In The Amber Spyglass, the final book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy for young and discerning older readers, which I have just now been re-reading, the physicist and former nun Dr. Mary Malone tells lead protagonists Lyra and Will the story of how she lost her religious vocation. It is an affecting account, one which includes a Proustian moment when a sweet taste of marzipan brought back the remembrance of a childhood romance and reminded her of the sweet joys of spirit and flesh in union (like the adult Proust’s taste of a madeleine, a kind of pastry from his childhood, which brought back all the stream of memories that became his multi-volume In Search of Lost Time). “‘And I thought,’ [Mary] says: ‘am I really going to spend the rest of my life without ever feeling that again? […] Will anyone be better off if I go back to the hotel and say my prayers and confess to the priest and promise to never fall into temptation again? Will anyone be the better for making me miserable?
“‘And the answer came back – no. No one will. There’s no one to fret, no one to condemn, no one to bless me for being a good girl, no one to punish me for being wicked….’”
Indeed I have long wondered what kind of loving God, sitting up on some cloud in all His infinite wisdom, would spend so much time fretting over who loves whom and how they express it instead of the more substantial concerns of these books: keeping promises to those we love, for example, even at the cost of our own deep suffering; accepting responsibility for oneself and others; respecting and working to preserve the earth, the planet, the universe that we inhabit; truth-telling when truth is most needed, and loving as fiercely as we may occasionally have to fight; but above all nurturing brave and peaceable hearts that hate bloodshed, that keep us from senseless acts of cruelty and violence and oppression, that allow us to create the space in which some real measure of peace and harmony might thrive. After all, isn’t Jesus supposed to have said: “Blessed are the peacemakers”?
Those of you who are familiar with these books are aware that they are peopled with human and other sentient beings from a multiverse of subtly and drastically different and overlapping worlds. Lyra comes from a vaguely antiquated English Oxford with its scholars and old buildings and catacombs; and in the larger world she inhabits, roving “gyptians” and bands of children, witches and armored bears and other fierce warriors and adventurers; all of whom, except for the armored bears, have “daemons,” which are in essence the physical manifestation of their conscious soul or animal nature. Will, on the other hand, who has a daemon too but has never seen her, comes from an Oxford much like our own and meets Lyra in a third universe that was once idyllic but is now haunted with ghost-like vampiric “Specters” that suck the souls (or daemons) out of adults, leaving bands of marauding children to fend for themselves.
At the books’ thematic core, though there are so many interrelated and interwoven threads, is something that in Lyra’s world is called Dust but in different worlds is known by different names. This is not ordinary “dust” but “a new kind of elementary particle” that has the Church in Lyra’s world (and scientists and military-espionage and police types in Will’s world) in a state of excitement or panic. A panic which, in Lyra’s world, is centered on the Church’s sinister Magisterium with its Consistorial Court of Discipline and its Oblation Board, which has begun to kidnap poor and marginal children and brutally sever them from their daemons. Why? Because in the Church’s mind Dust, which has something to do with daemons and which begins to manifest itself in bothersome ways at roughly the time of puberty, is also associated with original sin and must at all costs be eradicated.
It must be understood that the fictional-fantastical Church in question – with its mythical counterparts for good and evil in Heaven – is a caricature of the Catholic Church at its historical worst and might be associated with some of Christianity’s darkest periods. It is true that Pullman is himself an acknowledged atheist, and he does not pull any punches in these books in his criticism of religion (even in our real and present world) obsessed with controlling and scaring, punishing and exercising inquisitorial authority. But his is a deeply moral and ethical mythology that the religious are perfectly free (and well advised) to understand by whatever metaphorical principle best serves them. The series, in any case, is inspired by John Milton’s magnificent and challenging 17th-century poem Paradise Lost, which in preparation for this reading I recently tackled in the slightly abridged form of my Norton Anthology of English Literature. Its twin subjects are the Biblical War in Heaven and the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Both themes are present here, and Pullman gives a movingly positive twist to the story of Eve’s temptation.
(That is a theme, in fact, that I have re-visited in a very different and more realistic context in my new Young Adult novel Original Sins, for which I am presently seeking an agent or publisher – but that’s another story.)
I come to this theme, anyway, in the immediate context of the new federal court rulings in religiously conservative states like Utah – and now my own Indiana – allowing same-sex marriage.
