Responding to the “Golden Compass”

In the past couple of days, I received several e-mails that go something like this:

Warning to the parents, grandparents, kids and grandkids!
The Golden Compass, a movie coming out 7 December 2007 is a children’s movie based on a series of books with anti-religious themes written by Phillip Pullman, a Proud athiest.  The movie has been dumbed down to fool kids and their parents in the hope that they will buy his trilogy where in the end the children kill God and everyone can do as they please.  Nicole Kidman stars in the movie so it will probably be highly advertised. If you have children or grandchildren, please go to the Snopes site below and read their take on this movie before you purchase any of these books or allow your children to see the movie.  

Since I get far too much of this type of e-mail, most of which is involved in spreading half truths, I was tempted to delete this out of hand. But when several persons who normally don’t send this type of e-mail to me did so, then I decided it was time to take a look, and learn more about what is really happening.

Let me say here at the outset that I have not read any of the His Dark Materials books, and thus I am dependent on the opinions of others. However I have attempted to draw upon a variety of sources in forming some early opinions on the message above.  

There is no doubt that Phillip Pullman, the writer of the His Dark Materials trilogy from which The Golden Compass is taken, maintains a negativity toward religion, especially insitutionalized forms of religion. Some have suggested that Pullman’s work was intended to be a counter in opposition to the themes in the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (whom Pullman describes as racist and disparaging of women), however Pullman denies that as his intention. Pullman is disparaging of institutional religion, seeing the harm inflicted upon humanity in the name of God as invalidating all claims of those religions.

The Wikipedia article on the His Dark Materials series says the following:

Cynthia Grenier, in the Catholic Culture, has said: “In the world of Pullman, God Himself (the Authority) is a merciless tyrant, His Church is an instrument of oppression, and true heroism consists of overthrowing both.[10] Grenier fails to recognize that Pullman’s text states that the Authority is the first angel, rather than God. In Christianity, the first angel was Lucifer.

Pullman has, however, found support from other Christians, most notably Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who argues that Pullman’s attacks are focused on the constraints and dangers of dogmatism and the use of religion to oppress, not on Christianity itself.[11] Pullman himself has said in interviews and appearances[6][12] that his argument can be extended to all religions. The trilogy shows the downfall of the Kingdom of Heaven, a hierarchy under the control of the Authority and his regent. In its place is the task to build the Republic of Heaven.

The movie industry was not unaware of the controversy this series has generated when they began to create the movie adaptation of the first book in the series, The Golden Compass. As a result, there have been changes made in the story to remove some of the more offensive themes present in the books. As Wikipedia reports:

Several key themes of the novels, the rejection of organised religion and the abuse of power in a fictionalized Catholic Church, are to be diluted in the adaptation. Director Weitz said “in the books the Magisterium is a version of the Catholic Church gone wildly astray from its roots” but that the organisation portrayed in his film would not directly match that of Pullman’s books. In an attempt to avoid a religious backlash, the Magisterium will instead be a critique of all dogmatic organisations.[30] Weitz said that New Line Cinema had feared the story’s perceived anti-religious themes would make the film financially unviable in the US, and so religion and God will not be referenced directly. Attempting to reassure fans of the novels, Weitz said that religion would instead appear in euphemistic terms, yet the decision has been attacked by some fans,[31] anti-censorship groups, and the National Secular Society (of which Pullman is an honorary associate), which said ” they are taking the heart out of it, losing the point of it, castrating it”,[32] “this is part of a long-term problem over freedom of speech.” The changes from the novel have been present since Tom Stoppard’s rejected version of the script,[23] and Pullman himself believes the film will be “faithful”.[30]

So, what do we do with all of this? Here are a few ideas:

  1. We have to remember the experience of previous attempts to “fight” controversial movies and other media in public ways. What generally tends to happen is that the controversy does nothing but create a larger audience for the move simply out of curiousity. It is better to simply ignore and not participate in this movie event, using the power of the pocketbook to express our displeasure.
  2. While I don’t agree with Pullman’s conclusion that all religion should be rejected because of it’s extremes, we also have to recognize that critiques of the extremes of religious dogmatism are valid and necessary. That is, I believe, what Rowan Williams was trying to suggest in his comments. Religion in general, including Christianity, has indeed been involved in or complicit in many acts that were far from loving and were harmful to humanity. Those critiques are not easy to hear, in fact, they are painful and the desire to reject them outright is great, but they serve to remind us that we haven’t always been the ones wearing the white hats.
  3. Certainly, Mr. Pullman is seen in anti-religious circles as one who is bearing the torch for a movement against religion (sometimes known as the new atheism). This movement, led by folks like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, very much support Pullman’s themes and use his work to promote an agenda. Mr. Pullman’s own comments seem less dogmatic in his objections to religion, but we can’t ignore that the general tone of this work toward religion as we know it is negative.
  4. Thus, one should evaluate this movie and series of books with the same caution (critique) as any other book or movie. All books or movies have agendas. Sometimes they are clearer than at other times, but whether explicit or implicit all storytellers have an objective at some level. I am not sure that a movie or book that overtly pushes against the themes of faith is any more insidious than a movie that uses faith to promote consumerism, injustice, etc. Part of the task of life involves interpreting stories. Yes, we can choose to avoid certain stories in the belief that they are not edifying to our beliefs or well being, but we should never think that we can avoid “unGodly” stuff for we live in a society that at its core is opposed to the themes of Jesus.

I don’t know whether I will see this movie or not (knowing how often I actually get to the movies, I would imagine not). However, this controversy does offer a great opportunity to talk with one another and our kids about our faith, dealing with the critiques of that faith, and developing our own understandings about why we believe.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.