Mark Reads ‘The Amber Spyglass’: Chapter 6

In the sixth chapter of The Amber Spyglass, we learn of the Magisterium’s master plan regarding Lyra. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Amber Spyglass.

Welcome to week two of my reading of The Amber Spyglass in conjunction with!!! We are rapidly approaching the start of the very first contest I’ll be running, and this week’s new banner image is clue #2.

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As always, the same Spoiler Policy is in effect here on Mark Reads, but BridgeToTheStars is graciously hosting a spoilery discussion for this week’s worth of posts, including chapter summaries for chapters six through ten. Additionally, they are hosting a poll this week for you to predict my reaction to some event I am going to eventually read, as well as discussing the Church’s reach in Lyra’s world. This is a rad, unique opportunity to get more involved in the world of His Dark Materials if you’re a fan of the series! So please head over to BTTS to discuss this week’s posts without having to worry about spoilers.


At this point, I’m willing to accept that Philip Pullman is just going to tell this story from any narrative view that he goddamn pleases. I mean seriously: An entire chapter from the point of view of two characters inside the Magisterium that have never before been introduced. Pullman is clearly laughing at my futile attempts to predict or even anticipate his novel, and I can hear it all the way over here in Oakland.

What I adore about chapter six, aside from this new point of view, is the fact that we are given yet another variable in the war against the Authority, and it simultaneously doesn’t kill the tension of the story, nor does it feel too confusing or overwhelming. Yes, there is a lot that Pullman is asking us to remember and keep fresh in our minds, but this is all very manageable. (So far, that is.)

The elaboration on the inner workings of the Magisterium helps us to understand the complicated political situation brewing behind the scenes. I’d known there were different branches of the same Church, but here it’s spelled out that these different organizations, all under the banner of the Magisterium, are actually in a struggle for power. To me, though, this suggests that the Church is not nearly as powerful as it could be, and that’s why the end of this chapter terrifies me in a way.

But I’ll get to that in a second. We’re dropped straight into the middle of an interrogation of Fra Pavel in the Consistorial Court of Disciple; the court is interested in what information Fra Pavel can provide about the true nature of Lyra Belacqua. It’s also the first time we get to see just how well the Magisterium has built the fear of heresy into their followers. Even though Fra Pavel doesn’t seem to be one who would betray his loyalty to the Church, he still is set into a state of such horrific terror that his frog dæmon falls off the edge of the witness stand when he’s asked to be entirely honest about what he’s heard. It happens precisely when he describes the subtle knife to the court, and even if it’s true, he still can barely make the words come out of his mouth. It’s even worse when he states that Lyra is believed to be Eve in the repetition of the Fall, and one of the nuns sworn to silence gasps out loud.

Heresy wasn’t always my strong suit in my days as a Christian, and it seemed to get worse when I was a Catholic. I only heard the word “heretic” in passing growing up, and learned more about it from history and English classes in high school. But it wasn’t until I went through my Catholic conversion that the idea was truly drilled into me: There were things I could say, do, or think that were among the most offensive things to God, and the thing right at the top of that list? Loss or lack of faith. I think you can put two and two together, but I’ll spell it out: As a gay teenager who was in the closet and thought a conversion to Catholicism would make me straight, having that as the worst heresy one could commit was terrifying to me. It seemed that I lost faith those days on a weekly basis. Even worse, I was taught that even thinking a heretical thought was just as bad as the action itself. (SORRY. NO. IT IS NOT.) And once someone tells you not to think of something, it’s easy to imagine what went through my head time and time again.

I suppose committing apostasy (the complete renunciation of my religion and God) is really as bad as it gets. (Unless I converted to Judaism! How many other Catholics were taught that converting to Judaism was worse than becoming an atheist? My god, the anti-Semitism I was force-fed every week was horrible.) But even when I was trying with all my heart to believe in God, the mere idea of heresy seemed bizarre. How did the Church know every heretical act, even if they weren’t in the Bible? Was it possible for me to absolve a heretical sin or would it rest on some Heavenly Permanent Record to be judged after death? The truth is…I never found out. I probably had poor teachers, and I can admit that is a possibility, but I never was told any sort of definitive answer. I was told instead that I shouldn’t worry about it! My faith seemed strong to my teachers, so committing heresy was probably the last thing I would do.

Well, that didn’t really work out so well, did it?

Pullman addresses something else in this chapter that, like many things during my years as a Catholic, confused and bewildered me. We switch from a more observational narration to that of Hugh MacPhail, the President of the current Consistorial Court, who addresses his twelve fellow members of the Court in private about what they’ve learned and what must be done, from criticizing their laxity in allowing the Oblation Board to gain more power than themselves, to pursuing Will Parry in order to gain possession of the subtle knife. I was surprised, though, that President MacPhail actually states (rather genuinely) that the Court’s sole purpose is to destroy Dust, even if that means destroying every single agent or organization of the Church itself:

“But better a world with no Church and no Dust than a world where every day we have to struggle under the hideous burden of sin. Better a world purged of all that!”

Did this not make a tad bit of sense to some of you when you first read it? I’m confused, I must admit. What’s the point of everything without sin? Maybe I don’t fully believe that these men are willing to give up their power in order to “save” the world by bringing everyone back to Paradise. But how is this something they’d like to achieve? Do they actually believe that Paradise is perfection, where all are equal and there is no misery, famine, prejudice, or hatred, and that all live in some world where All Is Good? (Don’t answer that if it’s spoilery, FYI.)

I do understand the President’s next declaration, though, because the Magisterium has shown itself to be a brutal and horrific organization in the past: the President will send someone to kill Lyra before she can even be tempted. With no temptation, there is no fall from grace.

