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Philip Pullman and The Golden Compass

December 7th, 2007 by isaac · 11 Comments

I haven’t seen the movie, but I read the Pullman trilogy 4 or 5 years ago. They took me into another world—or, I should say, worlds. Absolutely creative. I’m usually not one who reads science fiction or children’s literature. But Philip Pullman’s books were addicting; I read one right after another: Northern Lights (also called Golden Compass), Subtle Knife, and Amber Spyglass.

Sure, Pullman is an atheist. But that doesn’t mean he can’t write good literature, and that Christians shouldn’t read it. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we have nothing to learn from him.

I don’t quite understand this boycott of the movie, The Golden Compass. There’s so much fear—I would say misplaced fear. Some Christians believe that this movie, and these children’s books, will corrupt their children and malign our faith.

Concerning the corruption of children Instead of militant protectionism, why not use the film (or the books) as a chance to have a truthful conversation with our children? It’s an opportunity for catechesis about what we do and do not believe as Christians. Of course our kids will encounter atheism throughout their lives. Why not take this chance to help them learn the critical tools necessary to process differences?

This is not to say that we should simply throw our kids into the constantly changing winds of the age and hope they figure out how to critically engage all of it. There are important powers to be fearful of, powers that may cause lasting damage. Yes, we should be afraid of some things, and help our children steer clear of dangerous waters. But fearing this film and these books is misplaced. If we want something to boycott (I guess this is like a spiritual practice for some), or stand up against for the sake of our children, it should probably be something like refusing to pledge allegiance to the flag—there’s only one Lord to whom we pledge allegiance, anything else is idolatry. That’s real corruption of our vulnerable Christian children.

Concerning maligning our faith… That’s an easy one. The books describe a faith and a church that do not belong to us. It’s not our church. It’s not our God. This is where Pullman may expose some of the heretical notions that have sneaked their way into popular American Christianity. This is what I mean: If Christians are challenged by the books (and movie), then it shows that Christians somehow think Pullman’s “The Authority” maps well onto what Christians call “God.” And that’s reason for concern.

The Authority in the books bears no resemblance to what I worship as God. And if people think that their God looks or sounds like The Authority, then, yes, that God deserves to die because it’s a false God—a “god.”

If we believe that God is part of creation, part of the metaphysical furniture of our world, then that’s called an idol. Our biblical story is full of these false gods. And Pullman does us Christians a favor by exposing that conception of God as a hoax—a sorry excuse for an old man with gray hair up beyond the sky. But the Christian God isn’t a man, nor is she a woman; our God isn’t a created being, nor is God a control-freak. Those are all the characteristics of The Authority in Pullman’s trilogy.

Also, the church in the story doesn’t bear too much resemblance to the one I’m a member of, or the one I confess as the “holy catholic church” when I proclaim the Nicaean Creed. The church in the world Pullman creates is a farce. As the Archbishop of Canterbury says in an interview with Pullman, the church in the trilogy is “a church without redemption,” a religion without Jesus (nowhere does Pullman talk about Jesus, nor does he have a figure that bears any implicit likeness to Jesus—and if there’s no Jesus, then it’s not my religion… maybe it’s someone else’s, and if it is, then they have reason to be offended and disturbed).

I find it quite interesting that the same people who encouraged folks to attend Mel Gibson’s horrendously dishonest (and offensive) film, The Passion, are more or less the same folks who want to discourage everyone and their grandmother from attending the Pullman movie. Gibson does violence to the story of Jesus, and Christians celebrate it. Pullman offers our culture the “God” of this world (i.e., a thoroughly immanent God) and a completely fanciful world (or, better, worlds), and Christians pull out the picket signs. Very strange.

Maybe The Golden Compass will be a chance for Christians to let their pagan images of God get killed, so we can come to discover the true God of Jesus Christ. If the film offends us, then maybe we should wonder if we really believe in the mysterious God who raised Israel out of Egypt, and raised Jesus from the dead. Christians can receive Pullman as a gift, for he is an iconoclast who may free us from our self-serving images of God, our idols. And, as Nicholas Lash has always said, “Christianity is inherently iconoclastic”—we are called to constantly destroy our images of God because we always turn them into idols (A Matter of Hope, p. 158). To be an iconoclast, to engage in the critique of idolatry, is “the stripping away of the veils of self-assurance by which we seek to protect our faces from exposure to the mystery of God” (Theology on the Way to Emmaus, p. 9).

Tags: pop culture

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jeremy // Dec 9, 2007 at 6:49 am

    Right on. Being the father of three, I think about this stuff quite a bit. Inocculation is the right strategy, as you say. And, frankly, I think the real enemies to be concerned about usually come in much more subtle guises than a character in a movie or literature. I am much more worried about the pernicious effects of the capitalist propoganda my kids are surrounded by. Even though we don’t own a TV, a basically capitalist mindset is (subtly and sometimes not so subtly) endorsed and reinforced at school, by their friends, even at church! The best my wife and I can do is try and equip them with the eyes to see it for what it is—deception and Death. This is hard, and it often feels like a losing battle (especially around Christmas), but I think its far more important than boycotting a movie.

    Oh, and my first grader and I have been in conversation about the pledge of allegiance. We say the Apostle’s creed before bed and have talked about how it functions as an alternative pledge of allegiance for Christians, and how the loyalty and way of life it calls us to is often in contradiction to the loyalities/demands of the US (for example, in regard to how we treat our enemies). I don’t know that he’s stopped saying the pledge at school, but he is aware that there is a tension, which is much better than where I was at his age.

