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Essays
Topic Started: Aug 29 2008, 08:08 PM (1,045 Views)
JohnFaa
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I practising making essays.

This is one about His Dark Materials:

Introduction

Its very well known that His Dark Materials is a controversial triology. Basically, you ask a regular american christian about The Golden Compass, he/she will most likely say "its a satanical movie". That was the kind of answer a catholic friend of mine gave me, who sadly believes that His Dark Materials promote satanism and that God is killed and Satan helps (ironically, something akin to that does happen in the books; see below). However, one who reads the novels will obviously state that this is not true, and that the anti-christian themes of Philip Pullman's fantasy world are exaggerations made by the church, which keeps itself being runned by close minded bigots. But, after all, is there any slight bit of truth in those claims? Is the author actually preaching a message? Of course, to answer such questions might must read the books carefully, and analise the smallest chunks of allegory and symbolism in the ocean of words that is one of the world's most successfull fantasy stories.

Philip Pullman and Paradise Lost

The series was written by a person that is considered "one of Britain's most dangerous writers": Philip Pullman. An atheist and agnostic, he seems to be the perfect candidate to make a fantasy story like no other; one to question theology, instead of accepting it as the bearer of truth. His connection with the church started when he was young, as his grandfather was an anglican priest. Around the time he spent with him he also discovered John Milton's Paradise Lost, an epic poem that basically tells the history of mankind as depicted in the Bible, and some even see His Dark Materials as a retelling of it. However, Pullman's original intention wasn't that:

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I began with the idea of a little girl hiding somewhere she shouldn't be, overhearing something she shouldn't hear. I didn't know then who she was, where she was, or what she overheard. I just started writing. Before too long I realised I was telling a story which would serve as a vehicle for exploring things which I had been thinking about over the years. Lyra came to me at the right stage of my life.


Eventually, Pullman decided to turn this at first "innocent" children story into something deeper, with several layers of philosophy, and Paradise Lost became therefore the main inspiration source for the following events in the triology. In fact, one can very well tell that His Dark Materials is a recasting and inversion of Paradise Lost; the series starts in a world akin to the modern one, and where the church is a ruling power. Later, the great war between the two opposite powers - those in the side of God and those who are opressed - occurs throw most of the second and third books, and finally we have the scene of the Second Fall, and the result is a world where the church no longer helds the ultimate power.

The very own name of the triology also owns to Paradise Lost its title; originally, Mr. Pullman decided to name the triology "The Golden Compasses", a reference to the compasses God used to shape the world, according to John Milton's epic poem (this later led to the american name for the first book, as the publisher thought the author was refering to the alethiometer, the compass-like magic device). However, His Dark Materials was eventually used, after a quote in the Book II:

Quote:
 
Into this wilde Abyss,
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixt
Confus'dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th' Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds,
Into this wilde Abyss the warie fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look'd a while,
Pondering his Voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross.


The name, as a whole, is in fact quite apropriate; after all, Dust, the fictional particle that acts as the engine for the plot, is in fact dark matter. "His" could be a reference to God, who's also in the center of the storyline, or to Lord Asriel, who was the first character to mention Dust in the books.

The Three Tools

Originally, The Golden Compass's title wasn't a reference to the alethiometer, but eventually its now usually atributed to the object the name of the book's title. Indeed, the author does describe it as being compass like:

Quote:
 
It was very like a clock, or a compass, for there were hands pointing to places around the dial, but instead of the hours or the points of the compass there were several little pictures, each of them painted with the finest and slenderest sable brush.


