without creation, or redemption, certainly without Christ.”
The Dark Materials trilogy has drawn strong criticism from some religious groups. The Catholic Herald suggested it was “fit for the bonfire”
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