Alicia Cohn on How ‘His Dark Materials’ Imagines a Church Without God or the Gospel

Image: Courtesy of HBO

Alicia Cohn is an editor and writer based in Denver. She interned at Christianity Today in 2009. Follow her on Twitter @aliciacohn.


Imagine a world where the church exists without Jesus. Where a hierarchical church authority controls society, but lacks the genuine faith to guide it. His Dark Materials, a new HBO show based on the trilogy of the same name by Phillip Pullman, takes viewers into this oppressive world where the “Magisterium,” a fictional church, rules with fear and brutality.

His Dark Materials, which premiered Nov. 4 and airs on Mondays, intentionally offers viewers a picture of a powerful institutional church without Jesus or the gospel. The show’s narrative follows so-called heretics as they fight the ruthless Magisterium, which demands allegiance to its traditions and its mysterious “Authority,” without offering the hope of a Savior in exchange.

Anything that challenges the Magisterium’s authority is labeled heresy—and the merciless church will do anything to protect its power. His Dark Materials is less a story about belief and more about power, and how religious organization can distort and manipulate faith in God.

The overarching conflict of the show is between the freedom to choose and the church’s control. His Dark Materials isn’t shy about parallels to the Garden of Eden story. A key portion of Genesis is read aloud in one classroom scene: “eyes will be opened…and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”

The Magisterium offers “scholastic sanctuary,” or academic freedom—but it’s a loophole with limits. Scholars are warned against “blasphemy” and spies are present even in private conversations, with the authorities ready to mete out punishment. This world lives under fear of the church.

Pullman describes himself as an atheist. And the show has a dark view of religious authority. Still, the creative forces behind the TV series would prefer viewers not see it as a critique of Christianity.

“Philip Pullman in these books is not attacking belief, is not attacking faith,” executive producer Jane Tranter said at the San Diego Comic Con panel for the show earlier this year. “He’s not attacking religion or the church, per se. He’s attacking a particular form of control, where there is a very deliberate attempt to withhold information, keep people in the dark, and not allow ideas and thinking to be free…It doesn’t equate to any particular church or form of religion in our world.”

The books—the first of which was published in 1995 as Northern Lights (marketed as The Golden Compass in the US)—earned critical raves when they were published. But Pullman believes his young adult trilogy only avoided controversy thanks to the Harry Potter series.

“I’ve been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said,” he toldThe Sydney Morning Herald in 2003. The first book in J. K. Rowling’s series was published in 1997. Pullman’s third—and most controversial—novel in the His Dark Materials series was published three years later.

A number of US schools and libraries did attempt to ban the books, citing their anti-religious content and their violence, according to the American Library Association. And ahead of the 2007 release of a film adaptation of The Golden Compassthe Catholic League declared that “the goal of the books is to sour kids on the Church while promoting atheism.”

Unlike the 2007 movie, which was a critical and commercial flop, the new series—a joint production between HBO and the BBC—is not afraid to explore religion or politics. It is adapted by Jack Thorne from the full breadth of Pullman’s works including his more recent trilogy, The Book of Dust. Thorne reportedly consults often with the author.

In the show, 12-year-old Lyra (Dafne Keen) and her uncle Asriel (James McAvoy) are thirsty for knowledge that the Magisterium wants kept under wraps, putting them at odds with the church.

“There’s a war raging right now between those trying to keep us in ignorance…and those willing to fight for the light, fight for true academic freedom,” Asriel declares early in the first episode. The structure and governance of the Magisterium remains shadowy, but key players in religious garb are regularly depicted issuing sinister orders from a megachurch-like complex in London.

Meanwhile, Lyra craves adventure. She insists “sometimes you’ve got to have dreams”—and she dreams of traveling north to explore. The plot in the first book, and this season of the show, is largely propelled by the disappearance of children, including Lyra’s school friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd). Lyra wants to find Roger and allies with various people—who have various motives—in order to follow his trail north.

Lyra’s determination to find Roger puts her on a course to unveil secrets of the Magisterium and a sinister plot with dark parallels to child abuse incidents within the Catholic and Protestant churches.

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Source: Christianity Today