The name "alethiometer", as also stated in the book, comes from the greek word "alètheia", truth, and "meter", so it literally means "truth measure". "Measuring the truth", though, its perhaps not to best term for what the alethiometer actually does; it tells the truth, by pointing at several of the symbols at a time. Since each symbols has a potentially endless number of meanings, reading it is an extremely complex art few of which few people managed to be capable of; even those that spent their entire lifetime doing it still needed books and other references in order to make a proper reading (an exception to the rule was, obviously, Lyra Belacqua, who managed to read it very well until the end of the triology). In the time the six alethiometers were build, symbology was appearently very important, and at the time reading it would had been much more easy, before many symbols had lost their meaning; this is probably a reference to the Renaissance, when symbology was also considerably more important than nowdays. Soonly after the making of six of these devices, though, the Magisterium destroyed four of them, presumably afraid that it possesed satanical powers; however, they kept one for themselves (which is a reference to the religious hypocrisy often shown by the church), and somehow another escaped destruction and ended up in Lord Asriel's hands, which later passed to Jordan College Master's, and eventually he gave it to Lyra. The presence of at least one more alethiometer (the one used by the Republic of Heaven's alethiometrist), though, seem to contradict this statement, unless alethiometers were also build in other worlds. The alethiometer is compared with at least two other instruments: the Crookes Radiometer and the I Ching book. The first is used by Lyra as a possible example how Dust interacts with it, while the later is another truth telling object, which presumably works in the same way with Dust as the golden compass does (see the section about Dust).

The second of the tools, the subtle knife, is also a very important tool. One of its name, Æsahættr, means "God killer" (technically it means "threats to the gods"; the prefix "Æs" is derieved from the norse word for one of the two groups of gods, the Æsir [the other is the Vanir], and was later used by the author as the norse name for God), and the other, teleutaia makhaira, means "lattermost sword" in ancient greek ("makhaira" is in fact is a term used by the Koine Greek in the New Testament to describe any generic sword). Like these names suggest, the knife is very destructive, as it causes Dust to leave the world when it opens a window. How the philosophers of Torre degli Angeli managed to produce such weapon is difficult to understand; however, it is said that the one of the blades (the "normal" blade) is made of steel, while the blade capable of opening windows is made of an unknown metal; a similar "unknown metal" is mentioned to be in the blade used for intercision, which is made of the same material in Lord Asriel's special film stock (which allowed him to film Dust), and on the bark of the trees used by Mary Malone to make the amber spyglass, so one can assume that the blade is made of this metal. The fact that the knife breaks when someone thinks about his/her loved one seems to suggest that not even the "God killer" can cut throw such a strong emotion as love, which is depicted in His Dark Materials more like a natural sensation felt even by matter itself, rather than a biological need.

The final of the tools to appear, the amber spyglass, is the most recent of them all; unlike the previous two, made about 300 hundred years ago (when a mysterious event caused a radiation of enlightment in both our, Cittagàzze's and Lyra's worlds, as well as a decline of the pod trees on the mulefa's one), the tool throw which Mary Malone discovers the potentially grimm fate of Dust and mankind was made during the events of the last book. The lens, amber in color, were made from the sap of the plants of the mulefa's world, which appearently contain small quantities of the "mysterious metal", also present on Lord Asriel's film stock, which allows human beings to see Dust. Since each of the three tools is connected with Dust (one interacts with it in order to answer all questions, other is the cause of its destruction and the third allows to see it), the source of consciousness, one could see them as "unholy" objects, in oposition to the Saint Grail and other holy relics. The fact that they are three (at least until the destruction of the subtle knife) also gives the sensation of them being a trinity, a concept deeply rooted in christianity.

Daemons: guardian angels or tempting demons?

One of His Dark Materials most important and charming concepts is the daemon: an animal spirit that each human has and that ultimately acts as his/her life companion. Since they guide and provide company to their humans throw their lives, one could compare them to the guardian angels from the christian tradition, and indeed many people are delighted by the idea of having an animal companion. However, what may seem like an unique fantasy concept (after all, no other fantasy series has anything akin to daemons) is actually far more complex than that.

