Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Archbishop and the Atheist Struggle to Disagree; REVIEW

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Archbishop and the Atheist Struggle to Disagree; REVIEW

Article excerpt


THEY came for a catfight; what they got was as near as dammit to a medieval disputation - though much less rude than that.

The audience at the National Theatre could be entitled to feel a bit aggrieved at the public conversation last night between Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Philip Pullman, the children's author.

Pullman is a pugnacious atheist.

The highlight of his trilogy, His Dark Materials, staged at the National recently, is the death of God, or, as he calls it, the Authority. You might have expected that there would be at least a showdown between the two of them, even if name-calling was too much to hope for. Not a bit of it.

The whole thing was an orgy of mutual approbation. The two men solicited each other's views, nodded agreement at each other's penetrating insights and ended positively beaming at each other.

In between, you got the kind of literate and unselfconsciously intellectual conversation that people are probably used to in France. Williams threw into the discussion the Welsh poets, David Jones and RS Thomas, the theologian Von Hugel and Milton.

Pullman brought up the Gnostics and Wordsworth.

It wasn't as if the audience wasn't willing the two of them to get on with the fist fight.

Whenever one of them said anything robust enough to sound partisan - as when Pullman threw in a loaded reference to Mel Gibson's film The Passion Of The Christ - his bit of the packed house clapped enthusiastically.

But then concord would break out again on stage.

It all started promisingly enough, when Williams asked Pullman why Christ did not feature in his trilogy, and what, exactly, did he mean by the Authority? Pullman did his best to explain that he saw Christ as more of a figure of wisdom, whereas the God figure in his book was simply the oldest and most authoritarian figure in the universe. …

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