Phillip Pullman threatens my faith (and other fables)

I read once, in a book, that monstrous albino alligators roam free in the underground spaces of our major metropolitan areas1. Elsewhere, I read about a prince who came from a planet that was scarcely larger than a house2. This is not to mention what I have read about a tiger and young boy escaping a shipwreck together3, an angry man calling a bear out of the woods to maul insouciant youths4, or a lion who sacrifices himself to save an unwitting child5.

Many of you will recognize the source material for all of these observations without having to scroll to the endnotes. Even if you don’t, you no doubt recognize that these are stories, fabrications, fictions. And lest the Christian Coalition rebuke me for the assignation of a snippet from The Good Book into this category, I say only that our eyewitness accounts of the alligators are no less reliable on matters of demonstrable fact than those who have passed down to us the escapades of the prophets.

But the bear is not the issue here, dude. My point is that as a well meaning and over-informed astrophysicist6, I would be drummed out of any self-respecting PTA were I to suggest that The Little Prince should not be read in the classroom because it might encourage our children to believe in house-sized planets that don’t exist. Why do we as a society not similarly drum out parents who are so insecure in their own faith (and influence in their children’s lives) that they insist on any book that challenges their wold view being banned from a public institution of learning.

The American Library Association just released its list of Most Challenged Books in 2007. Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass is number four, and topping the list for the second consecutive year is a book about penguins – And Tango Makes Three. Published ten years ago, Pullman’s novel is militantly against established religion and no doubt the recent movie release has fueled its rise up the banned book charts. And Tango Makes Three is based on a true story and has been widely challenged since publication because it is about gay penguins.

Ostensibly, the folks who dial in each week and make these books belles of the ball on Banned Books Idol would have me believe that reading Phillip Pullman’s take on God and religion will send me spiraling into the depths of nihilistic despair faster than Joel Osteen7 can spin around three times on stage and shout “Prosperity Gospel!” Likewise, the documented existence of two male penguins who care for an egg and raise a chick in the same way as a male and female couple must certainly be an affront to my heterosexuality and a threat to my marriage. The faith (and marriages) of these people must be very frail indeed.

One of my favorite quotes to use when thinking about the issue of banning books comes from the poet Paul Valery. Talking about a post WWI society, he hits on something that still rings true – “our fears are infinitely more precise than our hopes.”8 This sentiment is at the heart of censorship. We can name our fears, count them on each finger, articulate in great detail exactly what it is that we are against. But what of hope? What of the vision that discourse leads to an educated populace? What do we tell our children who must learn to think and dream for themselves?

I scratch my head every time I read a story about books being challenged in the schools. Do we exhibit such little faith in the next generation? Is our influence not stronger than what they read? As a parent I hope that I can use ideas that I disagree with as learning experiences for Zeke. Building muscle requires resistance, can we not say the same about intellect?

Each of the stories mentioned in the first paragraph (and referenced below) can tell us, if we let them, something about ourselves. If we let them, these stories can entertain us, give us comfort and inform our faith. If we let them, these stories can scare us, force us to retreat inward, and lash out against society. As a librarian and a parent my hope is that we can do the former even in the face of those who demonstrate the latter. And so dear readers9 the next time you read of a book challenge in your community think of these poor children whose intellects their parents hold in such low esteem. Phillip Pullman threatens their faith? Just wait until they start reading Nietzsche!

1 V., Thomas Pynchon
2 The Little Prince, Antoine De Saint-Exupery
3 Life of Pi, Yann Martel
4 II Kings, ch. 2 v. 23-25
5 The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis
6 Humor me on this one.
7 Follow this link at your own risk. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
8 Quoted in “Poet in the Machine: the inexhaustible Paul Valery”, Harper’s Magazine; Feb. 2004.
9 Yes, all 12 of you.


2 Responses to “Phillip Pullman threatens my faith (and other fables)”

  1. walter Says:

    Well put! We have become a society so concerned with “feeling good” that any hint of confrontation or argument cannot be taken in good faith as a means toward an end– knowledge, growth, larnin’! And, uh, I dunno… Mr. Osteen moves pretty fast!

  2. Banned Books Week | Literary Gibberish Says:

    [...] little fanfare and people actually checked out both Ulysses and Tropic of Cancer! The book about Gay Penguins stayed on the [...]

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