To start, the very own word used to name them is suggestive. "Daemon" is an old word for demon; in fact, both words are pronounced in the same way. In John Milton's Paradise Lost, the stronghold of the fallen angels is called "Pandaemonium", "all daemons" ("pan" is a prefix that represents the word "all". Examples: Pangaea, "all Earth"; Pantalaimon, "all forgiving"). The fact that daemons atract Dust to us after they settle also suggests their connection with the demons; after all, in the abrahamic religions demons are responsible for those "troubling" things like questioning faith and sexual feelings. Therefore daemons are the mixture of two spiritual entities: the guardian angel and the demon.

The concept of daemon-like beings is also not really new. The norse had the fylgia, the aztecs had the naguals, and the witches have the familiars; all of these are animal spirits that serve as life companions for human beings. The fact that daemons are usually of the oposite sex of their humans also resembles the concept of an anima/animus; that is, that each person has both male and female natures. A similar concept was created by the greek philosopher Plato.

As stated often, the settled form of a daemon reflects the personality of his/her human; people with dog daemons are always servants. Its perhaps not surprising that many of the characters in His Dark Materials have daemons with the form of animals that are symbolic in christianity. Lord Asriel's daemon, Stelmaria, has the form of a snow leopard; in general, leopards (as well as pratically any feline aside from the lion and possibly also the cheetah) are associated with the Devil. Mrs. Coulter's daemon, the golden monkey, also has a dark meaning; despiste being often associated with curiosity, monkeys are also associated with Satan; since Marisa was once a member of the church, this is very ironic. The pine marten (Pantalaimon's settled form) is more symbolic in paganism (as its natural range in northern Europe prevented it from becoming a traditional christian symbol), as a symbol of gracefullness. The cat, Kirjava's form, has obvious satanical connections, while the alpine cough, Mary Malone's daemon's form, is notable for being Satan's last form in Paradise Lost. And we have obviously Lord Boreal's daemon, the serpent, which is needless to say associated with sin and the demons; many members of the church also have daemons associated with sin, such as Father Gomez's beetle daemon. Other daemons, like Serafina Pekkala's Kaisa and Lee Scoresby's Hester, don't seem to have a very important symbolic role, at least not revelant to the plot.

The creatures of His Dark Materials

Like any fantasy series, His Dark Materials has fictional creatures. Like in The Chronicles of Narnia, some of them come from the mythology; in the world of the dead, we have both harpies and a boatman (not named in the novel but usually called Charon in the greek mythology), all of them greek underworld deities (their exact nature in His Dark Materials is a matter of speculation; they seem to be ancient, imortal beings like the angels, although quite unlike them). The gallivespians, on the other hand, resemble the several small, hominoid creatures found everywhere in literature and myths, like dwarves and hobbits; the winged cliff ghasts look like several flying monsters present in legends around the world, like the kongamato in Africa. And we have, of course, those which came from the author's imagination; the mulefa, for instance. Despiste their similarities with our world's hooved mammals they are completly unique, both because of their unusual leg design and because they are sentient; it seems that Philip Pullman is making a reference to the fact that not all sentient beings need to be human-like.