Pullman invents a rather ingenious method to criticize one of the main tenets of the Roman Catholic Church when he introduces the concept of preemptive absolution. Obviously, this is a work of fiction, but it’s one that exposes a key point about the act: If Reconciliation/Confession absolves a person of their sin, what leaves them to be accountable for that action here on Earth? Father Gomez, the youngest member of the Court present, almost brags about how much preemptive penance he’s done, and we learn that it is a process wherein a person can essentially save penance IN ADVANCE, allowing them to commit a sin in a state of pure grace.

Again, I don’t want to ignore that this is a fictional creation. It does not exist (to my knowledge) in any religion that I’m aware of. But as these men discuss the murder of Lyra in the most detached way imaginable, I realized what Pullman was doing here. He’s saying that absolution of sin is a way for people to absolve themselves of some responsibilities on earth. The absolution of sin for a Catholic is so ingrained in our teaching that most, if not all, of what I was trained for led up to the moment when I could finally perform the act of Confession. (One day I will publicly tell the story of that, but ohhhhh lord, not right now.) It is one of the most important acts as a Catholic Christian. One must repent your sins by naming them, and one must receiving penance for those in order to maintain that state of grace. In a way, at least how I was taught it, it was a way for one to wipe their own slate clean before God. Because we were all born with original sin, our lives existed in an almost constant state of temptation.

I remember one of my first questions to my Sunday school teachers regarding this concept focused on the idea of personal responsibility. If I confessed a sin, wouldn’t it not matter if I owned up to it outside of the confessional? Admittedly, my point confused my teacher, and she asked me to clarify, so I gave her an example: If I stole her wallet just now and then confessed it the next day, could I then refuse to take responsibility for it if she accused me of theft? I’d already worked things out with God, so why would what happens here on Earth matter?

I remember her dodging the question initially, telling me that I’d probably be found out, confession or not, and that I’d have to face the authorities for what I’d done, and no court would accept my act of penance as a legal one. All right, I countered, but couldn’t I technically get away with it and be fine with God if they didn’t catch me? What if stealing your wallet caused you to miss out on a job interview or you got fired because you didn’t have a bus pass and made it late to work? The whole time I could be right with God and it wouldn’t matter what happened to you. She replied with a line from the Gospel of Mark:

“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

And she left it at that. I didn’t understand it initially, but came to get that it was meant to explain that non-Christian authorities should still be obeyed if it was moral to do so. But it still didn’t satisfy my inquiry, and I think Pullman’s point here lays bare that problem: These people can do whatever they want as long as they attain a state of grace. I watched so many people in my parish act out this mantra in bizarre ways, doing terrible things to one another (and me, truthfully), but claim that they were “right” with God. And if Roman Catholicism is right, then I can’t even claim they were wrong about this.

Obviously, people interpret and utilize the sacrament of Penance in different ways and to put forth any sort of monolithic idea about how it is used would be downright silly. But the act does disturb me in a general sense, especially as I witnessed how it could be applied in a social or political setting. Where does the line fall when it comes to grace and personal accountability?

Pullman expands on this further in the section after the interrogation of one of the Bolvangar scientists, Dr. Cooper, who is given a chance to redeem himself by providing as much information as possible into what Lord Asriel’s research was trying to uncover. We witness Father MacPhail granting Father Gomez preemptive absolution for murdering Lyra at all. It’s still an unsettling concept and scene to me, and it’s made all the worse when we discover that Father Gomez is ordered to “follow the tempter,” who we know as Dr. Mary Malone, because she will lead him to Lyra. It’s all told in such a detached tone that I almost forgot that these are two men discussing (with a hopeful joy) the murder of a child in the name of God.

This is fucked up.

About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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155 Responses to Mark Reads ‘The Amber Spyglass’: Chapter 6

  1. JonT says:

    This idea of "pre-emptive absolution" is actually closer to eastern religions than the western ones shown in this trilogy.

    Sadhus believe they can store up tapas (tapasya/sacrfice) by starving themselves and doing other 'penance'. This gives them a certain store of mana that they then use to perform miracles incluing smiting demons. Now I'm not sure if they can use their mana to make karmic restituion for future sins, but tapasya can be sure as an absolution for past sins.

    However the whole concept of 'preemptive absolution' is meaningless in the context of a catholic-esque religion like the one escribed here. There is no penanace, there is no absolution without repentence, and planning to repent for something you're planning to do strikes me a pretty hypoctitical.

    I don't know if it's a case of Pullman failing his research or of him pointing out the hypocricy of religious people.

  2. Darth_Ember says:

    Yes, it is fucked up. I don't think just having any of our usual protagonists hear about it from afar would have had even remotely the same effect as getting to watch the whole bizarre and morbid mechanism of the Magisterium's judgement play itself out in front of us.

  3. Ryan Lohner says:

    One of the movie's rare improvements was an early introduction of Father Gomez (he's the one who tries to poison Asriel in place of the Master). Amber Spyglass is often criticized for introducing so many new and important characters in the series' last book, and I do see their point. But it is kind of an unavoidable consequence when you're dealing with parallel universes.

  4. Patsy says:

    I took an undergraduate exegesis course (a course on the historical rather than theological context of the New Testament and other early Christian writings) this summer and this was one of the aspects of Christianity that has most fascinated me. Paul made a big deal about Christians not having to convert to Judaism and follow the Jewish Law to follow Christ. Other early Christians, like Peter, claimed that Judaism was essential to follow Christ but Paul thought that that was nonsense; if the Law was enough for salvation, he argued, then why did Jesus have to come and die at all? He told his gentile followers that they were ABOVE the Law. This did not make them lawless, however. To Paul, all Christians had to follow the greatest and most stringent law of all: the law of love, as explained by Christ. If Christians truly loved each other and all non-Christians, then they could never break secular laws that were morally just (such as murder, theft, etc.) because it would be impossible for them to do so and be all-loving. In this way Paul considered Christians accountable to a higher, stricter law than non-Christians.
    That being said, it is clear that the Catholic method of absolutionism (and the historic indulgences) had no place in Paul's church. You could ask for forgiveness for sins, but that did not make you above the law (unless the law was morally unjust).
    (Sorry for the lecture but I found it all pretty fascinating.)

    • flootzavut says:

      I thought it was a great post, Patsy 🙂 interesting and informative. No apology (or penance ;)) necessary.

  5. Ryan Lohner says:

    The preemptive absolution might also reference the 14th century practice of making absolution in the form of a payment to the church, giving the impression that people could buy their way into Heaven, and one of the key factors in Martin Luther's break from the church.

  6. Michael says:

    I am not a Catholic, so I have never dealt personally with Confession, but I am a Christian, so perhaps I can try at least a little to answer the question Mark raises about God's forgiveness vs. responsibility here on Earth for your sins.

    To me, it seems like people who ask God for forgiveness from their sins then ignore the worldly consequences of those sins are trying to follow the 'letter of the law', with the law being the Bible and Christian teachings in general, but not the spirit. Faith isn't about finding the loopholes and ways to get saved at the least cost to yourself. It is about believing in God, following his teachings, and trying to be the best person you can be. So, yes–I suppose you could ask for forgiveness from God, and receive it without doing anything to make amends towards the person whose wallet you stole. But you would be continuing to lie to that person, even if it was a lie of omission. Simply put, if you confess to a sin with no intent to stop commiting that sin, or at least try to stop, how much actual remorse are you feeling towards it?

    God's grace is not a "get out of jail free" card. Christians are meant to do the best they can, and ask for God's forgiveness when they fail–after all, they are only human. A lot of people seem to miss out on the idea of trying, though, and skip straight towards forgiveness. I hope that made sense, I'm not an expert.

    • Becky_J_ says:

      I think this might be my favorite one so far!

    • Rainicorn says:

      Thanks for sharing these. I have the first paperback US edition, which I believe is the only edition without epigraphs. It was years after the book came out that I opened a different edition at a friend's house and found out that it had epigraphs!

    • monkeybutter says:

      This is one of those cases where I'm astonished that some editions don't include the epigraphs. They're so illuminating. Milton, and Pullman through him, are calling out those excesses of the Church. They're trifles, weightless and insignificant, in the grander moral scheme. I really like this one.

      • Jaya says:

        Yeah, the epigraphs are really great – and I always loved how they were presented in my edition (the ones that are scanned on BTTS), I have a typography thing, though.

        The epigraphs are often taken from things that inspired Pullman when he was writing His Dark Materials, and most of them are so apt! My favourites are yet to come.

        • flootzavut says:

          "I have a typography thing, though"

          Me too, so if it makes you feel any better…

          Fonts, languages, alphabets, paper, pens… I guess I'm just a writing geek…

          • theanagrace says:

            My friend and I were talking yesterday about our unfortunate addiction to stationery. As I bought a really cute leather bound notebook that will fit perfectly in my purse. I'll definitely use this one. For outlining my NaNoWriMo. It will definitely not get left unused somewhere in my apartment. Definitely.

            • flootzavut says:

              I keep journals, which is my excuse for the large pile of notebooks of all shapes and sizes in the draw under my bed. The fact that I use them a lot slower than I buy them IS NOT THE POINT!

              I remember going to a shop in Bath once which was just all kinds of paper of all shapes sizes and just anything you could imagine… *drool*

              I'm also a devotee of where it is frighteningly easy to spend money…

              • Jaya says:

                I looove paper. I get giddy if I go into Paperchase, but usually don't buy too much 'cause it's expensive and I'm poor/cheap.

                I did an architecture degree, so I tended to amass quite a lot of different types of paper…and pens…and pencils…and sketchbooks…and stamps…and knives…and compasses…. TOO MUCH STUFF, NOW HAVE CORNER OF MY ROOM FULL OF DIFFERENT ROLLS OF PAPER. Oops.

                I would maybe call myself an amateur typography…enthusiast 😛 I also love looking at stuff like the type/design of book covers (note: obvious love of books)…stay tuned for something related on BTTS that we have in a few weeks!

                • theanagrace says:

                  Mmmmmmm, fonts. I love pretty fonts, and attractive formatting. That's part of the reason I love the epigraphs you've been posting. (See? This is totally on topic!)

                  I have to restrain myself from going in to Staples and other stationery stores sometimes, because I really don't need coloured pencils, and sticky notes in every colour and shape, and really cool pens, and just. one. more. notebook! When I was in Italy 5 years ago, I had to be pulled out of a paper shop in Asissi, I managed to buy a teeny tiny (less than 1cm x 1.5cm) bound book with a beautiful swirly blue cover. Sigh, I wish I could go back there.

                  It's also partly why I love origami so much, and why I currently have a collection of (at least) 1500 miniature good-luck stars I've made at work. (It keeps my hands busy and me out of trouble)

    • IsabelArcher2 says:

      Lol. Winds. Milton loved him some winds. There is a surprising amount of focus on "winds" in Paradise Lost. Initially in Paradise, Adam and Eve had no "ill-winds," then after their fall, they get indigestion and produce some "winds". But, you know, Milton was crazy about a good diet; he thought that if you just ate temperately, you could avoid all manner of sins, especially lustful ones. Good times.

