Lately I have been reading commentaries about The Golden Compass. Most of them have been negative; if you were not aware, there is quite a controversy over the book(s) and the film in some Christian circles. I have found most of them to be lacking in one way or another, so decided that I would write about the topic myself.
Disclaimer: I have not seen this film or read the books yet. I will be citing and linking to various sources, though.
The Golden Compass is a film based on the fantasy novel Northern Lights by Philip Pullman. This is the first book in a trilogy titled His Dark Materials. The trilogy's setting spans multiple universes and each human has a dæmon, which is a manifestation of their soul. These dæmons exist externally in some universes, in the form of an animal. They are closely bonded; if a dæmon is killed, the human often dies, and they usually must stay within a short distance of each other.
A religious organization called the Magisterium exercises control over practically the entire world. There is a fundamental particle called “Dust” that is attracted to people, though it seems to be less attracted to children. The Magisterium believes Dust to be evidence of Original Sin and scientists perform terrible experiments on children in attempt to inoculate them against its effects. Children are kidnapped in order to be experimented on, and this sets up the story of the protagonist's (Lyra Belacqua) journey to save her friend (and other children). There is a “God” figure known as The Authority; he is actually the first angel to come into existence and has used his position to trick other angels into believing he is the creator of the multiverse. Ultimately the protagonists find themselves opposed to the abuse of power by The Authority.
The primary controversy is that Philip Pullman is an atheist/agnostic (depending which commentary you read), his novels are allegedly anti-religious in nature, and they allegedly have an agenda to teach atheism to kids. A secondary controversy – which is often cited to bolster the first – is that Pullman is quite opposed to C.S. Lewis and that his books are specifically a response/refutation to Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia novels.
I found out about the controversy back in October when the Catholic League started a campaign to boycott the film, claiming it was “pernicious, selling atheism to kids.” <sidenote> Generally, I am not a fan of boycotts and specifically, I am not a fan of most Christian boycott efforts. This topic could compose another post all by itself, but for now let me just leave it at a loose paraphrase of Bob Briner in his book Roaring Lambs: too often we Christians get up in arms over something and complain amongst ourselves, preaching to the choir. We make ourselves feel good but really are doing nothing to change the situation; we're doing nothing productive. Great, they know what you are opposed to, do they know what you stand for? Do we have anything to offer in the realm of the arts, or just our opposition to the “bad things?” </sidenote>
Back on topic. I kind of rolled my eyes when I watched their video about the boycott; Bill Donahue was rather loud and obnoxious. I can understand being passionate about the concerns raised, but the delivery really was a turn off. Then my jaw dropped as he explained they had made a 23-page booklet about the author and the film, and were selling it for $5. I can think of few ways they could make themselves less relevant, other than selling them for a higher price, of course. Yes, clearly there are costs involved, but if this is really such a matter of concern, why not make the information freely available? Surely your members who are supportive of your cause will be willing to help finance such efforts. 23 pages is not difficult to put into a PDF and make available for free download. Thankfully, as I re-visit their site at this time, I see they now have a PDF version available, though I wonder if that's only because they sold out of the print versions.
One of the first things I found lacking, in general, was that the commentaries seemed to rely heavily on the rhetoric about Pullman's faith, or lack of faith. He wasn't just an “atheist”, he was a “militant atheist.” Similarly, short quotes were given with little or no context, relying mostly on their emotional impact. “My books are about killing God.” We're left to assume the question was, “What are your books about?”
For those counting, Pullman technically meets the definition of an agnostic, not an atheist. I point this out not because the distinction matters much to me, but because “atheist” is often used in a derogatory manner (see rhetoric above). From his web site, emphasis mine:
His Dark Materials seems to be against organised religion. Do you believe in God?
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.
I really like what Mike Furches said regarding this quote:
Christians, those who are concerned with how we practice the teachings of Jesus can and should, find points of agreement here. Pullman is actually stating he doesn't know about God; (note the reasoning for Agnostic as opposed to Atheist for at least me.) He is also saying though, that religion hasn't done a very good job at reaching, touching and helping the world. Pullman seems to have serious issue with religion. I would state there was another individual that Christians should know who had trouble with religion, in fact a great deal of trouble, to the point he was one of the greatest reformers and rebels who ever lived. His name was Jesus Christ. I fully believe, that pointing out those facts, pointing to specific issues and instances where Jesus had issues with religion, we can find common points of ground to begin a serious discussion.
There are certainly religious themes and parallels in the novels. Director Weitz pointed out, “in the books the Magisterium is a version of the Catholic Church gone wildly astray from its roots.” I have to say - with my basic knowledge of the trilogy's plot - it seems much more a story about opposing a totalitarian organization or ideology than about being anti-religious. Yes, in this story the organization happens to be a religious one, but does that make the point less valid? Does it automatically equate to an attack on your religion? As alluded to above, there have certainly been things done in the name of religion, and by religions organizations, that are clearly ignorant and downright wrong. Hello, Fred Phelps.
