Finally getting around to reading Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (I hate to admit that it took the movie ads to prod me into reading the book), I have been surprised by the depth of the story. Spoiler warning! From the very first chapter I have been pondering what dust might be, and I have just discovered that it is Pullman’s metaphor for original sin. In the chapter where this is finally revealed to the protagonist, Lyra, her father reads an explanatory passage from Genesis 3 (somewhat altered). Indeed, dust drives the plot of the story.
Pullman’s treatment of the topic once again throws into relief a popular, but mistaken, concept. “Original sin” is simply not a biblical idea. Nowhere in either the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Scriptures does the text suggest that people are born with the taint of a physical liability passed on from the first human coupling, as Augustine hypothesized. In fact, the Bible hosts several potential explanations for the origins of human troubles. One solution that it never reaches is a genetic passing on of an original sin.
Tradition often makes Scripture into its own image. Ideas are inevitably read back into the story and a chimera of hazy concepts emerges. Pullman’s treatment of the human condition is to be applauded, and to his credit he does not attribute the concept of original sin directly to the Bible. Although he alters the text a bit he doesn’t add this most damaging concept to it. The belief that people are inherently defective has allowed for some of the worst crimes imaginable against our species. As a concept original sin is dust in the wind.