    • theanagrace says:

      Awesome, thanks again Jaya!

      OT: Jaya, do we have to log in to BTTS in order to vote in the poll?

    • flootzavut says:

      Fair play, Mr Pullman, excellent epigraphy!

      (I've no idea if epigraphy is a word, but it should be :p)

    • t09yavors says:

      Unrelated but I hear that Paradise Lost is becoming a movie next year.

  7. monkeybutter says:

    “But better a world with no Church and no Dust than a world where every day we have to struggle under the hideous burden of sin. Better a world purged of all that!”

    MacPhail's speech strikes me as "we had to destroy the village to save it" logic, which is to say, no logic at all, but an incredibly popular and somehow effective way of claiming moral superiority for your heinous actions. I don't think this is a spoiler because it was covered in the first book and you mentioned it in at least one review, but the removal of sin is also the removal of free will. You're right to wonder how on earth any of this is makes sense.

    Preemptive absolution is really unsettling, and I agree that Pullman is pointing out how the system of confession and absolution can be abused, especially when the Church IS the temporal authority. I think it actually comes up in Dante's Inferno, in which someone was promised absolution if he would give immoral counsel. I think a group of crusaders were absolved for their actions during the Crusades just because they had fought for the faith in the Crusades! That isn't unlike Father Guido's mission. And it's not that far removed from the practice of selling indulgences to allow people to avoid doing penance. There are no checks on what people do on the physical world as long as they're in line with the Church or Magisterium, and that's a bit frightening.

    As I picture MacPhail in my mind, he and Rufus Scrimgeour were separated at birth.

    • Jenny_M says:

      MacPhail's speech reminds me of the way that some people in government feel that they need to legislate morality, brought to its logical end.

      • monkeybutter says:

        I can see that. I also see "entitlement spending and taxes are so terrible that we must do everything in our power to eliminate them, even if it means tanking the world economy."

    • Hanah_banana says:

      Ah your point about Dante is exactly what I was going to say! Yeah in the last canto, in the very deepest circle of Hell there's a man who was told by Pope Boniface (whom Dante REALLY hated) that he could be granted preemptive absolution for giving false council in order that things would go Boniface's way during a war. It's just a concept that makes absolutely no sense if you have any grasp of the Bible at all – the point of achieving God's forgiveness is that you're sorry for what you're done. If you say sorry but do it anyway then a five year old could work out you're not really sorry. THE LOGIC, IT FAILS TOTALLY.

      • monkeybutter says:

        I love Dante's hate for Pope Boniface. I'm sorry I stole your comment, especially since you went into greater detail! The logic fail is terrible. If I say sorry and then punch you, it's totally okay, right? Ah, to have absolute spiritual and temporal power.

        • Hanah_banana says:

          Psht you didn't steal it, you were just quicker off the mark than me! You don't need it but it fits so well with what we're talking about that I will give you regular absolution for apologising after the event because that actually makes sense in a reasonable universe!

          Dante's hate for Boniface is one of my favourite things about Inferno. That and the contrapasso, because it's just so much fun. Actually what am I saying, I love the whole thing!

      • flootzavut says:


        (Go Dante!)

    • monkeybutter says:

      Argh, I had Inferno on the brain and called Father Gomez "Guido." I'm embarrassed. But that's who Dante was condemning for preemptive absolution.

    • hpfish13 says:

      His speech also reminds me of the Operative's philosophy in Serenity. He's trying to create a world without sin, and that includes a world without him in it.

  8. momigrator says:

    The idea of preemptive absolution was also seen in "The daVinci Code" which is another book loathed by Christians. The theme repeats as something seen in high offices of Catholocism and unknown to the lower members of the church. It's enough to wonder if this actually DOES exist and that they do all they can to ensure we don't discover this truth…

    • cait0716 says:

      The albino in The DaVinci Code is exactly where my mind went, too. I have problems with the books and movie, but the image of the albino flogging himself is pretty powerful and has stuck with me.

      • redheadedgirl says:

        The first problem with the books is that they are BADLY WRITTEN. And then they are BADLY RESEARCHED. And that BAD RESEARCH is then BADLY WRITTEN. I can respect bullshit, if it's well-written bullshit. Don't insult me with lines like "He had no idea that in 24 hours, that knowledge would save his life."

        …hello, Berserk Button.

        • Hanah_banana says:

          Foreshadowing, Dan Brown – I do not think it means what you think it means.

          I quite like his books for the comedy of reading them, but they are so badly written and researched and even more rage-inducing that he CLAIMS HIS POORLY RESEARCHED FACTS TO BE TRUE. Also the way Langdon teaches his class offends me as a student. Could a lecturer be more patronising? *sigh*

          I will stop this OT rant now 😛

          • flootzavut says:

            The funny thing about Langdon and how patronising he is to, well, EVERYONE, is that it's totally undermined by him failing to work out clues before the reader. I remember one instance in DVC where writing was clearly mirror writing, and that being something that, hello, it's known that da Vinci used, and it took Langdon flipping AGES. Way to make your "super-intelligent" hero look like he's actually a bit thick.

            • Well, to be fair, he is only a professor of symbology. Not like he's in semiotics or anything.

            • redheadedgirl says:

              Oh my god, thatw as one of my (many many many) complaints with The Lost Symbol. Langdon is whining about WHY DOES THIS SHIT ALWAYS HAPPEN TO MEEEEEEEEEEE when it's like, Langdon, dude, IT IS THE THIRD BOOK. You are THE GUY for THIS CRAP. Random symbology mystery? YOU'RE THE GUY. Please find yourself some Genre Awareness. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD PLEASE.


