I was reading through some Xanga.com blogs and I came across an entry by Nathon, titled “Tarnished Compass,” about the new movie, The Golden Compass. If you don’t know already, the movie is based on the first of a series of books by an atheist author, Philip Pullman, who has expressly stated that at least one of the motives for him writing his books is to discredit, and turn people away from, Christianity. Nathon (the Xanga blogger) is a Christian and his charge to other fellow Christians is to boycott the movie, not to “protect” against its “harmful message,” but “solely for the principle of standing up for what you believe in.” I see where he’s coming from, but I don’t think I’m going to actively boycott the movie. At most, I may end up involuntarily boycotting simply because I don’t watch many movies in the theaters as it is.
Okay, let’s go back, wayyy back….to the basic foundations of the story as described by Philip Pullman himself. In the novels, “Dust” is like the ever-present, spirit-like force of Light and Good, while “The Authority” is the evil-God, on which the theocratic society is based on. The origin of life and creation story in his novel series is summarized thusly :
[…] the notion is that there never was a Creator, instead there was matter, and this matter gradually became conscious of itself and developed Dust. Dust sort of precedes from matter as a way of understanding itself. The Authority was the first figure that condensed, as it were, in this way and from then on he was the oldest, the most powerful, the most authoritative. And all the other angels at first believed he was the Creator and then some angels decided that he wasn’t, and so we had the temptation and the Fall etc – all that sort of stuff came from that. (The Telegraph, 2004)
In Pullman’s world, the Authority basically tricked everyone into believing he was an all-powerful God — the Judeo-Christian God, in fact. He even birthed a Jesus through a virgin named Mary and created a dove-like Holy Spirit; and together, as a “Trinity,” they ruled the world through their various churches and organizations, the most powerful of which is “The Magisterium.” The foundation of the story is influenced by ancient mythology and clearly draws heavily from the modern interpretation of Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Fast forward a number of millenniums and we arrive at the beginning of the series. The story is about a girl named Lyra who lives in a world ruled and governed by the “Magisterium.” In the Catholic Church in our world, the magisterium is actually the “teaching body of the church.” (Note: This pattern continues throughout as the bad guys are referred to and labeled with very Christian or church-like terminology, while the good guys are labeled and described with vocabulary that has been traditionally looked down on by the Church — e.g. witches, gyptians [like “gypsies”], and “daemons,” which are, ironically, essentially the soul of a person.) This “Magisterium” has strict rules and guidelines for the people to live by and operates under the authority of…well, “The Authority.” (Were you running a little dry on the creative juices there, Phil?) The narrative follows Lyra on her adventures that lead her to discover the Magisterium is evil and the Authority (aka God) is not really an all-powerful, benevolent god, and both of them are working together to stay in power and prevent people from connecting with Dust, which is the Good that will free everyone…and undermine the Trinity’s power. The last book in the still-continuing series ultimately ends with Lyra, some other kids, and all the other good guys, finding and destroying the God figure, “The Authority,” and being connected with Dust, which leads them to truth, and true self-knowledge. There are giant, talking polar-bears, magical hot air balloons, cool nymph-like witches, maybe some midgets/dwarves, and umm…I don’t know…a lot of magical stuff, along the way. Oh yeah, there’s also a special, golden compass. (It tells you the answer to any question…sort of like one of those psychic cube toys, except it’s 100% accurate.)
I guess one could see how it could be a little controversial. I guess. It seems pretty damn creative to me.
I’m not really that fervent in my “evangelical” beliefs. I’m actually more on the fence about faith, God, and religion than ever right now — which is probably why all this controversy surrounding the movie has so firmly caught my interest. And I can’t help but find all the hype and dialogue about the movie somewhat peculiar. I don’t understand why the author is so outspoken and bitter in his statements and views. Before this huge mountain of controversy over the film adaptation, Pullman was met with a small amount of controversy (relative to what’s going on now) a few years ago when his trilogy of books, His Dark Materials (the first book from the series is the basis for the film), began growing in popularity and acclaim/criticism. Back then, he said some stuff which I’ll quote now:
I’ve been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry [Potter] has said. My books are about killing God. (The Sydney Morning Herald, 2003)
Speaking of his books, he has stated:
I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief. (The Washington Post, 2001)
Blake once wrote of Milton that he was a ‘true poet, and of the Devil’s party, without knowing it.’ I am of the Devil’s party, and I know it…
[…] I hate the Narnia books, and I hate them with deep and bitter passion, with their view of childhood as a golden age from which sexuality and adulthood are a falling-away… (The Guardian, 2001)
Dude, take it easy. “Deep and bitter passion”? C’mon man, they’re just books — works of fiction, like you call your own stuff. In an interview on richarddawkins.net, he responded to criticism from religious groups toward his books by saying, “I am a story teller. If I wanted to send a message I would have written a sermon.” Has Pullman not considered that maybe C.S. Lewis was just being a storyteller in his Narnia books? And he seems to be doing quite a bit of passionate proselytizing and preaching of his own beliefs, talking about “trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief” through his works. Also…I understand he has to create some publicity to generate more sales but c’mon…”I am of the Devil’s party and I know it”? Just sell your books and get on with your life.
He just seems a bit vindictive and a little overboard in his statements — like he was in some way scarred by C.S. Lewis and Tolkien in his childhood.