However, of all creatures in Philip Pullman's novels, the panserbjørne are the most notable ones. The idea of a massive, armoured sentient polar bear has certainly no parallel in the fantasy literature; neither does in the mythology of any culture. Bears, however, do have an important role in the european culture. The celts and other tribal people of Europe saw the bear as a respectable beast; there's even evidence of bear worshiping before the roman empire, and even after its expansion the bear was still considered a very powerfull animal; indeed, even worth to be placed in arenas to fight against other animals and gladiators, something that caused the extinction of the Atlas bear, the only known african bear specie. Eventually, the status of the bear as the king of the beasts came to its end when christianity spread across Europe, being ultimately replaced by the lion, an animal that symbolizes that religion, and the bear was then considered just another animal associated with satanism; in the north, however, the vikings still view the bear in the same way as the celts did. The fact that the lion was a christian symbol certainly led C.S. Lewis to make his famous character, Aslan, while the association of the bear with paganism might had inspired Philip Pullman to create Iorek Byrnison. The contrast between the two characters can be observed by anyone who read both fantasy series, as their personalities and the way how they interact with the main characters differs considerably; Aslan is a peacefull, calm father figure, who yet is always absent unless in times of need (which resembles the relationship that christians have with Jesus), while Iorek is a violent force of nature, but yet friendly to those he loves. In general, the way how armoured bears are is particularly interesting; most talking animals have personalities similar to those of humans, which helps people to identify themselves with such characters; the panserbjørne still have traits considered "human", such as the ability to feel love, but they are much closer to real bears in terms of behaviour and personality, since they don't mind being alone and they have no gods, nor any philosophical thoughts nor doubts. The fact that they "can't be fooled" is probably a way of Philip Pullman telling us that humans were in fact fooled by creating religions and not remaining true to themselves, unlike the bears; however, as demonstrated by Iofur Raknison/Ragnar Sturlosson and Iorek Byrnison, armoured bears are in the way of becoming like us.

God, Dust and philosophy

The reason why His Dark Materials has been considered satanical is due to its portrayal of the christian God; named "The Authority" in the books, he was the first angel to appear, not the creator of the universe (although one could exist or had existed; see below), and as such weak as humans and also mortal, unlike the almighty figure depicted in the bible. He called himself many names in order to show his authority, and he is in fact the dominant deity in all the monotheistic religions, as Balthamos said in The Amber Spyglass:

Quote:
 
The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Jehovah, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty – those were all names he gave himself. He was never the creator. He was an angel like ourselves – the first angel, true, the most powerful, but he was formed of Dust as we are, and Dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself. Matter loves matter. It seeks to know more about itself, and Dust is formed. The first angels condensed out of Dust, and the Authority was the first of them all. He told those who came after him that he had created them, but it was a lie.


Having been born first though, he successfully managed to trick the angels that came after him into thinking that he was the creator, or so he thought; the angel Xaphania discovered who in fact he relly was, and was banned, which later resulted in a cosmic war. Because of this, Xaphania is the first of the fallen angels: Satan. The failure at winning the war made the fallen angels try to gain allies by making the first humans and other beings like the mulefa and the armoured bears sentient, by making them being in contact with Dust and gain souls, like the daemons for human beings, the wheels for the mulefa and the armours for the bears; that event is known as the Fall.

Quote:
 
[Dæmon’s are] an aspect of our personality, which in Lyra's world, has become visible. Now, in my myth that I was writing, the daemon is conceived of as being the gift of the rebel angels. Now, in the course of the myth, the rebel angels are on the side of right and decency and goodness and consciousness, and all these things.

[T]he rebel angels... gave to the beings in each world who were evolving, a gift that would help them understand themselves and become wise. In some worlds, they gave them a daemon. In other worlds they gave them... the gift of riding on wheels. n each case you see, what it does, this gift is to help one achieve wisdom. Wisdom, which is the sort of natural status of life and consciousness, towards which we move almost gravitationally.

Philip Pullman, BBC Radio 3: 'Belief' programmer interview


The attempt of the fallen angels to gain allies, however, was noticed by The Authority, who later created religion in order to keep humans in their place, and in the addition he made the world of the dead, where the ghosts of all sentient beings go (how he made the world is also difficult to understand; most likely he just used an already existent one. How the ghosts end up there is no mystery though, as he most likely was the responsible for the creation of the deaths). Jesus is not mentioned anywhere in the books except during a brief conversation with Mary Malone, which most likely means he's probably a mythical figure.

While The Authority is not the creator of the multiverse, there is reason to think there couldn't had been one. In fact, the origins of the universes in His Dark Materials are not mentioned; that way, the reader can imagine whatever he/she desires. However, if there's any true god-like figure in His Dark Materials, that one can be Dust. Being a type of dark matter, Dust is an elementary particle; however, unlike any ordinary particle, it is conscious. In fact, this particular quotation (when Dust typed on Mary Malone's special computer, The Cave) explains the nature of Dust:

Quote:
 
FROM WHAT WE ARE, SPIRIT; FROM WHAT WE DO, MATTER. MATTER AND SPIRIT ARE ONE.