              • flootzavut says:


              • FlameRaven says:

                Hahaha. Yeah, I've only read the Da Vinci Code, which was interesting enough. Probably best I don't read any others if they're that similar though. I've been actively avoiding the "symbology" one because I heard there was epic fail at the Chinese characters used and didn't want to cringe the whole way through.

        • Jenny_M says:

          Heh. I got the most recent one a couple years ago for light reading on a car trip. About halfway through, I realized the "shocking twist" but assumed that I was supposed to get it because it was so badly forecast by the author. Then, a hundred pages later, it was revealed that SOMEONE was SOMEONE ELSE'S long lost son. And I was like…but…I thought we already knew that? When you pretty much spelled it out a hundred pages ago? No…no? Anyone…Bueller?

          In other news, I hate what Dan Brown has done to literature.

          • momigrator says:

            Ahahaha, yes, I completely agree about that!! It's like… really?? I mean, I expect to be able to figure things out way ahead of time in childrens books… but… for adult books, I mean, really?

            Which is why Harry Potter is AMAZING, because they are childrens books and no matter what foreshadowing Jo throws in, you still never figure things out until she wants you to. 😀

        • momigrator says:

          Bahahaha, yikes, didn't mean to induce any rage with my mention of that book. I only read it because the pastor at my church said that it was an evil book that Christians shouldn't read… Needless to say, I don't attend that church anymore, I never quite fit in with them. :p

          • redheadedgirl says:

            If my Pastor said "Don't read this, it is evil" that would have made me read it even faster.

          • flootzavut says:

            *laughs* see, I would recommend people not read it because it's a steaming pile of horse manure, not because it's "evil"…

    • flootzavut says:

      Speaking as a Christian, I loathe DVC because it is SO BADLY WRITTEN IT MAKES ME WANT TO TEAR MY EYES OUT. The fact that the research is appalling doesn't help either.

      Given those two factors, the fact that Dan Brown tries to use the book to say "Muahaha, you're all wrong and I shall undermine the church with my book" I found kinda comical in the end. I enjoyed it to read once just as a romp, but even then the manipulative writing and the painful errors in facts that it contained made me want to *headdesk* till it all stopped…

      • @DreamHonu says:

        I'm a Christian who once attended Rosslyn Chapel who professionally studies medieval literature, specialising in Arthuriana.

        I feel like DVC was written to spite me.

        • flootzavut says:

          Hah! lol

          Sadly I feel like Brown seriously thinks he wrote a clever and well researched book…

  9. TRVA says:

    For some reason the preemptive absolution always reminded me of this: back in days of heavier superstitions, whenever something bad happened to a person it was seen as punishment for some sin, and the sin could have been committed when the person was an infant. The fact that the person had no memory of committing that sin was immaterial, they still needed to repent for it.
    Preemptive absolution seems like the absolute inversion of that. The idea that someday you might sin, even if you have no idea what the sin could be, and that you could offset that eventual sin by doing preemptive penance.

    I grew up in both the Catholic and Presbyterian churches, went to sunday school in both and was confirmed in both. One of the things that I remember the Presbyterians making a point of was that (from their interpretation) the Catholic church preached that you could be saved through your works on earth, while the Presbyterians believed that you could only be saved through Gods grace.
    This always confused me because it seemed to imply that God might just take a liking to you, no matter how much of a jerk you were. Turns out there is old testament proof of this through the story of Jacob, son of Issac.

    On a side note, I never noticed any antisemitism at the Catholic church where I grew up, nor any glaring hypocrisy or pettiness on the part of the parishioners. The Presbyterian church I grew up in, however, was very anti-Catholic. This bothered and confused me, as the teachings of the two churches seemed so similar (and similarly nonsensical) to me.

    • plaidpants says:

      The comment about being saved by works on earth versus through Gods grace is how it was taught at my Catholic school as well. I believe this stems primarily from the issuance of indulgences, and how it was a major reason for Luther's breakaway from the Catholic Church – it would make sense that Protestants would want to stay far away from the idea that any earthly works could affect your ultimate salvation, particularly since it had resulted in so much corruption.

    • EmmylovesWho says:

      In the RC Church good works count, but they are not the only thing you need to be "saved". They don't as a stand alone get you into heaven. IIRC

    • Shanna says:

      Just on your last note there – I grew up Catholic too and went to Catholic school. Maybe I was just lucky to be around good people, but I never noticed any antisemitism. In fact my grade 9 religion class was all about Judaism, we didn't do any "Christian/Catholic" religion class in highschool until grade 10 (though we had some in elementary school of course). I have known some awful priests (one in particular) but more really great ones, most of which were deeply interested in understanding and learning about different religious beliefs – in particular Judaism. There is a Catholic college at the university here in my city – my friend is the IT guy there. They have a centre for interfaith discussions and learning – chiefly between Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

      My mom's family is Presbyterian and it was there that I felt a little out of place but only because the parishioners seemed quite anti-Catholic, at least to me as a 9 year old. My Gramma took me to a service there once and whispered over my head to her friend that I was "a Catholic" as if it was some dirty word. This bothered me too as I didn't see much difference between Catholicism and Presbyterianism…but don't tell my Presbyterian family that.

  10. cait0716 says:

    I know there will be a lot of discussion of the hypocrisy of religious power elsewhere in these comments. I have strong and not particularly well-informed opinions about this, so I want to focus on a slightly different thing.