On the other hand, the reaction to the film and the books from various churches and religious organizations hasn’t been too admirable at all. Ridiculous condemnations from the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant ministers, and blatant misquotes and making up quotes to paint Pullman in the worst light possible have been plentiful (the famous quote, “I want to kill God in the minds of Children…. I want them to decide against God and the Kingdom of Heaven,” was never said by Pullman but is being widely circulated as fact by churches everywhere anyway). It is The Da Vinci Code all over again. I never understood these knee-jerk reactions. There was not a peep to be heard from the atheist community for the subliminal Christian messages in the Narnia movie or the Lord of the Rings series. Granted, those aren’t nearly as pointed and obviously anti — a whole religious group, as Pullman’s stuff. But still, you see my point.
In interviews these days, Pullman seems to be a bit gentler and more…diplomatic with his statements. He was much more amicable as he answered questions in an interview on the Today Show, which was, coincidentally, partly in promotion for the film that was released in December:
As for the atheism, it doesn’t matter to me whether people believe in God or not, so I’m not promoting anything of that sort. What I do care about is whether people are cruel or whether they’re kind, whether they act for democracy or for tyranny, whether they believe in open-minded enquiry or in shutting the freedom of thought and expression.
Okay Mr. Pullman, it would be much better if we could all just forget what you said the last time you were getting interviewed by the press for your books…but we can’t. But you know what? I’ll let that slide, because although I haven’t read any of your books, I have read a lot of articles and stuff about them recently, and I think I will actually get around to reading them because I agree with you for the most part. (I’ll stop talking to fictional Philip Pullman now…for the moment.)
But yeah…the film, and more so the books they are based on, seems to raise some intriguing, essential questions that people need to ask anyway. All this controversy is very misleading. At the heart of the book, and the (what I hear to be) watered-down movie, it is essentially a surprisingly sophisticated, philosophical exploration set within a very enjoyable children’s adventure story.
Even if Pullman injected the works with plenty of his own bitter, anti-religious views (as evidenced by earlier quotes), I think his series goes beyond those superficial, first-glance impressions. Quoting from that Today Show interview from earlier, Pullman points out that the books celebrate plenty of “kindness, love, courage and courtesy too. And intellectual curiosity. All these good things.” I also think “The Authority” or the “Magisterium” is not so much an attack on the Church or religious organizations (although Pullman definitely places that in there, free for anyone’s enjoyment, as much as his own), it is, more importantly, an attack on “cold-heartedness, tyranny, close-mindedness, cruelty, the things that we all agree are bad things.”
Archbishop Rowan Williams, who is obviously a leader in the Christian community (although he is a part of the Anglican, and not the Catholic, church), is actually a very outspoken fan of Pullman’s work. Williams, unlike many of the Christian representatives being cited in the media, is able to see all the honest, powerful, relevant, and important questions and perspectives the books offer. In the beginning of the post, I quoted from a transcript in The Telegraph of a public “conversation” (the PC influenced editor: “It is not a debate, dammit! Fix the title!) Williams and Pullman had, which is very interesting, and quite civil and respectful. Even if neither really budged too much in their separate beliefs, they were both able to meet and share dialogue at a common and universal level — which drives home the point that the themes and questions in Pullman’s books are very relevant to people everywhere. It, at the least, should not be bashed and condemned by anyone.
I will bring this to a close with an appropriate quote from Pop Matters:
It could be argued that the Roman Catholic Tolkien, the Protestant C.S. Lewis, writer of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ series, and Pullman—who all attended Oxford University—are using the fantasy genre to engage in a literary debate on faith and Christianity, with Pullman as the skeptic.
I have no problem with that at all. Many times it seems all three sides are inside my head carrying on a similar debate — which brings me back to the issue of why many Christian groups are so repelled by the movie. Why are people so afraid of it if what they believe really is the Truth? I have always thought Truth, whatever it may be, ultimately speaks loud enough for itself if one is listening for it. Is all the mayhem caused by a desire to “protect the children,” as some say? Well then, maybe people should try to see it instead as an opportunity to actually talk to their kid. Don’t we need more of that in today’s society anyway? And if you’re up in arms because, deep down, you know your child listens to a movie while completely blocking out everything you have to say, I would say you have a lot more problems to deal with than a critically poor, atheism-influenced movie. If I had a kid, I’d probably read the novels with them and have cool little nerdy literature class-like analytical discussions together along the way. Kids don’t do that, you say? Really?? Oh…
Well, anyways, it seems Philip Pullman is actually more agreeable than people think:
Religion is a … body of thought that deals with the big questions. Who created the universe? Was it created at all? What are we here for? What is the purpose of life? What happens when we die? And in that sense I am a religious man. Because I think about these things, too, and I have all my life. (Video Interview on BeliefNet)
Now Philip, why didn’t you say that from the beginning?
Songs of the Day:
John Lennon – “Imagine”
Avril Lavigne – “Imagine (Lennon cover)” — yeah I know…but this one’s actually quite good (taken from Instant Karma, the Amnesty International album of Lennon covers that raises money for Darfur), unlike her horrible cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist.” Have you guys heard that one? It’s a train wreck. Why don’t I just let you guys hear how horrible it is for yourselves?
Avril Lavigne – “The Scientist (Coldplay cover)”
I think I’ll see The Golden Compass. I’ll probably download it from somewhere…and judging by the reviews, this probably won’t be a movie I’ll buy after viewing it. But it has Eva Green in it, so of course I’ll watch it. Eva Green, if you don’t recall, was in this following scene, which is probably one of my favorite scenes from a Bond movie. Bond gets totally pwned for a change. (the volume is really low on the clip)