Self Improvement and Dark Materials

Imagine a world even more dystopic than our own. One ruled by fear and suspicion, where ghostly airships drift across the leaden sky. A world ruled by the Magisterium, servants of The Authority, in an apparent parody of the Vatican or maybe Lambeth Palace. And it’s at the Magisterium HQ that sinister experiments are designed, to discover the nature of Dust at the expense of the souls of children.

But what a compelling plot! Jane and I were glued to our TV, episode after episode, following the adventures of teenagers Lyra and Will. Through their gallantry, kindness, honesty and open-mindedness, they eventually free the ‘multiverse’ from the tyranny of The Authority. Said gentleman claims to be the Creator but No – he’s only a being who can generate images of celestial splendour. These he uses to hold all creatures in the grip of fear. Riddled by false guilt. Controlled by the carrot and the stick, the prospect of a sublime heaven or a grisly hell, neither of which actually exist.

Philip Pullman’s trilogy for children, His Dark Materials, has been widely acclaimed and, if the books are half as exciting as the TV series, no wonder. He’s been hailed as the atheists’ answer to C. S. Lewis, whose Narnia stories I loved to read to my own children. As with Narnia, Pullman’s stories lay out a very clear message. ‘Dust’ is not, as the Magisterium supposes, Sin. Rather, it’s the quality of free-spiritedness, essential to lead a full, rich life. The sooner we dispense with all this stuff about guilt, sacrifice and atonement, the better. It’s a message that resonates well with the liberal, secular spirit of our own age.


I enjoy reading my weekly Guardian as much as watching His Dark Materials. But this fine newspaper conveys the same message. Earlier this month it featured a self-improvement article compiled by psychotherapist Moya Sarner, called ‘How to be Good’. There are sections by different authors on, for example, parenting, citizenship, friendship…and they contain perceptive advice plus a great deal of gentle wisdom. But it was Moya Sarner’s introduction that I found fascinating. During her training, her illusions about her own real goodness had been shattered. Where she’d believed she’d shown compassion and kindness, she discovered all manner of mixed motives, some of which weren’t pleasant. Her journey to being ‘a good person’, she said, lay in appreciating what was really going on inside her and in learning to truly act in others’ best interests.

So, no need for Jesus, then?


Jesus talked a great deal about inner motivations. He taught his disciples that, before removing the speck in their brother’s eye, they should first remove the log in their own! He called out the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, in which they pedantically gave God a tenth of every little herb they grew but failed to provide for their families.

But did Jesus encourage us to be good people? Yes and No. He told his disciples, “Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” That’s God’s standard. But in other passages he made clear that it’s an impossible goal, for the very reasons that Ms Sarner points out. In John’s Gospel, Jesus explains to his hearers that he’s come to set them free of burdensome living; that to follow and believe in him is the way to find and to please God. You don’t reach the goal of being perfect by trying to behave better.

The disciples could scarcely have imagined what lay ahead – that their wrongdoing and rebellion against God needed Jesus to die a gruesome death on their behalf. And that, by being raised to life again and through imparting to them his nature, he would give them the power to be truly good. But that wasn’t what they concentrated on. They constantly talked about Grace, that is, God’s undeserved love for them, a love that they reflected towards each other and to their communities. They went on to live lives of faith, of joining Jesus’ great adventure in establishing his rule on earth. It was a costly mission, but they were filled with boldness and joy. And in their letters, they explained how it’s faith, not self-effort, that touches God’s heart.   


You know that sinking feeling when an ancient memory makes you cringe? I know what Sin is, and oh boy! – do I need saving from it! As I’ve grown older and grown in faith, I’ve become more acutely aware of my many faux pas and mixed motives. But I’m more than ever convinced that God doesn’t want me to worry about them, that he can make use of my clumsiness past and present. Because ultimately God’s not asking me to cleanse myself.


Without a doubt, the Magisterium would have put Jesus to death, and so – to our shame – would the church leaders at certain points in history. But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Unlike Jesus, the church is far from perfect. However, despite its failings, its role of honour contains many, many examples of Jesus-like grace. Let me finish by sharing one.

Decapoe was the chief of the Kamula people who live in an area below the Wawoi Falls in central Papua New Guinea. In many ways life was colourful, but in others it was grim. A regular feature was the savage raids that they suffered from neighbouring language groups, which of course Decapoe and his warriors ruthlessly avenged. As time went by, he longed more and more for a better way of life.

One day, news reached him that some white men had come to live way downriver, and that they were telling about a god of love who brought peace. Decapoe set off in his canoe, and a fortnight later, found the men he was looking for, two Australian missionaries. He liked what he heard and returned home having committed his life to Jesus Christ. With trepidation and with great bravery, he and his warriors visited the rival tribes where Decapoe declared that, because Jesus had changed him, he was unilaterally making peace. And his offers were accepted. He invited Wycliffe Bible Translators to send a family (from whom I learnt the story) and, just before he died, Decapoe held the first Kamula New Testament book in his hand.

Last I heard, Kamula Christians had paddled downriver again. This time it was to share their faith with loggers – the very people who are threatening their environment and way of life. That’s Grace.

3 thoughts on “Self Improvement and Dark Materials

  1. I love the sentence “Because ultimately God’s not asking me to cleanse myself.” Also, what a wonderful story about Decapoe and his people. Thanks for sharing 🙂


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