Shuck and Jive

Monday, December 31, 2007

Philip Pullman's Theology

I have been spending my New Year's with Philip Pullman's books, The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. These are the books that the Vatican has condemned. Al Mohler of the Southern Baptist Convention is "concerned" about these heresies as well. Even a couple of members of "the consistory"--Viola and the Bayou Man--are aghast at what ideas might be allowed to float through the minds of the children. You can always count on the Magisterium's faithful to be lovingly concerned (for the children, of course).

I finished The Golden Compass last night and I am about three-quarters the way through The Subtle Knife. They are great books. Hard to put down. You can find reviews of them all over I am sure. I don't pay too much attention to fantasy, but since the true believers have been making such a stink about the film, "In this movie the children are killing God!" I thought I would check them out.

Pullman unfolds the theology as the books progress. The basic issue, as I understand it, is how to understand the story of Adam and Eve and what it means to be human. We know the traditional Christian interpretation that Adam and Eve disobeyed God and in so doing received the punishment of mortality. Adam and Eve brought sin into the world.

Here is how Paul says it:

12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. (Romans 5:12-13)

The church decided to interpret the Adam and Eve story through the lens of Paul. Pullman, like many thinkers, including Christian thinkers, ask, "What if Paul was wrong?" Rabbi Harold Kushner does a wonderful job in his book How Good Do We Have to Be? with the Adam and Eve story. He sees it as a myth of humanity coming of age, developing consciousness, moving from an age of animal instinct to one of decision.

Dr. Patricia Williams in her book, Doing Without Adam and Eve: Sociobiology and Original Sin, argues that it is time to rethink this interpretation. From the book's description:

Focusing on the Genesis 2 and 3 account, Williams shows how its “historical” interpretation in early Christianity not only misread the text but derived an idea of being human profoundly at odds with experience and contemporary science. After gauging Christianity’s several competing notions of human nature—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox—against contemporary biology, Williams turns to sociobiological accounts of the evolution of human dispositions toward reciprocity and limited cooperation as a source of human good and evil. From this vantage point, she offers new interpretations of the problem of evil, original sin, and the Christian doctrine of atonement.

Frank in its assessment of traditional misunderstandings, Williams’s work challenges theologians and all Christians to reassess this linchpin doctrine and its implications for Christian theology.

My point here is that the issue of original sin is not as airtight as many Christians would have us assume.
  1. When Adam and Eve cease to become literal people,
  2. when we do not think of death as punishment but simply a part of life,
  3. when we don't think of ourselves as living in a fallen world but in an evolving one,
the idea of original sin, at least to me, and apparently to Pullman as well, makes little sense. That is the scandal of Pullman's books, as I see it. It appears to me that his books can provoke thoughtful conversation on what it means to be human.

Folks in the church can respond to Pullman's books in a couple of ways. They can
  1. Condemn them as heresy ( ho hum) or
  2. Encourage conversation on what it means to be human.
I choose door number two.


  1. Yahoo! Wow there is some great reading on the internet tonight. I liked what you said "true believers". Thanks for being here.

  2. Could this be a matter of semantics? The world is hurting, and broken. To me, this is a kind of falleness. We are alienated from God, and from each other, and cannot fix ourselves.