Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Golden Compass: Reflections on the 'danger' of Pullman's trilogy

I received the following email from my sister asking for my 'expert opinion'.

You may already know about this, but I just learned about a kids movie coming out in December starring Nicole Kidman. I believe it's called The Golden Compass, and while it will be a watered down version, it is based on a series of children's books about killing God (it is anti-Narnia).

Please follow this link, and then pass it on. From what I understand, the hope is to get a lot of kids to see the movie - which won't seem too bad - and then get the parents to buy the books for their kids for Christmas. The quotes from the author sum it all up. I'm going to tell everyone about this movie. I hope it totally bombs because we were all paying attention!

It's a quote from the page on the Golden Compass, replying to the allegation that "The 2007 film Golden Compass is based on a series of books with anti-religious themes". Snopes has ascertained that this is true. Sheer genius, this post. "I hope it totally bombs because we're all paying attention." The battle cry of the sign waving Christian. And after years of creating media storms through their own self-inflicted controversy, these people still don't understand that "telling EVERYONE about ANYTHING" simply raises its profile. Ever since the release of the film version of The Last Temptation of Christ I've been aware that this sort of protest results in the very opposite of what these people are hoping to achieve.

Any cursory search for information on the Narnia films will produce a link or two to Golden Compass' author, Phillip Pullman giving his highly critical opinion of C.S. Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles. I wrote a paper about it in my undergraduate which I posted here. It doesn't take a deep search to find out Phillip Pullman's anti-Christian sentiments. The DaVinci code this ain't, and you don't need a website devoted to urban legends to find this out.

I'll let you all know right off, that unlike the complete waste-of-time I opted not to watch in its inglorious entirety (see my Zeitgeist post), I have read all of Pullman's trilogy of which Golden Compass is the first book. In truth, I've read them twice; once by myself, and then again to my wife. I then read Golden Compass a third time in a close reading for an English course on Children's literature. That was during the height of the Evangelical Christian backlash against Harry Potter, and all I could think was, "It's a clear indication that Pullman's books don't have near the success of Rowling's, or Harry's evils would be yesterday's news." The attitude towards the Christian church is clear in these books. And its not a positive one.

That said, I don't think the books are evil. I don't think they pose a threat to my faith. Or anyone else's faith for that matter, unless their faith is the glass house type, that shatters at the first challenge given it.

My approach to ministry when I was a pastor was to encourage my students to think for themselves; most of the students at Holyrood have read the His Dark Materials series, and we had some good discussions about elements in the books over coffee.

My literary background is in Comparative Literature. One of the ways we approached texts in my coursework was to ignore who the author was, or what the author had stated was supposed to be the point of the text. For example, Tolkien said he hated allegory, but many readers find allegorical elements in his works. Or, Lewis was a Christian writer, but his books contain a good deal of pagan elements. Or, to the point at hand, Pullman is an atheist who writes about the death of God. But which God?

The God of the secondary world(s) of His Dark Materials is the God of first century gnosticism. It is a God who is no god at all, but an angel with a superiority complex who has fooled angelic hosts into thinking he's God. So we're not dealing with the God of Christianity, or Judaism or Islam. We're dealing with the God of gnosticism, a false God, whether you be a believer or not. Further, Lyra, the heroine of the series effectively defeats (with the aid of many heroic companions) this God after a death and rebirth scenario. As Gotthammer visitor 'Sapience' commented in my earlier post on Pullman, "I think Pullman actually ends up self-defeating in his polemic. Lyra ends up as a Christ figure; the conspicuous absence of the Son in novels based on Paradise Lost makes us look for Christ in her (did you notice that Jesus is only mentioned once in more than a thousand pages?). She harrows hell, her end choice is one of self-sacrificial love, etc. She's not Christ, but Pullman makes us think of Christ when we see her--and I don't think it's intentional either." There's a Christ story in the final book, albeit a generically mythic death-and-rebirth one, overlapping with Christianity where it contains shared mythic elements. So whatever Pullman says off the page about Christianity and organized religion, there are some very worthwhile themes in His Dark Materials for Christians and atheists alike to engage with. It is, as Cathy McSporran suggests in her excellent article on both Lewis' and Pullman's works, " a space 'where two worldviews collide'."

That's the strength of the books. While there is an overtly corrupt organized Church in Lyra's world, there is also a clear storyline of spiritual growth, of a redeemer figure, and of concepts of the afterlife. The book handles both sides with complex characters (although as I've noted in my paper, Pullman is sadly one-sided in his handling of the Church - those characters are all bad, whereas the rest of his cast has multi-faceted depth), and allows for an ambiguity that permits the reader to continue to choose their path. It leaves us with the option to join and help build the "Republic of Heaven". And when you read what Jesus says about his "Kingdom" of servants and love, I'd say the Kingdom and the Republic are less at odds and more in common than the Evangelical watchdogs would give credit for.

We always tell people we want them to make a choice for Christ. Choices cannot be made if the other options are suppressed. That's the sort of authoritarian religious activity Pullman is railing against. All the protesting will do is confirm his belief about Christianity.

On a final note, I'm looking forward to seeing it. And if I had kids old enough to comprehend it, I'd be taking them. All this philosophical musing aside, I'm all about armored polar bears.


  1. "All this philosophical musing aside, I'm all about armored polar bears." I love that sentence.

    I haven't read any Pullman but I've pretty much memorized Narnia and I definitely have my own opinions about Da Vinci and the hype/anti-hype surrounding it. It is entirely clear that all protest does is strengthen the offering at hand. Remember that in Hollywood (and much of the rest of Western society) any publicity is good publicity. So spreading the word NOT to see something for whatever reason is really just spreading the word about said film and whether you like it or not, sometimes controversy is the best motive for attending something. Out of curiosity.

    I personally am with you on this Gotthammer. There are a lot of ways to view fantasy in particular but literature in general and taking onboard the author's intended statement does not always help the interpretation of the text. Most stories will speak to you on their own, quite without their author's explanation, and if they don't then they're poor stories. What the author intends to say and what you take from a tale are entirely different. It is a choice. And to have that choice taken away is the sort of police state one-track thinking that free speech and democracy fight against. In order to interpret things for yourself, you have to be exposed to them. Literature, like poetry, is not arbitrary. There are layers upon layers that personal experience and voluntary viewpoint will define for each person who reads the same story.

    I raced through the Narnia Chronicles far ahead of my grade. I was always a frightfully avid reader and my dad struggled to keep quality books in my hands in a steady stream. He ended up giving me things like David Copperfield, White Fang, Moby Dick, Oliver Twist, and the like while I was still in elementary school and I pored through them with as rapt attention as I did with Nancy Drew. If anything baffled me, he and I would discuss it. I was never offended or turned away from what I was taught because I saw each book through my eyes based on my experience and anything that baffled me could be figured out through conversation with my very knowledgeable father. On the flipside, I'd probably read all the Narnia books about seven times each by then and still hadn't picked up the Christian allegory on my own. I didn't get Edmund as Judas and Aslan as Christ until some 'well-meaning' adult pointed it out. So the 'dangers' of a story lie more in the forced interpretation by adults than in anything children will perceive on their own. Left to their own devices, I suspect what most children will take away from The Golden Compass is "wow - armored polar bears!"

    Gotthammer, once again I have to say how lucky your son is to have you and Jen for parents. He'll be able to make his own choices instead of being spoon-fed some pablum Christian nonsense with no alternatives available to shape him. Kudos to you both.

  2. Great post. There has been much said about Pullman and His Dark Materials lately, and I keep thinking about things I would like to add and which are rarely said. Maybe I'll do that some day, after reading interesting things like this. I think you are absolutely right the it's silly to make much noise about this film. The books are certainly mostly good (too preachy in some parts, but anyway). I used to be very annoyed at Pullman because of his attitude, and because I think he misinterprets Narnia, but I like him more now after reading and hearing a couple of recent interviews where he seems very reasonable.

  3. Thanks for both your comments, Gabrielle and Åka. I would have thought the controversy would have generated more traffic, but I suppose I'm not what the controversialists are looking for in a web article. I don't make for good Christian copy.