  • 2 Nancy // Dec 11, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    Excellent post, Isaac. I couldn’t agree more.

  • 3 Someone // Dec 12, 2007 at 9:35 pm

    I do NOT agree with Philip Pullman’s reasoning of the book. HIS writings are false, not the Bible’s!

  • 4 Chris Klopp // Dec 13, 2007 at 3:37 am

    Ah yes…once again we have the case of angry Christians who can’t stand to have their images of God challenged. As you say, Isaac, this “god” of Pullman’s is not our God, yet lots of Christians seem to think it is. Actually, I find it ironic that the Christians in the real world are behaving like the “Church” in Pullman’s novels. They’re unwilling to allow their false images to be questioned or critiqued, but they’re more than willing to critique others. Hmm… I seem to remember something about a log and a speck of sawdust. Anyway, I think I’ll take my youth group to see it.

  • 5 Lyra // Dec 13, 2007 at 4:04 pm

    I agree completely, and thank you so much. I’ve been having a lot of trouble convincing my best friend that this movie would be good for her to see, not bad. We’ve had a lot of heated debates about it…anyhow, I think I’ll send her a link to this article. And I’m really looking foreward to seeing the movie this weekend. .

  • 6 layla // Dec 21, 2007 at 6:54 pm

    wow all of the stupid things people say about christians and catholics is quite appalling. just because they want to be worm food when they die doesnt meen they have degrade everyone else. If you think about it, there are radicals in every religion and every group, and most of them are scary and do terrible things, but they dont represent everyone else. Thats why they are called radicals. I’m sorry they feel that way and i will pray for them.

  • 7 isaac // Dec 23, 2007 at 6:04 pm

    Thank you for all your comments. I am especially grateful for Jeremy’s comment. It’s good to hear from a father who is trying to think through these things.

    And I am encouraged by Chris Klopp’s decision to take his youth group to see the film! Hopefully some good conversation among the youth ensues.

    I have to be honest. I saw the movie this past week. And I wasn’t too excited about it. It’s not that I disagree with the the so-called “message” of the film. Instead, it’s just that I didn’t think it was very good. It had all the right actors—big names: Nicole Kidman, Eva Green, Daniel Craig. But it didn’t flow very well. And the ending was terrible for many reasons—the major one being that it had to end on a happy note when the first book ends with tragedy.

    The only reason why I want people to see it is because I want it to do well in the theaters so they will make the second film—and hopefully they’ll do a better job of it.

  • 8 JT Bridges // Apr 13, 2008 at 3:16 am

    Concerning the corruption of our children: Yes, our kids will encounter atheism throughout their lives, but they need not do so as kids. The problem I have with Pullman is that, as a counterpoint to the Narnia series, he directs his worldview level attack at children who are not equipped, quite literally, to think through his subtle barbs against organized religion. Parents may expose their children to Pullman’s writings, but they must do so with the understanding that these writings are filled with potential landmines.
    Concerning the maligning of our faith: Your response that Pullman’s presentation of Christianity is mistaken and therefore without direct effects on the true faith is misguided. What motivates the Christian to respond is not that Pullman’s criticisms are accurate and therefrore in need of rebuttal, rather that he presents multiple worlds wherein religion is an evil force that hamstrings human freedom and is detrimental to intellectual growth (especially in the area of science). This is strait from the average atheist’s playbook.

    His presentation of the Authority and the Church do not need to be an accurate picture of God and reall churches in order to have bite. He is writing a novel and in that fictional world he satirizes, characatures, and villifies aspects of Chrsitian beliefs. The fact that he makes the Authority just a really powerful mortal being is itself a mocking representation of God.

    If the author’s intent is cultivated by a careful reading of his text, then Pullman’s intent is clear. Instead of writing novels that are purely secular, he has chosen to write a trilogy that is decidedly anti-theistic. When he takes up themes like religion vs. science, free will vs. determinism, and good vs. evil; he always takes them up with an intentionally atheistic tone. These are more than merely children’s books, they are atheist propagada that hides its barbs in a well-written fantasy world; it is because the books are clever and entertaining that they need to be handled with caution. This is not a cry for “protectionism,” merely informed prudence.

  • 9 Dana // Jul 16, 2009 at 4:34 pm

    I am 25 I live an average life of a 25 year old. I like Harry Potter and have the intelligence and spiritual faith to figure out reality from false teachings. I have watched The Golden Compass before I was a strong christian and even then it struck me as unnatural. It does give an ok…how do I explain it right…anti communist/socialist message….sort of though I feel I’m not expressing my thoughts correctly in words. Its is entertaining as well. How ever leaving that aside IT IS plain and simply wrong to let our children think that “Demon’s” are our helpful little friends and companions. Wolves in sheeps clothing my friend. That’s all I have to say about the “allowing” your self or children to watch it. How ever if they happen to be exposed by some incident or another then sit down with them and explain things to them. At that time sure its great for a teaching tool. I just ask why expose them to such confusion?

  • 10 lisa // Oct 15, 2009 at 8:52 am

    Why is “The Passion” offensive?

  • 11 isaac // Oct 20, 2009 at 5:06 am

    Mel Gibson’s movie is offensive because it is voyeuristic. It plays up violence as a cathartic experience for the viewers. There is no attempt at being honest to the story of Jesus’ death as it appears in the Gospel accounts. Gibson exaggerates the violence on the cross. When we read the passion narratives in the Gospels, there don’t spend nearly as much attention on the violence as Gibson does. So, in the end, Gibson’s portrayal of Jesus says more about the psychological needs of Gibson than it does anything about our Gospel stories of Jesus.