The Golden Compass, Redux

I feel compelled to clarify a few things about my post lampooning some of the Christian responses to The Golden Compass and Philip Pullman. I feel this way firstly because I read this in the Chicago Tribune today:

[Pullman] has called [C. S.] Lewis’ fiction “morally loathsome” for its sexism and offhand killing of main characters, among other things.

By contrast, the morally complex “His Dark Materials” follows strong-willed orphan Lyra. . . .

Oh, give me a break. I’m willing to let Pullman insult Lewis as a legitimate way of distancing himself from him, but if the newspaper is, without explanation, going to jump on board and insinuate that Pullman contains “moral complexity” while Lewis does not, I must put all irony aside and firmly and unequivocally declare my loyalties. Which are with C. S. Lewis and all Christians. And ultimately, if it comes to drawing lines, I throw in my lot with fundamentalist Christians, my brothers and sisters in Christ.

The second reason is due mostly to the, um . . . ahem, mode of expression I was employing in my diatribe. In other words, I did indeed demonstrate a complete lack of prudence and nuance, which I guess goes with the territory. So while perhaps I should have developed a substantiated argument, that would have compromised my intent. Moreover, an argument can only be extrapolated negatively from the content of my diatribe. For example, if the satire exhorts, “Do not think! Live in ignorance!” then the author must think that to avoid the books and to intentionally not read them is, ipso facto, not thinking. While it would be perfectly natural to infer that from my remarks, I would now like to argue not against the wholesale avoidance of the books or the movie but against the intentional provocation of political hysteria. When I wrote the post, I had heard one too many conspiracy theories about producers “tricking” us into buying the books, and I had come across one too many messages trying to get me to educate others by forwarding an email to all my friends and family. This, to me, is willful ignorance and sloppy thinking. Consider this excerpt from a boycott-plea email:

Promoters hope that unsuspecting parents will take their children to see the movie, that they will enjoy the movie, and that the children will want the books for Christmas. Please boycott the movie and the books. Also, pass this information along to everyone you know. This will help to educate parents, so that they will know the agenda of the movie. The Golden Compass–A movie to avoid. We need to get the word out about this movie–it is coming out in December–an atheist produced it. it is marketed for children and in the end they kill God. I checked this out at snopes.com; unfortunately, it’s true.

Almost every producer in Hollywood is, if not an atheist, completely ambivalent about Christianity. Promoters are not hoping that unsuspecting parents will be duped into buying the books, they are hoping to make as much money as possible. They could, literally, not give a damn about the message of the book. They have proven just that thing by dulling down Pullman’s anti-ecclesiastical propaganda (with which Pullman has expressed his dismay). We Christians have proven that we are capable of shelling out large amounts of dough for epic fantasy films about good and evil and are thus a prime market demographic – one in fact producers ignore at their peril. They figured that if they kept the notions of “good” and “evil” vague enough, they could keep from offending Christians who would otherwise not spend their money to see it.

So enough with conspiracy theories. Alarmist political maneuvering seems more like a way to preserve the cultural capital of Christian values rather than actually dealing with anti-Christian ideas. When Nietzsche invoked the death of God, he not only expressed a desire for a world in which God was dead (like Pullman), but he excitedly and tragically described an already extant trend in Western culture. Boycotting an anti-Christian novel/film implies we still have Christian cultural capital to work with instead of the sex-crazed, celebrity-fetishizing, warmongering country we still somehow manage to call Christian. We’re living in Nietzsche’s world whether we like it or not.

