Lyra Skywalker

So we went to see The Golden Compass last night. And now I am more convinced than ever that Bill Donohue needs to get a life. The guy is worth millions of dollars but all he does is fuss about movies he doesn’t like. Sheeesh.

Granted, the word on the street is that The Golden Compass suffered the same fate as The Da Vinci Code: all of the most controversial elements in the book were disemboweled from the screenplay. Sure enough, the Magisterium comes across about as blandly sinister as the Empire in Star Wars. In the movie, the Magisterium performs Nazi-like experiments on children (a metaphor for clergy abuse?), is willing to assassinate its intellectual enemies, and is rumored to maintain order by “telling people what to do.” Meanwhile, all sorts of cool characters are running about who ignore or oppose the Magisterium and who may or may not be on its radar screen. Lyra, the heroine of the story, is a plucky little orphan who’s not afraid to get in trouble and consequently gets herself imbroiled in the Rebellion (oops, wrong movie, but the counter-Magisterium movement doesn’t seem to have a name), helps an alcoholic polar bear to sober up and regain his dignity and sets all the about-to-be-experimented-on children free in a manner that would make Caractacus Potts proud — all thanks to her gee whiz device, the golden compass, which is basically a device for accessing one’s intuition (i.e., using the Force). I half expected characters to say to Lyra “May the Golden Compass Be With You” whenever they parted. Oh, and if you want a really over-the-top Star Wars connection, just remember that when we first met Luke Skywalker, he was as much of an orphan as Lyra is… only it took George Lucas almost two full movies before he drops the bombshell about Luke’s parentage, whereas the same plot twist happens much-more-obviously all within one movie here.

The movie is getting mostly lukewarm reviews, and I think that’s a bit unfair. It’s head and shoulders above The Phantom Menace and it’s arguably as good as the first Harry Potter film. Granted it’s no Lord of the Rings, but not every film has to have a five-star rating. It’s a lovely film, gorgeously designed and filled with beautiful people (Eva Green, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, and young Dakota Blue Richards, who could out-Hermione Emma Watson any day of the week). Watching the film as a Christian, I can’t help but think that, as it stands, its message is profoundly consistent with the gospel: the Magisterium comes across as little more than a principality of this world, similar to the powers which the followers of Christ are called to resist. And the fact that the church has such a sorry history of colluding with the very powers it is supposed to resist is, as I see it, not evidence that God doesn’t exist, but rather evidence that sin does.

Bill Donohue whines about this movie because he’s afraid that it will entice children to read the books, which is where the real evil lies. Ha. Well, this 47-year-old child can’t wait to take the bait. Both Christian and non-Christian friends have praised the trilogy to me, and so I’m eager to see what all the fuss is (good or bad). In general I am unimpressed with atheism, finding agnosticism a much more intellectually honest position and most atheist rhetoric to be rather adolescent in tone, sort of an inverse to fundamentalism’s equally juvenile snivelling. I guess I’m saying that I find the thought of atheist fantasy neither compelling nor frightening. Which means that I’ll be reading these books for the most literary of reasons: to see if they tell a good story or not.

Just yesterday I wrote in this blog about how I consider myself an orthodox Christian but radically committed to interfaith dialogue. I suppose such dialogue includes even those whose only position is to attack my own. I think when we are threatened by the criticism of others, it is a sign of the immaturity of our own position; and if we worry that others will corrupt our children (Bill Donohue is part of a lineage here that stretches all the way back to the accusers of Socrates), doesn’t that suggest that we both mistrust our children and secretly suspect that the dogma we have forced down their throats won’t stand up under fire? Of course, having said all this, I am reminded that when we open ourselves up to criticism, we possibly could be presented with irrefutable evidence requiring us to revise our way of seeing things. Hmmm. Once again, my favorite quote from Eckhart applies… “Truth is something so noble that if God could turn aside from it, I could keep the truth and let God go.”

What’s cool about this quote is how adaptable it is…

  • Truth is something so noble that if Christianity could turn aside from it, I could keep the truth and let Christianity go.
  • Truth is something so noble that if atheism could turn aside from it, I could keep the truth and let atheism go.
  • Truth is something so noble that if the government could turn aside from it, I could keep the truth and let the government go.

I’m sure you could come up with some examples of your own.

Following the Ancient Path Today
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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Sue

    You’re on fire at the moment, Carl!! Does Advent agree with you?

    How easily some Christians get cultural Christianity and its expressions mixed up with God himself. The quicker Christianity moves to the sidelines of American culture, the better. You guys labour under such a weight of all that horrid cultural stuff. (But then again, I guess the battle with all of that institutionalised thinking is one that comes from within our own hearts, does it not?)

