And so it begins.
The first review of New Line Cinema’s The Golden Compass, which is based on the first book in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, has been published in The Daily Telegraph.
Telegraph reviewer John Hiscock says:
… an early screening of The Golden Compass in Los Angeles reveals that the investors who put up the $90 million cost of the film can rest easy – though it lacks the impact or charm of The Chronicles of Narnia, the special effects are extraordinary and the film is sure to be a success with young audiences.
Weitz, whose biggest success to date has been American Pie, a comedy featuring a teenage boy having sex with a pastry, proves he is up to the task of handling the massive CGI demands of Pullman’s fantastical tale, though the book’s devotees may quibble at some of the cuts he has been forced to make.
He has changed the story’s rejection of organised religion, in particular the Roman Catholic Church, in favour of a more general attack on an unspecified dogmatic authority that seeks to rid the world of “free thinkers and heresy”.
As I’ve been on a tour of radio talk shows introducing people to my new novel Auralia’s Colors, I’ve been asked a long list of questions about The Golden Compass. As you probably know, the author has admitted that he wrote these stories because he wanted to give children a vision of a world without God, as an alternate fantasy to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. His story about a little girl named Lyra ends up with her on the side of people who are trying to kill God… not just any God, but Yahweh himself, and Christianity as a religion… and they succeed.
Since folks have been asking where on my website they can find the things I’ve been saying on the radio, I decided to write some of them down.
(This post will probably be revised in the coming days, as I’m writing in a bit of a hurry here.)
Should Christians be afraid of The Golden Compass?
“I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief,” said Philip Pullman, describing his fantasy trilogy to The Washington Post in 2001.
But mercy, no. Let’s not be afraid. Discerning, yes. But not afraid.
Remember all of that hysteria about the movie version of The Da Vinci Code? Christians got all worked up about it… and it turned out to be the most boring movie of the year. In retrospect, our “concern” probably helped the movie become a financial success in spite of how lame it was.
But no, don’t be afraid. God is not threatened by Phillip Pullman. And people who stop to think through Pullman’s story, and how it is that he “refutes” Christianity, will see what a feeble “attack” against Christian belief it really is.
Pullman has painted a picture of the church — represented by “The Magisterium” in his stories — that basically reflects only those ways in which the church has abused power. And he has used that selective reflection as an excuse to write off Christianity as a whole. (That’s sort of like condemning the entire produce section in a grocery store because because a few of the apples were bad.)
(“Magisterium” is not, by the way, something Pullman just made up. It’s a very real word referring to the teachings of the church. So he’s not trying to cloak his intentions here.)
It’s interesting to note that Pullman’s dismissal of Christianity skips over one little detail… Jesus. Pullman’s story never makes any attempt to explore or refute the claims and ministry and person of Christ. He has, in effect, set up a “straw God” rather than a “straw man,” and his fans are congratulating him for knocking down Pullman’s flawed perception of God rather than the God of Christianity. He’s not really undermining Christian belief as he thinks he is; he is undermining the abuse of authority, something altogether contrary to the gospel.
No, don’t be afraid. The gospel will survive the publishing phenomenon of Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, without so much as a scratch. It’s not worth getting all worked up about it.
If Pullman’s work shakes up people’s faith, then their faith was poorly developed to begin with. He points to bad people as a way of saying that the faith is wrong, which is like pointing to a mean-spirited mathematics teacher as a way of dismissing mathematics. For examples of religious folk, he illustrates people who abuse power. That’s not God. And Christ would frown on the persecution carried out by the Magisterium. In the history of the church, followers have Christ have been persecuted and oppressed by others far more than the other way around (although many tyrants have claimed that they come in Christ’s name… grossly misrepresenting the gospel).
So when one of Pullman’s heroic characters, the ex-nun physicist Mary Malone, tells our heroes (in the third and concluding volume) that “The Christian religion is a powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all,” well… she’s not talking about Christianity at all. She’s talking about Pullman’s misrepresentation of the church.
