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 Compass, the 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.
At heart an adventure story, the layers of metaphor in His Dark Materials are part of what make both the source material and the show compelling. There is Dust, a mysterious substance Asriel is studying even though the Magisterium considers his discoveries heresy. There are daemons, souls that exist in the form of animals outside the body of their owner and act and speak as an extension of them.
The first four episodes of the show are relatively clean—far more than Game of Thrones, the same audience His Dark Materials seems to target—with no sex and toned-down violence. As the series moves slowly toward an inevitable clash between its heretics and its church, the show will likely raise red flags later on. But perhaps they will reveal valuable lessons.
Religious education should include “serious examination” of doubt and conflict in faith, former Church of England head Rowan Williams said about the books in 2004. “But it is in showing how religious beliefs sustain themselves in such circumstances that we best educate students in a critical understanding of their own faith and a critical understanding of faith in general.”
The show offers a more nuanced portrayal than the standard church-as-oppressive force version we've seen in other fantasy epics, including Game of Thrones. Even Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), the central human villain who aligns herself with the Magisterium, has found ways to manipulate the system and is not a true believer. It is clear that the human quest for power is the root of evil in the Magisterium.
The church without a Savior is an empty shell, a vacuum that inevitably seeks power. And in His Dark Materials, the absence of Jesus is strikingly conspicuous even though he is never named. Pullman told Williams in 2004 that Jesus does not exist in the realm of his Magisterium, an acknowledgement that his church offers no redemption and is only an organization of human power. And in a world where the church controls the government, it is hardly a fantasy that the human authorities use religious manipulation to cement their control.
The New Testament has a fair amount to say about structuring the church so that it supports the goal of pointing its people to Christ and it describes a church body with dispersed power. Without Christ at the head, the church is a slave to sin instead of proclaiming its purpose: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1).
His Dark Materials lets us see what it would be like if we could never be free from the fear of original sin, but were condemned to the terror that frightens the Magisterium. Yet Pullman rejects the idea that we should be afraid of sin.
“I try to present the idea that the Fall, like any myth, is not something that has happened once in a historical sense but happens again and again in all our lives,” he said in 2004. “The Fall is something that happens to all of us when we move from childhood through adolescence to adulthood and I wanted to find a way of presenting it as something natural and good, and to be welcomed, and, you know—celebrated, rather than deplored.”
The series’ portrayal of a church without Jesus—one that forces free-thinkers to seek out other worlds in order to escape its control—offers a powerful contrast to what the church in our world offers: the freedom promised by Christ. His Dark Materials may not point anyone directly toward Jesus—but by portraying a world without him, it may highlight just how much he is needed in ours.
Alicia Cohn is an editor and writer based in Denver. She interned at Christianity Today in 2009. Follow her on Twitter @aliciacohn.