    I love the Eckhart quote to finish this off. The Truth is certainly robust enough to take care of itself and to not lose any of its tarnish in the process. It stands unchanged. It’s a sight to behold. We can take rest in that. Christ has overcome the world, after all.

  • Cat Chapin-Bishop

    Oh, do read the books! Yes, if you took them as a blueprint for a religious life, it would be a religious life that would be utterly at odds, not just with Catholicism, but with most of our understandings of religion. There’s a big fat gnostic conspiracy theory stuck into the resolution of the trilogy that will probably appeal to a few who are already into that kind of thing, and strike others, who easily feel faint when they run across ideas at odds with their beliefs, to get uneasy or angry.

    But so _what_? It’s a _book_, dammit, not a sermon, and nobody is offering Phillip Pullman any jobs as a youth minister or any other type of clergy, so… how ’bout we read them for the writing, and the insights into human nature and what it feels like to be alive, and maybe acknowledge that it is not the job of every writer out there to produce uniformly orthodox theologies for us, made to our personal tastes?

    It’s not, by the way, particularly a children’s book. Though it does take on religions themes, it’s absolutely nothing like the Narnia stories. And it’s certainly nothing like Harry Potter! Pullman’s prose is challenging, densely written, and offers depths and riddles that even the best of writing for children seldom does. Yes, intelligent child readers will enjoy the series, but these are not kids’ books–they are books for readers with curious, active minds and agile imaginations.

    Read them, read them, read them! I doubt you’ll agree with their religious underpinnings–I certainly do not–but the love Pullman lavished on creating a complex, sophisticated fantasy world with plenty of insights into our own, and the delight he took in creating characters that are original and three-dimensional–the WRITING is not to be missed!

    Take the bait, indeed. It’s not the kids who are exposed to too many ideas who are in trouble. Speaking as a teacher of English, I speak with confidence here–it’s the kids who are exposed to too few!

  • Renee

    Thanks for the review. Knowing that Bill Donahue is up in arms about a film is usually enough to pique my interest, but not enough to get me to the theater on its own. So it’s good to have this recommendation. We’ll have to see if we can fit this one in over Christmas break.

  • Jessica

    I’m so glad you saw the movie. But I have to say the movie wasn’t nearly as good as the book. I first read them 8 years ago and loved them and then I read them again this year to prepare for the movie. I was wondering what you would say about the movie because I come here alot to read your blog and I have found you to be a great teacher for me so I really wondered what your response would be. The books are more in depth and it gets your imagination going. I found it to be a very unique story and it’s a shame the movie didn’t show that as well as I had hoped.
    I will eagerly await your response to the books :)

  • painterofblue

    I also saw the movie yesterday. I agree with Jessica that the book is so much better! Pullman says he is an atheist, but I tend not to believe him. The books and the movie are decidedly anti religious, but in not anti God. I love Sister Wendy’s comment that religion is a scaffolding to God. It’s a valuable scaffolding that should not be discarded, but it’s just a scaffolding and not God. When we get confused about this we lose God and I think that’s what Donohue does.

  • Jon

    I liked the movie (plan to see it again) and I loved the first two books. *The third not only gets so insulting it disgusted me, but it definitely seemed to be less inspired and written weakly.)

    One of the things I like most about GC is its visual style: just as I imagined it from the books… like a wonderful cross between Jules Verne, Sky Captain, and the Blade Runner…

    The weak part was that is moves so fast, I think many viewers not familiar with the story might get lost. Another 15 mins. could’ve helped. And also Lyra seemed too perfect. She never even has to take a moment to come up with a plan. The plan is always already there, and already perfect. She just seems too Daphne Taggart to me. A little human weakness would work well there. But overall, definitely recommended.

  • arulba

    Excellent review! We saw this a few weeks ago because the movie we wanted to see was sold out. I knew nothing about and was wonderfully surprised. I want to read the trilogy now, too.

    For some reason, I felt an unexpected intense amount of emotion when the witches came to “save the day” that I’ve still been wondering about. I guess it was about those who had been seen throughout history as having been “morally inferior” being shown to have signficance. I didn’t particularly like the DaVinci code (I read the book/didn’t see the movie), but what I did appreciate was the status it allowed women – especially that my somewhat sexist father was moved to comment on how repressed women had been throughout the history of church after having read the book. You can still feel that repression – especially when you talk with nuns who had been in charge of churches and formed strong bonds with their congregations only to be forced to move to a new congregation once there was a man available to place in charge.

    That was my main reason for leaving the church – that it doesn’t allow women to be priests (at the time I was heavily considering becoming a minister). I think had I been born Catholic, I would have stayed and fought the good fight because it is such a beautiful religion. But a priest told me during reconciliation to follow where the holy spirit led – even if that was out of the Catholic Church. I so appreciated his response to me. I though he’d be angry with me for wanting to leave, but he was willing to see me rather than a preconceived truth.