But here’s a question worth considering. Why does Pullman have this wrongful impression of the church in the first place. Could it be that he’s encountered arrogant, judgmental Christians? Could it be… to some degree… our fault?
Do Pullman’s stories pose a threat to children?
To that I would say “Yes… if….” And that is a very big “If.”
Pullman’s trilogy poses a threat if our children are reading these books without any kind of discussion about the claims made by the characters in the story, without any parental guidance.
The stories pose a threat if their parents and teachers are not reading the books too, and participating in the experience, talking about what the storyteller is doing.
They also pose a threat if parents forbid these stories in such a way that the child becomes fascinated by the forbidden book. In elementary school, I discovered that adults had crossed out certain words from storybooks like Huckleberry Finn. This became the most interesting aspect of the book for me: I held the pages up to the light, fascinated by what had been crossed out. If we make these books seem more powerful and dangerous than they are, and outlaw them, we have just thrown fuel on the fires of curiosity. Better to teach our kids discernment, so that if they do read the books, they can see Pullman’s deception for themselves.
(And this raises the question: How many adults are discerning enough to read these books “with eyes to see”?)
PLEASE NOTE: I am not saying “Rush out and buy this book for your kids,” or “Heck, take the whole family to the movie!” If you get that impression, please go back and read my answer again. I wouldn’t buy these books for my kids, but… they’re already bestsellers, a cultural phenomenon. It’s too late to keep our kids from encountering talk about His Dark Materials, unless you lock them in a cell somewhere. Talk about these stories is spreading everywhere. Our responses will move between two extremes: hysterical condemnation, and total embrace. Both extremes are recipes for disaster. Whatever we decide, we should strive for a response characterized by grace, and by a love for truth. Our response should show care for impressionable children, but also respect for our neighbors. And yes, our response should even show care and love for the author, whose impressions of Jesus and his church continue to be shaped even now by the way Christ’s followers behave.
Teachers who encourage children to accept Pullman’s naive definition of Christianity are encouraging religious illiteracy, and exposing their own. In extreme cases, they’re glorifying religious bigotry. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration, when the author himself has said, “If there is a God, and he is as the Christians describe him, then he deserves to be put down and rebelled against.” For a man who likes to talk about the value of “tolerance,” that’s a pretty striking show of the opposite.
In a time when the slightest question about Islam sets off a wave of anger about political incorrectness, it’s amazing how Pullman is celebrated for openly, aggressively, and ignorantly slandering Christianity. In a time when you can get in trouble for praying in school, or for showing religious intolerance, isn’t it interesting that no one has questioned the presence of these books in school libraries since Pullman started saying these things back in 1995?
I’ve read The Golden Compass.
I didn’t come across anything offensive to Christianity.
What is all the fuss about?
For this conversation to be useful, we need to stop making The Golden Compass our subject. That’s like making The Fellowship of the Ring our subject instead of The Lord of the Rings.
We’re really here to talk about His Dark Materials, the trilogy written by Phillip Pullman. The Golden Compass is just the first chapter, the first book in the trilogy. (And, complicating matters, it was originally published in the UK with the title Northern Lights.) This book lays the foundation for all that will come after it, and it is in parts two (The Subtle Knife) and especially three (The Amber Spyglass) that we get into the material that is most controversial. We won’t see those movies for a while.
Is Pullman overrated? Or is he a good storyteller?
How does he compare to Tolkien and Lewis?
Pullman is an amazing storyteller, with one of the most formidable imaginations since J.R.R. Tolkien himself. It would be foolish to argue that. I was enthralled by The Golden Compass when I first read it.
But here’s what pulled me in: Colorful characters, fanciful creatures, a strong sense of mystery, and a compelling story about young and vulnerable characters being oppressed and abused by adults. In the second and third book, when those cold-hearted and abusive adults turn out to be somewhat sympathetic (earlier I said “the good guys,” but I suppose that was a bit of an exaggeration) as they exploit children in their quest to destroy God, suddenly my feelings about the story began to change. And then, my favorite characters began to lose their personality and color, as Pullman’s agenda became more important than characterization. (On top of that, his storytelling gets rather out of control. He’s still introducing whole new species of characters as we near the culmination of the series, and it becomes rather daunting to keep up with the story.)
Yes, Pullman clearly has a formidable imagination. But we must take into account that there is a dagger concealed within this extravagant overcoat, and the intentions of the fellow preparing to use that dagger.
It’s interesting that such a man of such extraordinary imagination would have so little regard for the storytellers whose work his style resembles. Pullman scoffs at the stories of Tolkien and Lewis. He says, “The Lord of the Rings is just not interesting psychologically; there’s nothing about people in it.”
And his scorn for Lewis’s Narnia books has been widely documented. “I loathe the ‘Narnia’ books,” Pullman has said in interviews. “I hate them with a deep and bitter passion, with their view of childhood as a golden age from which sexuality and adulthood are a falling away.” He has called the series “one of the most ugly and poisonous things” he’s ever read.
(Interestingly enough, his scorn for classic children’s fantasy reaches beyond the Inklings too. He’s called Peter Pan “dreadful rubbish.”)
But let’s face it: Pullman is following in the footsteps of the Inklings. He’s a man who has created alternate worlds of fantasy that vividly manifest his own particular worldview and his perspective on spiritual matters. He’s “world-building” just as they did. Tolkien and Lewis established the foundation of modern fantasy storytelling, adding to what George MacDonald imagined before them. Pullman is contributing one of the most substantial installments to the fantasy genre since Frank Herbert’s Dune (which is more fantasy than science fiction, in my opinion) and Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.
And Pullman writes beautifully, especially in the first book, The Golden Compass.
It’s also worth noting that his characters are interested in truth, freedom, friendship, justice, and love. People are drawn to His Dark Materials for the powerful writing, but also because it is yet another story about an oppressed minority rising up and striking back at an Arrogant, Cruel Authority figure… just like the heroes of Narnia rise up against the wicked White Witch, and just like Tolkien’s Fellowship seeks to escape enslavement to Sauron and to destroy his tyrannical power. The big difference is that Pullman has cast history’s greatest champion of the oppressed, their redeemer, as the enemy. He would rather leave us to our own fractured will, which is certain to doom us very quickly.
What does Pullman say about his own beliefs?
What does Pullman consider himelf to be? An athiest, or an agnostic? He told the Sydney Morning Herald: “If we’re talking on the scale of human life and the things we see around us, I’m an atheist. There’s no God here. There never was. But if you go out into the vastness of space, well, I’m not so sure. On that level, I’m an agnostic.”
On the one hand he says, “What I am against is organised religion of the sort which persecutes people who don’t believe. I’m against religious intolerance.” But then elsewhere he says, “[I]f if there is a God and he is as the Christians describe him, then he deserves to be put down and rebelled against.”
For Pullman, embracing the questions of science, mathematics, art, and literature is a rejection of religion for truth. He seems ignorant of the fact that much of modern science was discovered and established by very religious people, and that mathematics inspires many to faith, and that art is one of the primary avenues for religious discovery and expression.
His opinions have taken quite a turn recently, perhaps to make the movie seem more appealing. Now, he’s saying things like this (in a Today interview):
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. Good things have been done in the name of religion, and so have bad things; and both good things and bad things have been done with no religion at all. What I care about is the good, wherever it comes from.
Quite an astonishing change of tone there from “My books are about killing God.”
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the atheist advocacy group the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and a co-host on Air America’s Freethought Radio: “Philip Pullman and I would say it is religion that poisons everything. … What this book is about is casting off Church authority. I think it’s very, very positive. There should be something for freethinking children. It’s a very good yarn.”
Why is New Line conspiring against Christians?
Answer: They’re not.
Why, just last year they produced The Nativity Story. Not that it was any kind of masterpiece, but still…
New Line is a film studio, not a conspiracy of blashphemers. New Line is a business… the same business that brought us The Lord of the Rings films. They’re here to make money, and so, to follow up their extraordinary success with Tolkien’s stories, they went to the obvious follow-up. Harry Potter and Narnia were taken. So they reached for the saga that has become an international bestselling sensation.
That kind of money, those resources… they’re almost certain to create a movie that is impressive and praiseworthy on some levels. Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Sam Elliott, Derek Jacobi… that’s a strong cast. And after a lot of flip-flopping on the director (apparently this material was too controversial and tricky for some), Chris Weitz, who directed American Pie and About a Boy, took the helm.
No doubt about it, there will be things worth applauding in the film.
Why are so many people, including many Christians,
drawn to this story of people who fight against the church?
People are drawn to stories about brave souls who stand up against oppressors.
And, for a lot of people, whether we like it or not, the church represents fear, power, and condemnation.
The best way to make Phillip Pullman’s stories look like gospel truth is to respond by acting like the villainous Christians in his stories.
The best way to expose Pullman’s lie is to respond like Christ himself: With grace and truth, not hysteria and condemnation.
If we respond with wrath, condemnation, and protest, we play right into Pullman’s naive caricature of Christianity. I’m not saying we shouldn’t point out where he is wrong. His story is deeply flawed, and his religious bigotry is shameful. We should not ignore that. But we also should not ignore the excellence of his artistry. And should speak the truth in love, as Christ commands us. We should respond with truth and grace.
We should encourage people to compare the church of Pullman’s universe with the church in the real world, and how it is growing and ministering to so many needs — here, in Europe, in Africa, and around the world. We should remind people of the church that serves, and that Christ would not have wanted an oppressive church.
Yes, but isn’t Pullman attacking all religions?
He calls the “God” character in the series “Yahweh.” And his characters specifically condemn Christianity as “a powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.”
Allah, on the other hand, isn’t mentioned.
And again, he has publically declared that he wrote these stories “to undermine Christian belief” … quite a different claim than undermining religion in general.
Draw your own conclusions.
The characters come to the firm belief that Yahweh… the Almighty… is *not* the creator of the universe. In fact, he’s just a big liar. And later in the series, when the Almighty shows up, he’s a feeble, senile joke. And they kill him.
Pullman says he was particularly drawn to the first and second books of Paradise Lost, where the arrogant angels have been exiled and cast into hell, where they plot to rebel against God and poison his creation. He doesn’t say much about the rest of it, where God’s authority triumphs in glory and grace.
Religious folks are trying to keep you ignorant, in Pullman’s world. They want to wipe out the power of “Dust,” which represents “the totality of human wisdom and experience.” That sounds like the behavior of fearful religious extremists, but not Christ, and certainly not the champions of Christian faith who have contributed to much to human wisdom and experience.
Isn’t this just the Harry Potter controversy all over again?
No. This time, there really is a serious problem.
Nevertheless, God forbid that we respond to Pullman the way we’ve responded to J.K. Rowling.
We’ve just been through a decade in which fearful, judgmental people have burned Harry Potter books, called J.K. Rowling a witch, and warned us that children who read her books will become warlocks. (This reminds me of those folks who told me, when I was ten, that if I saw The Empire Strikes Back I might be lured into Buddhism.) What we missed was the power of fairy tales, which use magic — metaphorically and symbolically — to help us understand mysterious concepts and appreciate the marvelous, otherworldly reality of grace.
And we encouraged a generation of children to believe that you can’t be a Christian and also value fairy tales… which is a devastating deception. As Lewis and Tolkien have discussed and proposed, fairy tales reflect the truth of the gospel in a unique and timeless way. In fact, Lewis became a Christian through discussions with Tolkien about fairy tales.
Many Christians also overlooked the fact that, in damning the Potter series, we were persecuting a Christian woman who has admitted that the process of telling those stories was a journey of sorting out her own faith and persistent doubts. We missed that there were Bible verses woven through the stories and glimmering with truth. (Well, some of us missed them. Others, who weren’t afraid of her stories, saw very clearly what she was up to, and savored what wisdom the stories did reveal.)
Pullman, though, is a different storyteller. He says, “I’ve been surprised by how little criticism I’ve got. Harry Potter’s been taking all the flak. I’m a great fan of J.K. Rowling, but the people – mainly from America’s Bible Belt – who complain that Harry Potter promotes Satanism or witchcraft obviously haven’t got enough in their lives. Meanwhile, I’ve been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God.”
Christians always point back to Lewis and Tolkien as exemplary storytellers.
Why hasn’t anyone come along to step into their shoes?
One of the reasons that Pullman’s books are dangerous is that they stand so far above most contemporary fantasy in the quality and majesty of their writing and imagination.
The reason we’re having this controversy and conversation is, in part, due to this truth: Christians have become so suspicious of fairy tales, fantasy, and imagination that we have created an environment in which it is very unlikely that we will see another imagination like Tolkien and Lewis emerge.
We have focused our attentions on cultivating “Christian art” that evangelizes, rather than cultivating “imaginative writing.” In evangelical zeal, we’ve created a sub-genre, a whole industry, in which storytelling preaches to the choir with obvious lessons and somewhat shoddy craftsmanship. In our hurry to dot every “i” and cross every “t” and provide all of the answers, we’ve eliminated the mysteries of God from our art… and people are much more powerfully drawn to mystery than they are to sales pitches. Audiences know the difference between literary works of great imagination and nicely decorated propaganda.
The kind of art crafted by Lewis and Tolkien invites us on an imaginative journey and allows us to discover meaning in an encounter with mystery. We are left to interpret the stories for ourselves.
Tolkien and Lewis wandered into stories and discovered truth. That kind of storytelling is often deemed too dangerous. Many believe we should be able to sum up what the story means ahead of time, and explain how that is going to convince people to accept Jesus, or it’s useless. I prefer the wisdom of Madeleine L’Engle:
“We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
We have become a church of marketers, not artists. And the artists, feeling distrusted, lacking support and resources, are leaving the church to find the freedom and ability to explore imagination and answer God’s call. Thus, most of the great, lasting religious art of our day is on exhibit in the secular square, largely overlooked… and sometimes even condemned… by people of faith.
Don’t you find it interesting that there has hardly been a whisper about these books amongst Christians in the last decade, but as soon as the movie starts getting promoted, suddenly there’s a panic? Kids have been reading these books since 1995, and Christian protesters are acting like they’ve only just arrived. What does this show us about the state of Christian engagement with the arts? Pullman’s trilogy has been making the news and winning prestigious literary awards for quite a while. And some folks who engage with contemporary literature have been publishing warnings for years and years (including Amy Wellborn, whose posts I linked to several years ago). But this just goes to show you that the general audience of Christians in America is tuned in to what is playing at the multiplex, but not to what is happening in the world of storytelling.
I doubt that I’ll ever be a master storyteller like Lewis or Tolkien. But their example inspired me so powerfully when I was a kid, that I decided at seven years old to start writing fairy tales of my own. I doubt anybody will come along to fill their shoes, but I would like to at least shine their shoes. It is a privilege to have had the opportunity to offer Auralia’s Colors as some small measure of thanks to — those two writers, and to Madeleine L’Engle, by writing — fantasy stories of my own. Thanks to their inspiring example, I’ve avoided writing allegory. I’ve gone forward in the hope that I could tell a good story, and that the story would reflect some measure of the truth on its own. Stories work best when they are not driven by some agenda to persuade.
So Auralia’s Colors, which was just published by Random House’s WaterBrook Press, is not an allegory by any stretch of the imagination. Some are finding “Christian meaning” in it. Fine. I think truth is God’s territory wherever it is found. (I found “Christian meaning” in Pan’s Labyrinth, a film made by a director who specifically claimed to be avoiding Christian storytelling.) I just wrote a fairy tale. I wrote the story to find out what would happen to the characters, not to create some kind of metaphor about God. And I’m still investigating. When someone announces that one of my characters is a stand-in for God or Jesus, well, that’s news to me. I haven’t seen enough evidence yet. But as I follow the characters, I am learning things. If I decided what the story meant ahead of time, I would be very bored by the process of writing the story.