    Mark has said before (numerous times) that he doesn't exactly like the trope of an unseen or invisible character spying on antagonists to get information. I think it's interesting that that is exactly what happens in this chapter, though we don't realize it until the very end. The Gallivespian has been spying on the goings on for the entire chapter, and is about to go report on this. But Pullman plays with that trope by inverting it, and it almost disappears in the process. I was kind of sad Mark didn't comment on this, though it's totally understandable given the content of this chapter.

    • xpanasonicyouthx says:

      Wait, IS it from the perspective of the Gallivespian the whole time??

      • cait0716 says:

        I don't think there's enough information to say yes or no. I chose to read it as from the POV of the Gallivespian, but I think it could go either way. If it has to be from the perspective of someone, I'd argue for him, because otherwise we wouldn't know he was there at all. I could just be grasping at straws, though.

  11. @sab39 says:

    Mark, are you reading the in-between-chapter bits with Roger?

    "Because you're Lyra."

    I choke up pretty much every single time I read that. It's been years since I first read the books and it never loses it's power.

  12. Becky_J_ says:

    Dear Lyra….. You are now being pursued by your power-seeking, God-warring father, who killed your best friend, as well as by two powerful arms of the Magisterium, who seems to control your world. This is all while being kept in a drugged sleep by your confusing, manipulative, seemingly evil mother, and the ony person who it seems can rescue you is a twelve year old boy who runs with sharp things.

    What I mean to say, Lyra, is good luck.

  13. Tonja says:

    I was an adult woman, engaged to be married when I began the year-long process of the Rite of Christan Initiation for Adults (RCIA). I was so charmed by the warmth and charity of everyone I met at church. We fed the homeless, aided those afflicted with addiction and supported those living and dying of AIDS. I remember having a discussion with our priest – one f many interviews that must be done before receiving the sacrament of marriage. They asked about children and I told them that I didn't think I could have them. This was a bit of a fib. Yes, I had survived cervical cancer, but the truth was I didn't want children and yes, it was something my fiancé and I had discussed and agreed upon. Our priest sort of glossed over it and said we merely needed to be "open" to children. In my head, I thought, sure, I'm open to children if they can get past multiple contraceptive methods and my fiance's future vasectomy.
    Years later, I had entered into a brief discussion with a priest who was a recent transplant in San Francisco. He was from Missouri or Indiana and he was a kind of Catholic I had never met before. He told me bluntly that without children, I did not have a Christian marriage. It was my first introduction to the wide world of Catholics who focus on other things than feeding and clothing the poor and helping their congregation to live good lives. It was quite a shock.
    Several more years later, when my husband had left and filed for divorce, I was advised by a priest to ask the Church for an annulment. I would simply need to perjure myself – claim to have coerced my husband into marriage & claim to know nothing of his sterilization – and pay $500 in a check payable to the archdiocese to render myself "never married". It would be as though those past 8 years never happened.
    Perhaps it goes without saying, I never went back. I ceased to be a Christian that day.

  14. arctic_hare says:

    Father McFail sure is a piece of work, eh? He and Father Gomez really creeped me out, though I think the latter gets the edge in the creep factor competition. The way he pretty much bragged about all the preemptive penance , and his visible religious fervor… brrrr. Chills down my spine.

    I was never brought up really religious myself; my mother's and her side of the family are Catholic, my father… no idea, actually, and I was never baptized or taken to church. We pretty much just observed Easter and Christmas in a fairly generic, nigh-secular way and I got told a couple Bible stories here and there. I've never felt any connection to Christianity, nor any need or desire to start getting into it. I've always found ancient mythologies far more interesting than any part of it. I consider myself an agnostic athiest these days, though no one in my family really knows as it's none of their business and I know it'd be reacted to pretty badly (as would my bisexuality). So I really have no view from the "inside", as it were, on this confession and absolution thing, but I WILL say the Magisterium's willingness to destroy themselves in order to make the world they want sounds completely plausible, stupid and nonsensical as it is. Look at what Republicans are doing to the US, after all. Sigh.

    (My sister, meanwhile, is a born-again Christian, and a particularly close-minded, judgmental bigot of one, as is her husband and his family, which means that family gatherings are often quite uncomfortable and/or infuriating given some of the awful conversations I've had to listen to. Thank goodness I don't often have to interact with the in-laws, who named one of their kids after Rush Limbaugh. UGH YOU CAN'T MAKE THIS SHIT UP.)

    Lyra better wake up soon and kick this guy's ass.

    • monkeybutter says:

      lol Rush Limbaugh? I can't. I'm sorry yet impressed that you endure family get-togethers with them.

      • xpanasonicyouthx says:

        i'm still shocked. CHRIST. Is it the full name?? Or just Rush???

        • arctic_hare says:

          Just Rush, as far as I know.

          BUT STILL.

          • monkeybutter says:

            I hope his (is it a he?) middle name is something like Rand or Reagan. It would make me absurdly happy.

            • arctic_hare says:

              Yeah, it's a guy. Fifteen year old. I actually have no idea what the middle name is. But that would be hilarious. xD

          • lossthief says:

            What would be funny is if he instead identifies with being named after the band Rush. Instead of politics, he'd constantly rant about how inherently wrong it is that they haven't been put in the Music Hall Of Fame yet!

    • flootzavut says:

      The creep factor of those two priests is off the charts.

      And I'm disturbed anyone would name a child after Rush Limbaugh. I have some good friends in Texas, who I like and admire and care for very much, but their politics?? Let's say, we don't see eye to eye… 😮

    • notemily says:

      LOL McFail. Not sure why that didn't occur to me until you pointed it out.

      Gomez is SUPER CREEPY. Ugh. He's like "oooh, pick me to do this murder!!" YOU ARE LIKE THE HERMIONE GRANGER OF EVIL.