This means Dust, while it is a particle, its far more than that. It doesn't even seem to be as limitated to the many laws of physics as other elementary particles are, for they form when matter becomes conscious, and when conscient beings reflect and think. Dust is a type of dark matter, the first original matter in the universe, from which everything else came into being, and the angels condense out of it; this traits remind of the fact that God created the universe and his angels are extensions of himself in the bible. Furthermore, Dust is "everywhere", again a reference to God's omnipresent nature. However, unlike God, Dust is associated with sin, as it makes humans and other beings conscious.

His Dark Materials is notable for being one of the few if not even the only fantasy series to not have a clear distinction between good and evil; no villains in the story are evil overlords akin to Sauron, and none of the heros are saints. For instance, Lord Asriel tries to save the world from the opression of the church, but he does everything to achieve his ultimate goal, including killing Lyra's friend Roger. And the church does try to do what they consider to be best for the world, even though they are making things much worse. Still, the actions that the characters do are considered good or evil:

Quote:
 
“I think what they do is evil. I seen them do it. So what is it, Shadows? Is it good, evil, or what?” Dr Malone rubbed her face and made her cheeks even redder than they were. “Everything about this is embarrassing”, she said. “D’you know how embarrassing it is to mention good and evil in a scientific laboratory? Have you any idea? One of the reasons I became a scientist was not to have to think about that kind of thing.” “You got to think about it”, said Lyra severely. “You can’t investigate Shadows, Dust, whatever it is, without thinking about that kind of thing, good and evil and such”


Conclusion

As a whole, His Dark Materials is a very complex triology, which, unlike other fantasy series, its not just a battle between good and evil, but display of many layers of meaning and life philosophy. It's main message its not that christianity is bad, but about growing up and how consciousness affects us, as well as to live our life as best as we can. In that aspect, this is not a simple fantasy series.

Quote:
 
I have said that His Dark Materials is not fantasy but stark realism, and my reason for this is to emphasise what I think is an important aspect of the story, namely the fact that it is realistic, in psychological terms. I deal with matters that might normally be encountered in works of realism, such as adolescence, sexuality, and so on; and they are the main subject matter of the story – the fantasy (which, of course, is there: no-one but a fool would think I meant there is no fantasy in the books at all) is there to support and embody them, not for its own sake.

Dæmons, for example, might otherwise be only a meaningless decoration, adding nothing to the story: but I use them to embody and picture some truths about human personality which I couldn't picture so easily without them. I'm trying to write a book about what it means to be human, to grow up, to suffer and learn. My quarrel with much (not all) fantasy is it has this marvelous toolbox and does nothing with it except construct shoot-em-up games. Why shouldn't a work of fantasy be as truthful and profound about becoming an adult human being as the work of George Eliot or Jane Austen?

Philip Pullman, ACHUKA interview
Edited by JohnFaa, Aug 30 2008, 01:44 PM.
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Cephylus
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One of my favorite book series. Read it over and over....
Coincidentially a teacher at a Catholic church summer camp (a shit of a place) a few years ago, denounced the books as 'terrible heap of ungrateful ideas'....

Quote:
 
Eventually, the status of the bear as the king of the beasts came to its end when christianity spread across Europe, being ultimately replaced by the lion, an animal that symbolizes that religion, and the bear was then considered just another animal associated with satanism; in the north, however, the vikings still view the bear in the same way as the celts did. The fact that the lion was a christian symbol certainly led C.S. Lewis to make his famous character, Aslan, while the association of the bear with paganism might had inspired Philip Pullman to create Iorek Byrnison.


I suspected as much....

