Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Golden Compass

In a previous post I indicated that atheism is "in." So as the Evangelicals discovered the power of popular paperbacks and the appeal of the 'big screen' to further their views, we should not be surprised if agnostics and atheists utilize the same resources. In December of this year a new movie is scheduled to hit the theaters which is based on the first volume in a children's book trilogy by British author Philip Pullman, who has won prizes in the UK for his children's literature. By his own admission, Pullman is a non-believer and an atheist, although he seems to leave the door open for a slim possibillity. He states:

"I don't know whether there's a God or not. Nobody does, no matter what they say. I think it's perfectly possible to explain how the universe came about without bringing God into it, but I don't know everything, and there may well be a God somewhere, hiding away.
Actually, if he is keeping out of sight, it's because he's ashamed of his followers and all the cruelty and ignorance they're responsible for promoting in his name. If I were him, I'd want nothing to do with them." The article from which this interview came can be found here.

A write up can be found on Snopes.com which summarizes the concerns Christians have been voicing about the movie, the author, and the seeming intent to sell the more explicit books to unsuspecting parents and children at Christmastime. Nicole Kidman will be a featured star in the movie, so there is no doubt that it will have sufficient draw.

While many Christians appear to be quite alarmed by the movie and books, Dr. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, actually supports and endorses the movie. He believes that it is not anti-Christian, as such, but rather anti-dogmatic or anti-control, issues that need to be addressed in the church. You can read the transcript of an interview the archbishop had with Pullman on the Telegraph.com.uk. The archbishop engages in a very friendly discussion with Pullman, and although Pullman is a humanist and atheist, the two actually have much common ground. As is the case with many Christian leaders today, the archbishop obviously espouses very liberal views of scripture and creation, with which Pullman easily resonated. I suspect the dialog would have been much different if the clergyman was more evangelical.

Are his books decidedly anti-God and anti-Christian? Pullman does not feel so. However, he sees "fundamentalism" as the great danger of our time. Of course he points to fundamentalism in all faiths, but it is Christianity that appears to be featured most. As Pullman himself says:

"It's a story, not a treatise, not a sermon or a work of philosophy. I'm telling a story, I'm showing various characters whom I've invented saying things and doing things and acting out beliefs which they have, and not necessarily which I have. The tendency of the whole thing might be this or it might be that, but what I'm doing is telling a story, not preaching a sermon.
But when you look at organised religion of whatever sort – whether it's Christianity in all its variants, or whether it's Islam or some forms of extreme Hinduism – wherever you see organised religion and priesthoods and power, you see cruelty and tyranny and repression. It's almost a universal law.

It's not just Christianity I'm getting at. The reason that the forms of religion in the books seem to be Christian is because that's the world I'm familiar with. That's the world I grew up in and I knew. If I had been brought up as an orthodox Jew, I would no doubt find things to criticise in that religion. But I don't know that world as well as I know Christianity."

I suspect that Pullman would see the church and faith I espouse as "fundamentalistic" and thus dangerous.

Yet, does Pullman have an agenda? Is he out to completely counter everything the church teaches and to indoctrinate children with an anti-religious or anti-God view? It's hard to tell, despite the concerns raised. Supposedly he made comments that his characters "kill God" in his books. I couldn't find the quote, but maybe someone out there has a source.

Personally my concerns are still greater for movies and books like The Da Vinci Code which very clearly cause people to call into question facts they have known and believed their whole lives. I saw this first hand in some with whom I counseled and talked. Will "The Golden Compass" or the Pullman books cause great damage to children's faith? I'm certainly not with the archbishop in being ready to recommend them. I'd like to read the books first and see the movie for myself. However, fantasy is a genre that does not always translate into completely concrete ideas. Did children form firmer ideas of God and faith from The Chronicles of Narnia? I suspect that more people have formed faith convictions from Star Wars alone than from any fantasy movie ever produced.

Without the movie there to review, it's hard to say much more. Have any of you out there read Pullman's books, especially his children's books? I'd be curious to know your insights.


Michael Schuermann said...

I've read only "The Golden Compass", which is the first book in the trilogy. It definitely is problematic; However, I would vouch that Pullman is a much better writer than J.K. Rowling, and thus the read is much more enjoyable.

The Christian Research Institute published an article on the books a few years back. Here's a link.

Rev. Don Engebretson said...

Thanks for the link. I read part of it and it is quite informative.

Peter said...

Thank you for your balanced post. I hope you do get to read the entire series as I believe you will be pleasantly surprised (it doesn't read like fantasy, by the way).

Other discussions of the book you might find interesting: