Compass pointed toward good Catholics

04 simonmcburney lgIt’s kind of hard to kick a major movie when it’s down, but I still find the whole story of The Golden Compass quite fascinating.

But first, here is the hard news — after the openings of Will Smith and Alvin — from the always cheery Entertainment Weekly:

The success of the two new arrivals undermined New Line’s The Golden Compass in its second weekend, causing the PG-rated fantasy film to drop a steep 65 percent. The film, which cost more than $200 million to make, has grossed slightly less than $41 million in the U.S. since it bowed ten days ago. Enjoy this one, kids, ’cause at this rate there’s no way New Line is going to get behind a sequel.

In other words, Compass failed to find that Holidays sweet spot somewhere in between atheistic evangelism and the family market in middle America.

There is no way around the fact that the creators of the film edited out as much of Philip Pullman’s anti-Christian orthodoxy worldview as they could, which led to justified yowls on the religious and cultural left. But Pullman is what he believes that he is — the anti-C.S. Lewis. He’s brilliant at what he does and the movie tried to dumb him down.

So what was the most important religion story in the semi-flop of this very expensive attempt to create an anti-Christian movie franchise? After all, I have always thought that very expensive failures tell you more about their makers than the success stories.

So here is,0,5178851.story">my nomination for the most interesting religion-beat story linked to this movie, care of The Baltimore Sun:

Days after its publication, a largely positive review of The Golden Compass that appeared in Catholic newspapers across the country was retracted this week by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The bishops, who could not be reached for comment, offered no explanation for the decision. But Catholic groups, including the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, have urged moviegoers to boycott the film, saying the film and the book on which it is based are anti-Catholic.

The pulled review in question — click here for a discussion of some of its contents — was written by Harry Forbes and John Mulderig, the director and staff reviewer of the bishops’ office on film. They gave the film an A-II, appropriate for adults and adolescents. The Sun noted:

In their review, Forbes and Mulderig praised the film as “lavish, well-acted and fast-paced,” and noted that the book’s anti-Catholic tone had been considerably watered down. “The good news is that the first book’s explicit references to this church have been completely excised with only the term Magisterium remaining.”

They also suggested the film could prompt some worthwhile discussions in Catholic households. “Rather than banning the movie or books,” they wrote, “parents might instead take the opportunity to talk through any thorny philosophical issues with their teens.”

GoldencompassThus, the bishops conference staff was, initially, more positive about the movie than the vast majority — Rotten Tomatoes here — of the nation’s mainstream critics. That is really interesting. Perhaps it was more important to send a message to Catholic traditionalists than to Hollywood.

The key is that Compass turned into another fault line between, to use James Davison Hunter language, the progressives and the orthodox. The movie, you see, was not an attack on Catholics. It was an attack on bad Catholics. It was not an anti-Christian movie, it was a pro-good Christianity movie. It was an attack on traditional Christianity, not the faith itself. Got that?

Early on, this was stated quite clearly in an excellent Washington Post interview with Chris Weitz, the film’s director — a self-proclaimed “lapsed Catholic crypto-Buddhist.”

… Weitz always knew that bringing “The Golden Compass” to theaters … would take extraordinary finesse. The book, published in 1995, is a parable that attacks the concept of organized religion — more specifically, any religion that rules by fiat and claims an exclusive pipeline to the truth. The book describes a world ruled by a pious, punitive outfit called the Magisterium. It doesn’t just dress its leaders in ominous frocks — it tries to repress knowledge in the name of protecting humanity. It also tortures children by trying to rob them of their daemons, the soul-mate pets that every human in this alternate universe needs in order to think and live. The point, it seems, is to crush curiosity and freethinking and tighten the Magisterium’s grip on power.

Weitz, who also wrote the screenplay, had to convey Pullman’s cosmology while slaloming between two very different and very important interest groups: the book’s fans, who would feel cheated if the movie didn’t stay true to its anticlerical spirit, and the movie’s backers, who would feel cheated if they infuriated religious people and the movie bombed. The grumbling has already started. On fan sites, such as, you’ll read a few complaints that Weitz soft-pedaled Pullman’s critique of religious dogma.

I am left with one question: What is the name of this acceptable version of Christian faith? Hollywood Buddhism? Unitarianism? New Oxford Anglicanism?

That’s a great story. But we can expect total silence from the U.S. Catholic bishops on that.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Eric Chaffee

    Thanks for this report, Terry. It has generated within me a strong desire to read the book. Over the years, I’ve been a big fan of CSLewis; I will now give equal time to another view. (I have no interest in reading Dawkins, however, as his agressive, atheistic scientism is unworthy of my time.) I’ve pretty much ignored the hype and controversy surrounding the movie. But your critique has hooked me, who rarely reads fiction anymore. Kudos to you for furthering the conversation.


  • Julia

    There’s a lot of discussion on Catholic blogs about whether there is a need for the USCCB to have movie reviews any more. They were begun when movies were the only entertainment out there. Now there is TV, DVDs, internet, video games, etc. etc. and none of them are reviewed by the bishops’s reviewers. Lots of people do movie reviews and the internet chats about all of them as they come on scene.

