Monday, January 21, 2008

The Golden Compass: A Measured Assessment

Like many holiday movie-goers, I saw The Golden Compass after Christmas. In many respects it is similar to other recent big-screen fantasies—the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia sagas. Once again a fearless and somewhat rebellious child (Lyra Belacqua) leads the way, in the company of wondrous talking animals, mysterious way-farers (called Gyptians) and a host of curious characters. The fight scene between the two armored polar bears is alone worth the price of admission.

But I was also aware of the controversy that has attended the film’s release. The Golden Compass is based on the writings of Philip Pullman whose trilogy, His Dark Materials, is allegedly a vehicle for promoting his opposition to organized religion, specifically the Roman Catholic Church (full disclosure: I have not read the triology). Supposedly The Golden Compass movie downplays the anti-religious side of Pullman’s work. In my estimation, though, it’s still pretty clear that the nefarious minions of The Magisterium (which is also the name of the teaching office in the Roman Catholic Church) are religious functionaries. And it’s hard to view the icons on the door of the building where the polar bear “hero” recovers his armor without realizing they are clearly religious/Christian in nature.

The god in whom Philip Pullman doesn’t believe is an oppressor-god, who simply wants people to tow the line and fall in step. There’s no nuance in Pullman’s picture of organized religion; e.g. all the forces of the Magisterium are interested in (as film reviewer Ross Douthat puts it) is turning children “into the dull automatons that every religious organization dreams of having in its pews.” (National Review, December 31, 2007). No wonder some religious groups, especially Catholic conservatives, have boycotted the film and spoken out against it.

A more measured assessment of The Golden Compass is offered in the January 15th issue of The Christian Century. Authors Edward Higgins and Tom Johnson, who have read His Dark Materials, provide a helpful summary of Pullman’s three books. Their chief concern is that “Pullman's depiction of Christianity is reductive. For him, the Church embodies anti-human forces. The Church's Magisterium and its Consistorial Court of Discipline are reminiscent of the Inquisition. This is not, in short, the church that produced St. Francis, Julian of Norwich, Oscar Romero and Mother Teresa. Pullman's version of Christianity is a fairly common straw man: the oppressiveness of organized religion.”

I also agree with their conclusion: “These books are a gripping account of a story that is familiar in our culture: organized religion is bad and dangerous, self-reliance and heroic work are good and redemptive. For many readers, this story will ring true. Many other readers will realize that Pullman's God is not the God of the Bible, who ‘abounds in steadfast love’ and insists on justice for the poor. These are not reasons to censor or shun Pullman's powerful, enjoyable and imaginatively rich series, but they are reasons to argue with it.”

The entire article is available at:

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