(One reviewer referred to the creature called the Keeper as “God.” Perhaps the Keeper reminded him of God. That’s fine with me… I can see the resemblance. But the Keeper is not God. The Keeper is a mysterious mythological creature who lurks in the background of my story, and to me, it’s still a mysterious animal. I’m still learning about it. I imagine that folks who are eager to define him or equate him with something from the Bible will eventually be frustrated. But that’s just a hunch.)
If we allowed artists to explore their imaginations and pursue their visions with excellence, without making them self-conscious about the evangelical potential (or lack of it) in their work, we might end up with great art within the church again. Artists might have the courage and freedom to discover new visions rather than merely producing work that is derivative of good ideas that have come before.
Okay, so we shouldn’t start boycotts and complain.
But what should Christians do?
These recommendations come from my humble opinion, and you’re welcome to disagree.
- Educate yourselves. And equip your kids with questions… lenses, so to speak… that¬†will expose the problems in these stories.
- Respond with grace and love. And truth.
- Worried about putting money in Pullman’s pockets by investigating the books? Fair enough. Here’s a little secret I’ve discovered: The Public Library!
- Admit that, yes, Christians have committed grave sins in the name of Christ, and that those shameful misrepresentations of the gospel have made many people fearful of, and even repulsed by, the church. But Christians have been called to serve the oppressed, proclaim freedom for the captives, bring healing to the sick, to seek justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly, and to bring good news of “great joy.” And by God’s grace, many are living out that calling. They paint quite a different picture than what Pullman has painted.
- Encourage the artists and storytellers in your church. If you see talent and imagination, provide resources and opportunities for those artists. We don’t want visionaries abandoning the church because they are tired of being misunderstood or having their talents exploited for the sake of evangelism.
- Do not get hysterical, mount massive boycotts, or behave in ways that the Magisterium in Pullman’s books would behave. You’ll just make Pullman’s stories more persuasive, and you’ll confirm for the culture around us that Christians only really get excited when they’re condemning something.
- Equip yourself and your kids with sharp questions that expose the lies of this story. Here are a few examples:If we cast off all “Authority” and set up “free will” as the ultimate source of guidance, where will that get us? Has the world shown us that the human heart is a trustworthy “compass”? Does free will lead us always to the right choice?If the heroes accept the “truth” of the aletheometer (the compass itself), aren’t they letting themselves be guided by just another source of truth… another “Authority”? But wait a minute… the movie told us that “Authority” is bad and we should only follow our own hearts, didn’t it? If there are “many truths,” then aren’t these heroes being as self-righteous and wicked as the oppressors by demanding that their version of the truth is better than others?
What is so inspiring about the battle between the bears? Hasn’t this story led us to a place where it’s just “survival of the fittest” all over again? Should we really hope that the world falls into the hands of the strongest fighter, rather than into the hands of love?
- Finally… pray for Philip Pullman. Pray about the influence of his work. And pray for humility and wisdom in your own response.Pullman is just a man who, somewhere along the way, got a very bad impression of the church.I also cannot help but note a detail from biographies published online: Pullman’s father died in a plane crash in the 1950s, when Pullman was only seven years old. I don’t know if that had anything to do with his view of God… but I do know that many of the men I know who have struggled with the idea of a loving, caring, benevolent god are those whose fathers abandoned them or died while they were young. Boys without fathers often grow up with deep resentment, and having no focus for that pain, they target God.I want to be careful here: I am not explaining Pullman to you, because I don’t know him. But that detail made me stop and think about how little I know about his experiences and motivations. Shouldn’t I be praying for him instead of condemning him? Shouldn’t I be looking for ways to show love and respect to the man, even as I look for ways to expose the flaws in his work? Pullman’s not likely to reconsider his notions about God if those who believe in God organize a full-scale assault against him and his work.
If you have other questions about The Golden Compass you’d like me to address, send me an email, or leave a comment here.