So should everybody read it and engage it? Would I let my eleven-year-old son read it? Let’s first be clear that what we’re reading not only contains potentially subversive ideas to Christian beliefs and narratives but is also a manifestation of present cultural realities. Let’s be clear that deciding to reject it wholesale does not mean going on a crusade to spread alarm and encourage knee-jerk reactions. Then we can calmly and prudently evaluate whether allowing our children to read it – or even reading it ourselves – would be a good idea. Christianity is not threatened by atheism; Jesus Christ, according to Paul, has already disarmed the principalities and powers of this world, unmasking them as so much empty nihilism. Rejecting it wholesale may be the best course of action on a given occasion, but this is no cause for alarm. Moreover, one may reject it because it is, well, not worth the time. When I wrote the first post, I didn’t foresee so many people whose opinions I value and trust just giving it a kind of yawn. If time determines that Pullman turns out to be nothing more than a blowhard who is a decent storyteller, then so be it. There are better things to do. Like read Dostoevsky, which I’m going to go do now.

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6 comments so far

  1. Patrick on

    I have never read such a well-balanced opinion from a Christian perspective about anything which begins to provoke its principles.

    I myself am a Zen Buddhist – not that I need to check my guns at the gate or anything – I agree that the America we live in today is driven by inappropriate principles and the wrong kinds of capitalist motivation.

    Out of little more than curiosity, have you actually read this trilogy? The first story, for which there is now this highly-debated movie, isn’t so edgy by comparison to the second and third books. If I were an uber straight-and-narrow Christian who wanted to protest the values and moral question portrayed in these movies, I’d hold my marbles for “The Amber Spyglass”.

  2. Greg on

    My prediction: the content of the movie won’t stir up much controversy. People will watch it, eat popcorn, have a good time and go home, unfazed. All the people making the fuss will blink, and then move on to the next threat.

  3. derekryanbrown on

    Well said Jeff (as well as Patrick). Upon further consideration, I decided that although I personally did not like reading Pullman, I would wager that the The Golden Compass will be a far better film than The Passion. And since I gave Mr. Gibson the time of day in viewing his film, I suppose I ought to do the same for The Golden Compass.

  4. chad on

    Maybe so, Derek, maybe so. It could well be that when it comes to the criteria Hollywood (and thus usually ourselves) has set up for a good movie qua movie (which is a pretty recent phenomena – a movie, that is), Golden Compass may be a movie that meets those criteria in a way that the Passion doesn’t. It may have spectacular sound effects, camera angles, music, etc. (although when it comes to production, a live play will destroy a fabricated movie hands down in my opinion). But I would wager that for one to consider Golden Compass a “better” movie than Passion (I use “better” with regard to content, subject matter, etc.) it seems hard to say Compass is “better” in that regard. It may be more entertaining but doubtfully more substantial – what could have more substance that the story about the Word made flesh – God becoming incarnate – the impassible becoming passible for humanity? But come’on. Who cares about content, right? I mean, horror movies are the top selling movies in our culture. You really think people are going to a horror movie for the plot? It’s entertainment – it’s all just for fun. It’s not like seeing these horror movies has an affect on us or our culture. Like most things in our contemporary culture – it’s all just for fun, it’s all a movie. And thus content can be taken with a grain of salt. So what if the message is atheism…like the previous post stated, people will just eat their popcorn and go home unaffected – just like church. Who needs content as long as it’s entertaining. So what if this movie promotes atheism – it really doesn’t affect us, it doesn’t shape us. All of us are above all that, right? I mean, nothing really shapes us – movies, songs, liturgy. And so, since it’s all an illusion anyway – a great big movie that is ultimately meaningless, whether it’s Golden Compass or Passion – why make a fuss then? Golden Compass will be a more entertaining movie and so a better one than the Passion – maybe so, at least in our culture.

  5. mauthor on

    how can one compare the golden compass to the passion. One is a true story and the other is just a fictional story. They shouldn’t even been in the same boat,derekryanbrown. And the church has every right to boycott this movie. Even if it doesn’t really show it’s true color in the first movie/book, it does on the second and three book. So if you want to watch it for entertainment, then go ahead and do so, but for those who know christ then ask yourself this question, would jesus sit beside me and watch this movie?, whether answer you get from this then listen to it and do so.

  6. mauthor on

    sentence error
    “it’s” true color should be “Its'”
    “Whether” answer should be “Whatever”


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