Sunday, December 9, 2007

My God is Big Enough

As part of preparing for a radio appearance on Monday, I went to see the new movie, The Golden Compass. The movie, and the fantasy series on which it is based, have become controversial among some Christians. The author, Philip Pullman, is an atheist, you see. His critics claim his books are an attempt to lead children away from Christianity.

The movie is set in an alternate world where worldly authority is exercised by the Magisterium, who do not appear to be very nice at all. Given that the Roman Catholic Church refers to the Church's teaching office as "the magistetrium," it is hard to deny that there is some dig at the world's largest Christian denomination. Likewise the depiction of the Magisterium's headquarters in a northern city - clearly a Church with recognizable icons on the outside walls.

Well, Philip Pullman is, by his own admission, an atheist. The sometimes to heavy imagery of his story certainly seems to be a criticism of the authoritarianism of religion - and possibly of the Roman Catholic Church in particular. And, in what might be his greatest sin in the eyes of many conservative Christians, he says he doesn't much like the C.S. Lewis Narnia books.

But is there some sort of threat to religion in Pullman's popular series, or in this movie?

Seems to me the story, while entertaining, is hardly new. A few freedom loving individuals engage in a struggle against a dark, oppressive authoritarian cabal. It could be Narnia. It could be Lord of the Rings. It could be Harry Potter. It could be Star Wars. It could be any one of several dozen expressions of this same meta-narrative.

Mrs. Coulter (the villainess so subtly played by Nicole Kidman) is a rough parallel of Narnia's Winter Queen, of Saruman, of Lucius Malfoy, of Darth Vader. She is not the supreme evil, but she is its principle visible agent. Lyra, by logical turn, parallels Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, or the children who stumble through the wardrobe. She is the child or child-like hero who brings about the final salvific event.

Yes, Pullman's symbolism is sometimes heavy-handed. Mind you, so was Jack Lewis's. Heavy-handedness is not the worst sin in a storyteller.

But is the message of this film a threat to religion?

Does it threaten faith to say, with Lord Acton, that power corrupts?

As a Christian, I believe in a God who, having become a human being, found himself in constant conflict with the religious authorities of his day. To the point that they conspired with the secular authorities to have him killed. Those who have gone before me in this faith include innumerable first and second century Christians who were executed on the charge of atheism because they were in conflict with the religious establishment of their day.

Institutions become oppressive out of fear. Fear of losing their power. Fear that their authority is a lie and that any challenge will cause it all to unravel. The religious and secular authorities of Jesus's day were afraid of him. The religious and secular authorities were afraid of the first generations of Christians. The medieval church was afraid of Martin Luther. The Winter Queen was afraid of Aslan. Sauron was afraid of the band of hobbits. Voldemort was afraid of Harry. The Emperor was afraid of Luke Skywalker.

But, somehow, I cannot bring myself to believe that my God is afraid of Philip Pullman.

If your faith is threatened by The Golden Compass, I urge you pray for a stronger faith.


Anonymous said...

Apparently I bought the books for my daughter a few years back. I probably purchased the first because of the award on the front. I never did read it. I didn't know I should.

My daughter appears to have survived with her faith intact. I questioned her (she's about to graduate from high school and English is her subject - especially literature) about some of the concerns I had read. She hadn't read those things into the story at all.

I think we do our children grave discredity when we don't allow for their ability to sift things out for themselves. If nothing else, these books open up chances for conversation. They give us chances to teach discernment to our children.

The more we react with hysteria, the more people will want to see/read these books/movies, the more they will think there is something to them. I would rather people around here went to see the movie and then brought their impressions to me. It could open up some wonderful chances for evangelism.

Love and Prayers,
Ann Marie

Anonymous said...

With respect, Malcolm, I think you miss the point.

"If your faith is threatened by The Golden Compass, I urge you pray for a stronger faith."

The issue is not the ability of mature Christians to cope with the novels but the duty of Christians to look out for the spiritual welfare of young people for whom they are responsible.

"Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come."

Some young people such as Ann Marie's daughter apparently have read the books and come away unscathed. Fine.

It's also the case that some kids have suffered no ill effects after eating chicken salad that was out in the sun for too long. What responsible parents would knowingly expose their child to such food?

I'm all for letting kids grow up with a few scrapes instead of overprotecting them from every slide and teeter-totter, but there are some things on which I don't believe in taking chances.

Malcolm+ said...

Personally, I'm more concerned about having my kids watch the peurile offerings of mainstream television than having them watch The Golden Compass.

Seriously - I found the theme of the movie no more threatening to Christianity than Star Wars, Harry Potter or, frankly, Narnia.

It does challenge authoritarian institutions - but since Jesus did the same, I'm not convinced that is ipso facto a threat to Christianity.

If Pullman really was trying to convert people to atheism, he's larded over his message with far too much symbolism - and far too much mysticism.

Paul said...

I don't find viewing large issues with spiritual aspects outside of the framework of my faith tradition very threatening any more, nor have I been tempted to march away from the core tenets of Christianity. I do get to see things I might not otherwise consider, to view my beliefs from a new perspective. The result is a broadening, and enrichment, and sometimes a salubrious challenge.

When I did go through a period of major challenge to the version of Christianity I was raised on, the truly difficult issues were raised from within my own tradition (it internal inconsistencies, its apparently strange use of the Bible, and hypocritical or illogical practices). The only thing nowadays that could drive me from the Church is the Church itself, not atheism or other faith traditions.

I'm quite with ann marie here. Children are more discerning than we give them credit for and springboards for discussion give us a chance to share our perspective. Some of the most prominent among tainted chicken salads I see come out of episcopal offices, not imaginative literature. Even Dawkins' straw figures are grist for an excellent discussion of objectionable religion that most of us don't believe in.

I have it on good authority that Christ did not give us a spirit of fear.

[OT - thanks, Malcom+, I'm honored.]