Anglican Samizdat

May 28, 2009

Rowan Williams on Philip Pullman

Filed under: Anglican Angst — David Jenkins @ 11:20 am

Rowan Williams spoke at the Hay Festival in Wales – not far from where I used to live – and had this to say:

Philip Pullman helps understanding of theology, says Archbishop of Canterbury

Citing Pullman as one of his favourite modern writers, Dr Rowan Williams said he liked his work because it took the church “seriously” at a time when theology was “drifting out” of mainstream thought.

Pullman has been castigated by parts of the Roman Catholic church, particularly in North America, as many consider the trilogy His Dark Materials to be a veiled attack on it.

But, speaking at the Hay Festival in Wales, Dr Williams defended Pullman.

He said: “First of all he takes the Christian myth, or a version of it, seriously enough to want to disagree passionately with it.

When Rowan talks about the “Christian myth” one hopes that he means what C. S. Lewis meant in  Myth Become Fact. Since he didn’t actually mention that, though, I have an uneasy feeling he doesn’t.

It’s not just the RC Church that has criticised Pullman: he is a supporter of the British Humanist Association and an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society, has been described as one of England’s most outspoken atheists and was described by Peter Hitchens as The most dangerous author in Britain. The only odd thing here is why Rowan Williams is so enamoured of him; Rowan goes on to explain:

Although he stressed he disagreed with Pullman’s atheistic view, he commended his “search for some way of talking about human value, human depth and three-dimensionality, that doesn’t depend on God.”

Merely to ask the question was important, he said.

He agreed with the thrust of Pullman’s novels that religious authorities must not silence the “demons” that people carry with them – the essential “internal conversation” between good and evil.

He said: “The threat in Pullman’s novels is the Authority – people like me in his imagination – which wants to divide the human spirit and cut off and silence that demonic voice, that voice of the imagination.

“And so you end up with these unforgettably poignant pictures of children who have had their demons taken away, who are just lifeless automata.

“And that’s evil, that’s the essence of evil.”

Here is a prime slice of Rowan muddle: human imagination, he says, depends on the presence of demonic influence and the essence of evil is the expunging of that influence – a bizarre view for a Christian. God is the author of imagination not a Screwtape-like dialogue; to labour under the illusion that the demonic is an intended part of the human spirit that must remain for a person to be truly human, is a thoroughly sub-Christian view.

He concluded: “I feel that that awareness of the inner conversation, the inner dialogue, that has to be part of a sensible, credible modern dialogue about the soul.”

This little insight does explain Rowan’s preoccupation with “conversation”: he has one running in his head all the time.

Dr Williams made his comments about Pullman after telling the Hay audience that he thought theology had become less relevant to the “intellectual mainstream” since the 19th century.

Well, no wonder.



  1. A friend likes Pullman and said some enigmatic things about spiritualoty on his books so I did a little googling. One of the first things I found was Pullman’s pronouncement that no films should be made of Lewis’s Narnia series because it, and Lewis, were sexist, racist, misogynistic, and so on and on.

    Told me all I needed to know about Pullman.

    I’m not going to bother trying to parse and assess +++Williams’s comments.

    Comment by Toral — May 28, 2009 @ 12:01 pm

  2. I’m not a fan of Pullman either, but the “demons” in his book are not what you’re thinking of; it’s a reference to the classical idea of daemons. For an explanation, see C. S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image, p. 40ff. (Actually, read the whole book; it’s quite good.)

    Comment by Andrew — May 28, 2009 @ 8:49 pm

  3. Ugh. I suppose Williams likes the Da Vinci Code too. Wouldn’t surprise me, really.

    Comment by Ellie M. — May 29, 2009 @ 2:25 pm

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