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Weighing in on 'The Golden Compass"

Beth recently asked me what my thoughts were on the upcoming children's-novel-to-big-screen The Golden Compass. The novel was the first in a trilogy by Philip Pullman; the other two (The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass) are slated to become films as well.

Pullman's fantasy novels are controversial in the Christian arena--but not for the reasons you might think. While the likes of other fantasy stories (from Harry Potter to L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time) are objects of debate largely due to their magical content, Pulman's trilogy is being scrutinized for its anti-theistic themes and message.

I've been meaning to post on this, but frankly, I've been putting it off. I read The Golden Compass shortly after it came out and really liked it, but I didn't read the other two books in the series after hearing and reading about Pulman's developing themes and Pulman's own confessions. If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know that I tend to overlook a lot (too much, some of my more careful friends tell me) that many Christians (often with good reason) find offensive when it comes to sifting through film, television and books for good stories and relevant God-talk. But to be honest, I have too much to read to slug my way through something that is agressively anti-theistic. But as I haven't read the two other two books, I've hesitated to make any comments beyond that on the books or the upcoming film.

So, in answer to Beth's inquiry, allow me to post what other folks who are Christians and whom I've come to respect (and who are much more qualified in this arena than myself, I might add) have to say:

Peter Chattaway, a film critic on the other side of the 49th parallel, has been following the film's development and recently posted that "the book is a wonderfully imaginative and suspenseful story, and I would love to see it actualized on screen, but it is also the first part of a trilogy that turns increasingly anti-theistic, and preachily so, as the sequels progress, and so I would be quite happy if the rest of the trilogy were never filmed at all." In regards to the argument that the films aren't against religion but "against any form of forced dogma," Chattaway posts a direct quote from one of the characters in the book: " . . . I used to be a nun, you see. I thought physics could be done to the glory of God, till I saw there wasn't any God at all and that physics was more interesting anyway. The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all."

Jeffrey Overstreet, a film critic, professor and author based in Seattle, has also posted a lot on the film. He's got a good piece in response to seeing a trailer linking The Lord of the Rings with the series:
The implication is obvious. The stories, says New Line, stand on equal ground.

How fascinating. The first is a story that is illuminated by the Christian faith of its writer. The second is a story that was written with the intent of encouraging children to reject the Christian convictions of C.S. Lewis (and, by association, Tolkien too). One stands in glory. The other was crafted to discount the foundation of the first.
At the end of the same post, he also has a good list of links to others who have posted on the subject; he also posts some comments from Pullman himself here. But I particularly appreciated this link to Jeff Berryman's thought-provoking post:
At issue is the meaning of life. What is life? Human life. Where is life to be found? There is agreement, I think, in the idea that human beings should act according to their essential nature, and that violence is done when they move away from it. The acorn, to fully live, must become an oak. Period. In Pullman’s world, Christianity, and by implication, all monotheistic religion, forces acorns to become grotesque weeds. Where we part company is in what we believe the essential nature of the human to be.

We believe God made human beings, and life, according to His Image. For Pullman, the Image of God is a straightjacket, one that cuts us off from connection with the real, with the physical, with the sensual, with the instinctual, with the truth. At issue are all the central understandings of the human–what is good, what is love, what is sin, what is wrong with things, what actions will bring the greater good. . . .

Anyway, here’s my question, the heart of Pullman’s critique of Christianity. What is life? I know Jesus said, I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. So, he’s the life. Okay. But what is life? How do you know when you’re living it? Is Pullman’s essential point of view that we are cut off from experiencing life a fair one? Why or why not?
Read the rest here. I particularly resonated with this post because it touches on something I myself have been contemplating: if people believe Christianity sucks the life out of life, what does that say about the way Christians have been living (or not living)? It's a far cry from the life of Jesus, the life in the arms of a girl holding grief, a community of life overcoming violence, or lives lived long in God's heart. And that definately bears more than a passing thought or examination.

You can read more about Pullman and his series on Wikipedia (and the series here) and Bridge to the Stars.

So, my .02 worth? While Pullman may have more than worthy observations about the flaws and frankly blatant sins perpetrated by organized religion, I'm thinking they're overshadowed by his anti-theistic themes.

What do you think?

(Image: copyrighted by New Line Cinema)


When I first saw his books on the shelf of a local bookstore, I was intrigued but didn't have the cash. Once I started asking around about them, I heard about the anti-theism. This, of course, dampened my desire to read the books. The film previews are cool -- I like all the pretty pictures -- but I'm still reluctant to put any of my money or time toward supporting such stories.

A friend who describes himself as "an atheist, maybe an agnostic" is concerned that my work is too slanted in the other direction, and that I'll use my fiction as a forum from which to preach. He cannot seem to see that atheists preach, too.