This swiftly snowballing trend is something that the consistorial courts of discipline and magisteriums of our day have sought and will continue seeking to prevent or to repeal. But the only way to enforce what strikes an increasing number of good Americans as a morbid and exclusionary sexual morality is to turn our democratic-republican form of government, with its often and willfully misunderstood separation of church and state, into something more closely resembling a theocracy. I was therefore pleased the other day to read in Evansville, Indiana’s Courier & Press the more sensible religious perspective of Lynn Martin of the St. Lucas Church, which appeared under the headline: “United States should not aspire to be a ‘Christian nation’” – as much to protect Christians from each other (as Constitutional originalists ought to remember from the most basic survey of U. S. history) as to protect Christians from non-Christians or non-believers from believers, and in both instances, vice versa.
If one pays attention to the social reality in this country, it is hard to take seriously the frequent assertion that Christianity and its proponents are under assault here. There is a vast difference between a Christian woman in Sudan being sentenced to death for not practicing what their grand inquisitors call (highly questionably) Islam, and our being restricted from putting gigantic crosses in public spaces and imposing the social implications of our theological interpretations of scripture on those who do not share those views. No one is preventing anyone from practicing their Christian faith within their homes or churches, or even of praying over their food in public settings, or any number of other passionate expressions of that faith. But God help you if you’re a Muslim in post-9/11 America. Or (gasp!) one of the “non-believers” that President Obama dared acknowledge in his first inaugural address: “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers.”
(On the subject of the contributions and the travails of American Muslims I recommend the book Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers. If I believed in a mandatory American reading list, this would be on it.)
In respect to U. S. District Judge Richard Young’s Indiana ruling, we are happy in my house and my children’s homes not only because of all the other Hoosiers who are now able to make legal the truth that has already existed in their hearts, but for mine and Anita’s youngest daughter Stephanie, her wife Rachel, and their little boy Nicholas, our grandson, whose family can now be legally recognized. They were married, as far as all of us are concerned, more than seven years ago on May 26, 2007, in a ceremony with family and friends in Perry County, Indiana, a ceremony that for us remains sacred in the most humane sense of the word. The piece of paper that they applied for, paid for, and had signed and notarized on Thursday is only the legal vindication of the bond that was made holy on that other day. Nicholas, who was three at the time of their wedding and was long ago adopted by Rachel, has been ecstatic with the news – he and countless other children whose “special” families can now come out of the darkness and present themselves as a complete and viable and privileged unit. And all the evidence contradicts the notion, still popular in the consistorial circles, that children with opposite-sex parents thrive more than those with two moms or two dads.
The truth and reality of homosexual as well as heterosexual love (not to mention transgender and other varieties of love that most of us know nothing or next to nothing about) is in fact another theme that Pullman picks up in The Amber Spyglass. The very tender relationship between two male angels, Baruch and Balthamos, is deeply moving. They are never identified as a gay couple, but the bond between the two is immediately so intimate and so powerful that it is at least strongly implied. When Baruch, the more obviously strong and heroic of the two, is killed in the line of duty, Balthamos falls apart for a while and ends up retreating, from his duty to protect and guide the two young heroes Lyra and Will, when the danger becomes too much. But in the end, at the crucial hour, he comes back, conquering his fear to save them (or at least Lyra who is the target of a priestly assassin) at the crucial moment – completely anonymously, without the endangered youth even suspecting it. Clearly he does it out of shame for his earlier collapse, but most of all to honor his deceased partner without whom he has lost the will to live. “‘Baruch,’” he says after the assassin has been permanently sidelined, “‘oh, Baruch, my dear, I can do no more. Will and the girl are safe, and everything will be well, but this is the end for me, though truly I died when you did, Baruch, my beloved.’” And after the paragraph break: “A moment later, he was gone.”
That is one of the most moving passages in this whole series of books or in any other that I can think of. Compare it, for instance, to the pathos of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, whose unhappy end tore at my heartstrings and at my soul so many years ago as a teenager when I saw the BBC television production of her story – and again last year when I finally got around to reading the book. Tolstoy, who had initially planned a rather moralistic novel judging her ultimate fate as simply the natural consequence of her adulterous sin, was also saved from that fate (perhaps by some merciful literary angel) and allowed to write one of the most senstitive and nuanced treatments of a troubled marriage, of the causes of its failure, of human souls in tenderness and torment, of love that promises so much but also consumes.
In any case, here’s to all the good people of Indiana and Utah and every other state where a distinct but vital minority of our republic are finally receiving recognition for the basic human right and loving unions that the rest of us have always taken for granted. Who are we to judge who is worthy or unworthy of receiving such possibilities of joy and happiness? Surely life is trying enough without making it all the more so for those who may be different from us in one way or another. And the next time you want to say, “But the Bible tells me so,” explain how so many devout readers of that Good Book (and I was once one of them) would beg to differ.