  15. BradSmith5 says:

    So what was your confession for? That you enjoyed a few sentences in "Twilight?" Oh dear, Mark, I'm afraid that's going to require a full exorcism.

    I do like the way Pullman switches points of view. If Rowling was writing this we'd still be with Will, watching that angel bring him newspapers or something. Instead of the the past few chapters we'd get "Bear Mourns Friend: Eats Him" or "Church Sends Zealous Assassin!"

    Speaking of that, I'm getting sick of this "chosen one" stuff; I think it's such a lazy way to get antagonists to act. I mean, Lyra helped dethrone a BEAR KING. Isn't that by itself enough to make anyone try to stop her?

  16. plaidpants says:

    It always amazes me Mark when you speak about your own experience with Catholic schooling, just because mine was so different. Of course, I know that all Catholic schools are not the same across the country, and that my high school and college Catholicism was definitely more of the liberal brand (darn those Jesuits….), but still. It really saddens me that you had such an awful experience. For example, I clearly and explicitly remember my 7th grade science teacher explaining how she could be Catholic, believe in God and believe that God played a role in the creation of the universe, but still believe in Evolution. She rationally explained to us how believe in one did not necessitate the denial of the other.

    But anyway, we also would question our teacher about Confession. The favorite of course, was "what if you murdered someone, and you just went and confessed it to a Priest – you could just say your 10 "Hail Marys" and be completely absolved of your sin?"


    • plaidpants says:

      The way my teachers always explained it was that Confession was only reliable and only worked if you were truly repentant for what you had done. First of all, they almost always stated that, as part of your penance, the Priest would most likely require you to confess to the police what you had done. And if you were truly repentant for your actions, you would probably feel that need to confess anyway.

      So, in your example, if you stole your teachers wallet, and then went to Confession, but denied stealing it the next day, you clearly had not truly repented for your actions, because you would still be denying them and not taking responsibility for them the next day.

      But as always, that's just what I remember from Catholic grade school, so it could be completely inapplicable to what the church teaches today. 🙂

      • dbmacp says:

        Also, your denial would be a lie, and lying is a sin as well.

      • Kelly says:

        Yes! I grew up Catholic and went to Catholic school too, and although I no longer practice, I had some awesome teachers and priests who were really able to explain a lot of things. The way I was taught, there are four conditions to receiving absolution- first, that you confess your sins, second that you have a truly repentant heart, third that you have an intent to change your behavior and never commit those sins again (the Church recognizes that as imperfect humans, we might commit the same sins over and over, but the desire to change is key) and finally that you do penance for your sins. Now the cliche is, of course, to say some Hail Marys, but in the case of theft or murder, the priest does urge you to turn yourself in to the authorities because facing the punishments of secular authority is important too. If you try to avoid any kind of punishment, you're not fulfilling the last condition and you won't receive absolution.

        (Had an argument on this with someone a few weeks ago, he thought it was 'stupid' that Catholics believe you have to do penace for your sins and then looked pretty silly when I pointed out that's how the justice system works)

  17. Tilja says:

    First of all, let me give my unending thanks for posting the notice of the new weekly thread on BttS. If you hadn't directed so much attention to the forum, I wouldn't have gone there soon enough to see that I WON THE JULY CONTEST! I can't believe it! For the first time, I WIN at something! So THANK YOU FOREVER MARK!!!

    To your questions of faith, let me tell you that YES, you had VERY POOR teachers in your Catholic experience. I understand your point perfectly and can even find more than one way to explain the difference between religious and moral responsabilities, yet I never in my life attended mass. The way I see it, the people teaching you the doctrines were solely indoctrinated in drilling a point and never considering that the one they feed their ideas on is actually a human being who lives in the human society, controlled by human laws and regulations outside the control of the church, so they never learned to deal with the real world society. They were never taught to think for themselves in order to fasten their beliefs against all the bad things that happen in life, they simply repeat like parrots and that's the extent of their belief as well. You put this one against the wall, bravo! She didn't even have interpretations of her own to deal with the very real consequences of human actions. Good for you!

    As for what is correct and what is incorrect in ideas, there's actually no solution to that. It depends on personal belief to make some human reason or logic or ideal or belief into what's right and what's wrong. As human beings are far from ever knowing any heaven during their lifetimes, you can't actually say something is right or wrong to take you to a better or worse otherlife. No one has ever returned from there to tell us, and if they have, they're in a different plane we can't access because they are in that other life. So it all boils down to what you believe is right in your own heart. That's also the point of Father MacPhail's crusade, that to him that's the right way of thinking. I want to say more about him but I'll leave it for a more pertinent opportunity.

  18. theanagrace says:

    Okay, two things;
    1) If they are sending an assassin to kill Lyra before she can be tempted and fall, leading to a new fall from grace, does that mean they consider themselves already in a state of grace? Killing Lyra won't change anything except prevent the new fall, implying that they are currently in such a state that a fall is possible. The original fall resulted in Adam and Eve being cast out of Eden, but Lyra's world isn't perfect, and their machinations display their doubt in that perfection too. They still talk about being subject to original sin, so if Lyra falls, what will happen? They get Original Sin 2.0? Magisterium, I'm side-eyeing you so hard right now.

    2) Father McPhail tells the man from Bolvangar, Dr. Cooper, to ask the guards for anything he will need to remember what his colleague said. He even tells him to send for any instruments required in order to recreate it.
    "Your great task is to recall, and if necessary to rediscover, what he knew."
    Is he basically telling this man to start ripping children apart again?? o.O

  19. EmmylovesWho says:

    I think I despise Father Gomez more than Mrs. Coulter. He is awful.