    The other point is – “dogma” has become a scarey word. There are things that Jews believe, that Budhists believe, that Presbyterians believe, that Mormons believe, and Sikhs believe. Nothing wrong with that, right? Why is it that only Catholic teaching is tarred with the “dogma” word? What is being taught at Protestant Sunday schools – why isn’t that “dogma”? Just asking. Is this still the consequence of our British heritage in this country?

  • Julia Duin

    GetReligion might consider investing in a Nexis account. Victor Morton at the Washington Times broke the story on Dec. 11, a day before the Sun’s story came out.

  • tmatt

    Good to know.

    I read the Washington Times in dead tree pulp, but and early, early edition.

    I missed that story. Sorry.

    The SUN, however, is in the progressive Catholic capital of America…. That made its story rather symbolic.

  • Palladio

    “Is this still the consequence of our British heritage in this country?”

    Julia, it is.

    The test, if there is one, for whether the film is anti-Catholic is whether Catholic parents would allow their children to see it. Another test is whether Catholic priests would allow Catholic children to see it. By the latter test, GC has failed: the priest who teaches our children C. C. D. said not to see the movie or read the book.

    I do think Catholic-bashing or denigration is on the rise in the English-speaking world.

    Dogma is a beautiful old Greek word. I am glad the RCC uses it to express the beauty and truth of the faith, born in the Greek and Roman world the early church found itself in and grew up in.

    Second-rate novelists and movie makers can do nothing to alter history or the language of the RCC.

  • Steve

    I notice even between the few samples of articles you’ve posted in the past few weeks, there are some drastically different portrayals of Pullman’s religious sentiments in his own words.

    Entertainment Weekly posits that he “bristles” at accusations of atheism as a theme in his books, whereas the Atlantic Monthly quotes his description that his books “are about killing God”?

    It doesn’t seem like Pullman’s interviewers are helping much to clarify the controversy.

  • Charles Curtis

    I assume the picture of the priest celebrating mass in black (not a liturgical color in the new Catholic calender, last I checked) is from the movie? One of the bad dudes of the Magisterium, up to some hocus pocus (hoc est meum corpus, whatever?)

    When I initially saw it, I thought it was a picture of Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko, martyred by the communists for his opposition to their tyranny.

    When I began reading, and realized what the image probably is, I had to laugh. These atheists. So subtle. I confuse a priest killed by brutal real life totalitarian atheist materialists, for a fictive sinister bogyman theist member of Phil Pullman’s totalitarian Magisterium..

    Nice inversion. Fr. Jerzy, pray for us. We sure need it.

  • Meggan

    Well, perhaps this movie is not so “Anti Catholic” as some people would think. And, perhaps the book is not as “Anti Christian” as some people say. But the furor comes from what people know about the third book in the series.
    Once you get to The Amber Spyglass you find a theology that is Anti-Christian not in the sense that it is against Christianity, but in the sense that it is the opposite of Christianity. Pullman’s concept of Original Sin and Free Will are very different from what the Church teaches. Pullman also seems to believe that the Church opposes free will because it would mean that people would no longer be under the control of the Church.
    It just exasperates me to read The Amber Spyglass because I want to shake Pullman by the shoulders and tell him to pick up a catechism!!! He, along with Hitchens and Dawkins, seems to me to be a really stupid smart person. Ok, maybe not stupid. Ignorant? Ornery?

  • Palladio

    He, along with Hitchens and Dawkins, seems to me to be a really stupid smart person. Ok, maybe not stupid. Ignorant? Ornery?

    P. J. O’Rourke (I think) has an expression for such an unholy triumvirate: being stupid about smart things. Conversely, one can be smart about stupid things (the -isms of the academy fall under this category).

    Merry Christmas

  • Darel

    What is the name of this acceptable version of Christian faith? Hollywood Buddhism? Unitarianism? New Oxford Anglicanism?

    I think the most appropriate name is “Universalism”. It is the ethos of the cosmopolitan cultural elite in every country. Some hunker down into atheist materialism, but those of the ‘educated class’ who find Dawkins and Hitchens leaving them ice cold find universalism to be attractive. As long as you can say that all roads lead up the same mountain to the same summit, you can be in the club.

  • Titus

    If Christ believed in mankind, why can’t christians? Thats the problem with the servants of Yaldaboath. They call good evil and evil good.

  • Julia

    The photo doesn’t look like a real Mass to me. The vessels are all glass and looks like he’s staring at a bagel or hard roll – not a host. Also looks like very peculiar vestments. Maybe it’s a black Mass from Alastair Crowley’s gang?

  • Darel

    I haven’t seen Compass, but the photo is of the actor Simon McBurney playing the character of Fra Pavel in the film. Fra (i.e. Brother) Pavel works for the Consistorial Court of Discipline, “the most powerful and most active religious affiliation of the Magisterium” according to Srafopedia.

    I don’t think the photo depicts a quasi-Mass in Pullman’s alternate universe, but instead the poisoning of some wine as a means of assassination.

  • Victor Morton

    I don’t think the photo depicts a quasi-Mass in Pullman’s alternate universe, but instead the poisoning of some wine as a means of assassination.

    Except that in Pullman’s worldview, those two things are one and the same.

  • AverageJill

    My husband and I saw the movie last night.
    I thought it was a wonderful fantasy. I’m not Catholic and perceived the Mag. as a symbol of governmental authority. Go see it! I am eagerly looking forward to a sequal.