At the beginning of the year the cartoon strip Shortpacked had this instalment, which has set me musing.
I’m not going to see the film in question, but I’m not going to see it principally because a colleague of mine has assured me that as entertainment it’s not worth spending two hours of your life on it, and I have plenty to do with two hours of evening. (Book to write, for a start…)
But I do find myself niggling about the reaction to it in the Christian media. Do I understand it correctly that the problem is that the film involves the killing of a worn-out ‘god’ by the child protagonists? And that this is being construed as a threat to organised religion? Even though the god that is killed is not the Christian god…
Being a medievalist, I can’t help but wonder how this would have been seen from a medieval perspective. Think of Saint Boniface felling the oak of Eismar, or Charlemagne ordering the destruction of the Saxon Irminsul, both presumably living respresentations of divinity to their worshippers; or else, more subtly, of the monks of Armagh reworking the Celtic legends to gently but inevitably end them with the death of magic and its pagan archetypes, leaving the field free for the true revelation of God. Mind you it’s produced some fabulous spin-offs: how many fantasy authors can you think of who end their cycles with the magical beings leaving the world for men to mess up? Tolkien, Moorcock (dozens of times), the list goes on. And yes, it’s all terribly Celtic I’m sure, but it’s not how the stories originally went, is it, however powerful it is as a motif.
Christianity’s been killing gods for centuries, as far as that’s possible; in fact possibly only Zoroastrianism has been anything like as hostile to rival faiths. And that didn’t use to be a problem (for Christianity) because way back then, the enemy of Christianity was other faiths, but now of course it’s not; now the kinds of Christian who want to make a fuss about things seem to think that the main enemy is disinterest, which they read as atheism. Boniface or the redactors of the Táin would have thought Mr Pullman’s work to be serving their agenda, even if that wasn’t his intention. They wouldn’t have approved of course, but i don’t think they would have found it theologically objectionable, because it’s about a different, ultimately mortal and therefore not truly divine, deity.
But for the modern and protesting (small `p’) Christian, believing in anything is better than not to believe, apparently. So is ‘godless’ now worse than ‘infidel’ to the religious right, or just rarer? Or, perhaps more importantly, closer to home?
(It is necessary to mention the other side of the coin, of course, because in the time this post has been in draft, Matthew Gabriele has reminded us that medieval religion at the blunt end was often as pragmatically tolerant as we might wish for. The danger, again, comes from the theorists :-) They may be locked up in ivory towers with only quill pens as weapons; but apparently when it comes to deicide (no, not Deicide), the pen is mightier than the sword.)