  20. Brieana says:

    "What’s the point of everything without sin?"
    Yeah, I know. You wouldn't have the good things, and you wouldn't have the bad things. But you wouldn't have the good things either.
    I was brought up by a kind of passive morality where being a good person depended on what you avoided rather than what you accomplished. Had Adam and Eve not eaten the forbidden fruit, they probably wouldn't have accomplished anything, but according to passive morality that's preferable because they wouldn't have made any mistakes.
    "I was taught that even thinking a heretical thought was just as bad as the action itself. (SORRY. NO. IT IS NOT.)"
    I was taught that too, but not with heresy. I can kind of see where that comes from. A lot of us see attempted murder as almost as bad as actual murder, and emotional affairs are as bad as normal affairs even if nothing happened. But saying "don't even think about such and such" is a bit extreme. Also, I can see how justify murdering someone else because they already thought about it. I mean, if thinking it is as bad as doing it, you wouldn't be sinning any extra by carrying your thoughts out.

  21. t-town says:

    I have always found it strange that you were raised so strongly catholic. I’m supposed to be a catholic too ( baptised, that thing you do when you’re twelve to confirm it. ) but i don’t feel like it nor act like it. Nor do any of my friends, here ( western europe) it just fell all to pieces in the sixties. But it seems to me that where you come from, and a lot of other commenters too, christianity is something that goes much deeper, even in the generation that’s now in it’s twenties or those that still go to school. I find it a very interesting contrast. Not even my grandparents who go to church every week have ever said that me being gay was something unnatural, something against god.

  22. zulaihaha says:

    Reading this from a Muslim perspective is pretty fascinating, since there's no concept of original sin or preemptive penance in Islam. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but McPhail almost sounded like he was criticizing or accusing Eve when he was talking about Lyra falling just like Eve. Is that common in Christianity? Is Eve usually the one blamed? Just curious.

    Also, I miss Lyra, I wish she would wake up soon. Six chapters without her fierceness is too much!

    • Brieana says:

      "Is Eve usually the one blamed?"
      Lots of people blame Eve, usually when they're trying defend sexism. If you read the story, I think they're both equally guilty.

      • TRVA says:

        But Eve got an extra punishment for biting the apple, God made childbirth difficult and painful for her (and all subsequent women). As far as I can remember Adam doesn't get any extra punishment.
        I'm not saying this justifies any sexism in any way, but the story is phrased in a way that implies that God blamed Eve more than he blamed Adam.

        • t09yavors says:

          "the story is phrased in a way that implies that God blamed Eve more than he blamed Adam."

          I have also seen a version where Adam knew eating the fruit was bad and only did it because he didn't want Eve to suffer alone. Making Adam into a blameless and a very loyal husband.

        • Brieana says:

          I thought Adam's punishment was labor. I assumed that he was the breadwinner and she was a stay at home.

  23. pica_scribit says:

    You're right; your teachers did suck. What she should have told you is that you can only truly be absolved if you are truly sorry for the sin you committed, and if you didn't own up to your actions, return the wallet, and apologise, how sorry could you really be? I'm not even Catholic and even I know that much.

  24. tanzan says:

    Mark, I think you've said a few times that the "God" in these is Abrahamic? I probably going to have to disagree, because it is more than anything a Christian God.

    As much as Islam, Judaism and Christianity are very similar many of the underlying themes are really very different and I feel as if it would be better if you could use Christian when referring to God in HDM rather then Abrahamic.

    The issues that Phillip Pullman is trying to critique can't really be applied the other religions without losing a lot of its nuance. Also I wouldn't feel right if people did use these books in criticising Islam or Judaism not to mention hundreds of other religions because it would be wrong because different religions, different issues and you can't use such Western-centric issues where they aren't relevant?

    Just putting this out there.

  25. ChronicReader91 says:

    I’m beyond unqualified to comment on the religious/dogma aspect, as I’ve only ever set foot in a Catholic church on a couple of occasions, but have to agree: the concept of preemptive absolution is f*cked up. To me, though, the most disturbing part about is the fact that, even though the priests are committing murder, having preemptive absolution makes it “so much less troubling for the assassin to do it in a state of grace.” So, as long as there are no consequences for your soul, murder in NO BIG DEAL. It’s not that killing a child in cold blood is in and of itself a heinous act- it only is if it could result in getting YOU sent to hell. That, to me, is seriously fucked up.

  26. CRB says:

    Okay, now I just have to comment. I've been enjoying Mark Reads and Mark Watches for a while, but these reviews of His Dark Materials are making me really angry/frustrated… not at you though. Nor at Pullman, really, though I'm still not sure what I think of his expressed philosophy. No, what I'm most upset about is your memories of the Catholic church… it seems to be everything possible that I hate about it, and I say this as a Catholic and someone who rarely uses the word hate. Every theological point you bring up makes me want to scream that you've got completely the wrong idea, and then go hunt down the horrible people who called themselves Catholics and gave you these impressions. THIS IS WHY WE CAN'T HAVE NICE THINGS!

    So, I probably shouldn't go into a point-by-point rebuttal or anything, but… I just wanted to let you know that there are Catholics out there who don't believe a lot of that, and… I don't know, apologize? If that even works, since it wasn't me. To be honest, I've talked to a lot of priests/nuns/etc, and while half of them have encouraged me, been "impressed" and said the Catholic church was lucky to have me, the other half informed me in no uncertain terms that I wasn't Catholic, as if they knew more about my identity than I did.

    I'm also currently studying Judaism. As part of my Catholic faith. And backing up my sister's right to have a girlfriend in the family argument. As is my duty as her Confirmation sponsor, as well as her sister.

    Okay, sorry. /rant

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