One sentence comes up often in this controversy, and that's Pullman saying, “My books are about killing God.” This line comes from The Sydney Morning Herald in 2003. For better context, here is the full quote:
“I've been surprised by how little criticism I've got. Harry Potter's been taking all the flak. I'm a great fan of J.K. Rowling, but the people - mainly from America's Bible Belt - who complain that Harry Potter promotes Satanism or witchcraft obviously haven't got enough in their lives. Meanwhile, I've been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God.”
Killing what God, though? The God that he admits he doesn't know whether or not exists? When you don't know the existence of something, why would you write a 1200-page trilogy solely about killing that something? I think the quote is rather tongue-in-cheek, actually. J.K. Rowling received criticisms for the setting in which she delivered her tales, disregarding the messages in them (which yes, have a lot of good moral and spiritual lessons to be drawn) - so why shouldn't Pullman receive similar criticisms?
Yes, as part of the setting of this trilogy, there is a “God” figure called the Authority, who the children accidentally - and not maliciously - kill. In his old age, the Authority is imprisoned in a glass box because he is too weakened to survive outside. The children do not know this and they free him from the box, at which point he disintegrates and dies. As mentioned in the summary above, this figure is not the actual creator of the universe, he is one of the first angels. This angel is deceptive and uses his position to trick the other angels, and humanity, into believing he created everything and is the Authority. This could rightly be called a “false god”. There is no reference to an actual creator in the trilogy, or explanation of where the universe came from.
Yes, the trilogy does include the “killing of God”, then. Technically, it is not wrong to say the books are about “killing God”, but I believe it's very misleading to imply that is solely what the books are about, or that the author is militantly and single-mindedly seeking to “kill God” in the minds of his readers. There is much more depth here than can be put across in the simple sentence, “My books are about killing God.”
Philip Pullman is more complex than how the pundits summarize him. He has repeatedly stated that in the “large picture” of the universe he does not know if God exists or not. Articles and interviews indicate he has a strong distaste for “organized religion”, particularly when it becomes totalitarian. He is also consistent in this distaste not just across different organized religions, but with any ideologies that become totalitarian. He described this when saying:
“...there is a depressing human tendency to say 'We have the truth and we're going to kill you because you don't believe in it.'”
I have found nothing substantial to support the notion that Pullman is on a mission to “kill God.” He has made some inflammatory remarks, which I do not necessarily agree with or really aim to defend here, but these seem to be outweighed by his reasonable words. In the same article where he said his books are about “kililing God”, after explaining his agnosticism he said:
“That's not to say I disparage the religious impulse. I think the impulse is a critical part of the wonder and awe that human beings feel. What I am against is organised religion of the sort which persecutes people who don't believe. I'm against religious intolerance.”
The stories do not appear to me to be anti-religious or about teaching atheism. Rather they seem to be anti-totalitarian and teach some good lessons about questioning authority, particularly if the authority is doing heinous things. I plan to see the film and read the books at some point so I can say more authoritatively for myself, and I would recommend you do the same. Don't just rely on pundits and reviews, and that certainly includes me. I can understand the concerns, especially for Christian parents of young children; I'm not suggesting going into this blindly or without discernment. I just hope to encourage some deeper consideration on the topic than I have seen (for the most part).
This is quite long enough and now the whole “anti-Narnia” aspect of the controversy seems minor compared to what I have already said. Perhaps I'll leave that topic to the reader as an assignment. There are plenty of links below to start you off.
Lots more to read
Many of these are linked in this post, but here's a complete list, pro, con, and neutral:
Philip Pullman's official site
The Chronicles of Atheism by Peter T. Chattaway, Christianity Today
An Almost Christian Fantasy by Daniel P. Maloney, First Things
The Anti-Narnia, Basia Me
The Golden Compass, One Christian's Anti-Protest, The Virtual Daily Pew
Responding to the “Golden Compass”, Only Wonder Understands
Heat and Dust, Interview with Third Way Christian magazine
A labour of loathing by Peter Hitchens, The Spectator
The shed where God dies by Steve Meacham, The Sydney Morning Herald
Church of Scotland Rejects Call to Boycott 'Golden Compass', The Christian Post
Does 'Golden Compass' point kids toward atheism? by Jonathan Falwell, WorldNetDaily
Sympathy for the Devil, Plugged In Online
Wikipedia: HIs Dark Materials trilogy
Wikipedia: Northern Lights novel
Wikipedia: The Golden Compass film
Wikipedia: The Authority
Catholic League boycott