Either side of faith's divide
Philip Pullman, the award-winning children's author, formed an unexpected bond with the Archbishop of Canterbury this week.
The Whitbread winner's His Dark Materials trilogy, now a stage hit, has been branded anti-Christian propaganda by critics.
The Catholic Herald condemned his work, which reverses Milton's tale of the war in heaven, as "fit for the bonfire".
But Archbishop Rowan Williams, who has recently seen the plays, said the tales of Lyra and Will could help address the "inadequacies" of some religious education courses.
The suggestion was applauded by Mr Pullman. He told The TES: "There is a body of people who think the Archbishop is a crazy liberal, or worse. He is a brave man not to give in to them.
"He is clearly going to say what his conscience and his mind lead him to say, rather than what is pleasing to people in his church."
Dr Williams's remarks were made this week in a private Downing Street address to religious leaders and academics hosted by Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Mr Pullman's trilogy has been seen as blasphemous by some Christian organisations, and the National Theatre's adaptation of the books for the stage, which opened last December, has come in for similar criticism.
But Mr Pullman, like Dr Williams, believes fiction has an important role in RE.
"Religion is something every society, every nation, every body of people throughout history has found necessary," he said.
"It's obviously something we need to teach about. But teaching about the humanist or secular perspective of things to help us cope with the great crises we face in life also makes perfect sense.
"His Dark Materials is not a work of philosophy or a sermon - it's a story.
But there is an important place for fiction when examining religion."
For example, he said, Classical drama could highlight the way in which the ancient Greeks used religion to tackle everyday moral crises. He suggested that his own novels could be studied alongside CS Lewis's Narnia series, which is heavily influenced by the Christian tradition.
He added: "Pupils could draw up a list of the moral qualities that each story holds in high regard, and what effect they have on the characters in the stories - though I'm not in the business of setting up the RE curriculum. It's bad enough having to write the books without having to teach them."
Dr Williams spoke about the recent proposals emerging from the Blairite think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research - that atheism should be taught in schools. He said sixth-formers should be taken to see the stage adaptation of the trilogy as a means of approaching the subject.
The Archbishop added: "The immense importance for religious education of serious exposure to the inner tensions of belief has to be granted. To see large school parties in the audience of the Pullman plays at the National Theatre is vastly encouraging.
"I only hope that teachers are equipped to tease out what in Pullman's world is and is not reflective of Christian teaching."
Philip Pullman will take part in a discussion with Dr Rowan Williams at the National Theatre on Monday March 15