Nice essay! Again, good subject....
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JohnFaa
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Thanks for liking :)
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seascorpion
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Why Can't I Hold All These Mongols?

I greatly enjoyed HDM, but you seem to really like this series, a lot.
But i can't talk as i am completely obsessed with the works of Alan Moore. Watchmen, V for Vendetta, From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Love them all, they have a seperate shelf on my book-shelf.
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Space Gorilla
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John, I get the same reaction about Harry Potter, even freaking Digimon. They are all satanic and promote satanism.
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JohnFaa
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Curiously, Pullman himself was disappointed that his series was far less criticised than Harry Potter; he was flying under the radar with a story in which Yahweh is evil, while poor J.K. Rowling had to endure christian imbeciles who hate wizards.
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seascorpion
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Why Can't I Hold All These Mongols?

but everyone already knows yahweh is evil, especially the christians, they read the bible most after all. what they didn't know was wizards all go to a single regulated school for the entire nation, which means that the entire population will get equal education oppurtunities, regardless of class. something which is obviously wrong, without a certain group of people having most or all power, we will all be equal bastards and therefore communist. Or maybe christians just don't like the fact that the novels graphicly describe harry gripping his 'wand' in his pocket whenever he feels helpless or is in a serious situation, i don't know
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Zoroaster
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A few hundred years before the reformation, before Luther nailed his pamphlet to the door - in Bohemia (Bexi's territory ?) - there was a protestant movement...

How were they protestant and "heretical"? They demanded the laeity (i.e. common uneducated folk) also celebrate mass and receive communion!

How dare they!

Yes it's hard to believe, but millions of peasants died in endless serfdom, never to be offered redemption, whilst only the educated and the nobility were "wise" enough to understand the thinly veiled cannibalism that is Holy Communion.

The pope quickly sent some legions of Italian soldiers to Bohemia to quash such a blasphemy as the common folk understanding transusbstantiation, redemption, sin.

I may sound cynical, I was raised a Catholic (back then Australia was fairly secular, but still predominantly protestant), but those nuns were such sadistic tyrannical Nazis, I started having heretical thoughts from about the age of 6!
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Space Gorilla
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I was raised as orthodox christian, with parents ultra conservative in terms of religion, one cannot expect anything less.

Let's just say ... I stopped believing in God before I stopped believing in Santa Claus. Thanks to their indoctrination.

Though today, I still find myself between atheism and agnosticism. Not sure why.

And the Harry Potter books were banned for some time here, because they were considered teaching young kids witchcraft and satanism. Because of the spells, wizardry etc.

They did the same with Digimon. They thought its teaching kids how to "summon demons".

I never say any logic behind this, but when you remember that you live in a country predominantly orthodox christian, than you somewhat understand why they would think that way.
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Cephylus
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I got something against christianity ever since I went to a stupid Church Summer Camp. Sadly Korea is home to many fanatics. We have the 5 biggest churches in the world. We have at LEAST 5 churches in our small city. One church I saw had a theatre and a shopping mall.

I CAN understand why some christians (the retarded fanatical ones) have such a thing against magic and stuff, but it's still PLAIN STUPID. Really. Banning Pokemon for summoning demons and Harry Potter series for witchcraft and dark magic is just stupid. This isn't the Middle Ages.
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Bexi
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thats sad,i expected some of the east philosohy-religion as dominant in the South korea
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JohnFaa
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Its sad that harmless things are banned because some imbeciles think Satan hides in Pikachu. Good ol' queen Ranavalona of Madagascar had probably the only sensible option in the face of malagasy christians.
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lamna
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I always thought T. C. Stood for top cat.

In South Korea, Christianity is very strong. They've come up with a few quirky versions off it themselves too.
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seascorpion
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Why Can't I Hold All These Mongols?

Well, we all know that christians can be batsh*t insane occasionly. but so can athiests and just about everyone else.
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Holben
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Will of the People

Impossible!

Anyway, if you're a member of one denomination, are all others going to hell?
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