Today, I saw the movie. And I’m not going to change a word of what I’ve written as a result. If the filmmakers tried to “tone down” the anti-religious content, they pretty much failed. “The Magisterium” is not a term invented by Philip Pullman. It’s a reference to the Catholic church, or at least to the truth that shines through scripture and the history of the church. And it isn’t hard to see that in the film.
But, by professional film-critic standards, I cannot publish a movie review until the day the film opens. (That doesn’t mean that scores of critics won’t break the rules and post their own in order to win readers. But I’ve agreed to play by the rules.) So you’ll hear from me about the movie when it opens.
If you want to read more about Christian discernment at the movies, I’ve written a memoir of sorts. I call it “a travelogue of dangerous moviegoing.” In it, I share some of the things that I’ve learned from movies, filmmakers, and moviegoers. And I offer some suggestions on how to interpret movies through a Christian perspective. Hopefully, though, you’ll be introduced to a lot of great movies in these pages. The book is called Through a Screen Darkly, published by Regal Books. It’s been picked up as a guide for students at Seattle Pacific University, Fuller Seminary, and other Christian schools across the country, which has been a very nice surprise, and as a result I’m enjoying some challenging conversations with students and instructors. I hope you enjoy it.
I saw the movie without knowing anything, got the books for my birthday, liked the first book, but was a bit puzzled where it would lead me. Was liking the second book less, it was making me uneasy, but that I can cope with. I could see a bit of the road we were going to and I didn’t like it. It was too much seen from the bad against the good. Nothing inbetween. No reflection. As all christians were bad. Only the disbelievers were good. But I think the world is not black and white. That reflection was I missing. I have aunts who are nuns. I myself have a master in Science. And I didn’t understand the purpose of the act of throwing your cross in the sea when falling in love. I couldn’t see my aunts doing it. And a lot more things were coming in the book that I didn’t understand. The book became more obscure, not a product of logic.
And then the third book came. And all fell into its place. That was what was going on. It was pure atheism, no nuance. And God was pathetic. An old man, a shadow of his earlier days and he had alzheimer. And no one cared. It was a very black book. Left me puzzled.
I am a strong beleiver, but I still asked myself: what if he is right? And of course I came with my own answers.
But I put the book away in my room, descided that it wasn’t suitable for my children.
I wanted that I read your review before reading the books myself. And I know now that when my children are older, we will talk about it. And than they may read the books. I hope they are wiser than.
But I still think that if you just saw the movie and read the books, especially as a child, and you don’t know what Pullman’s intentions were, that if you have an wide open mind when starting reading the books, you are very disappointed. It isn’t a harmless book.
Thank you very much for the review.
“He‚Äôs not really undermining Christian belief as he thinks he is; he is undermining the abuse of authority”
I disagree with this statement entirely. Pullman has stated many times that what he means to undermine is organized religion. He only uses ideas such as ‚Äúkilling God‚Äù, and inflammatory statements to get Christians worked up. Pullman wants people to become more aware of the faults of the church. The point of this is to be open-minded and to change for the better. Not to mention, if the church is confident in its beliefs, then it wouldn‚Äôt be so concerned about writers such as Pullman.
I really don’t see how this movie or the books could pose a threat or affect children in a negative or harmful way. If your child has grown up with faith and truely believes in what he/she has been taught then one should fearlessly allow one’s children to read these books or watch the movie. If anybody is threatened it is because he/she has doubts in his/her beliefs.
I, personally, am athiest, and I find the movie very inticing, but I do respect people’s beliefs.
Yet another “heir” to Tolkien and Lewis is Elizabeth Moon, with her “The Deed of Paksenarrion” trilogy; the first book is “Sheepfarmer’s Daughter,” and – since I have all 3 in a single trade paperback – I don’t remember the names of the other two books. However, it is a tremendous work, and answers the question (at least for me), “What would Middle-Earth be like about 400 years down the line?” Theologically sound, albeit pre-Christian (of course), and very entertaining.
So far I’ve read no discussion of the behavior–the moral choices– of the characters in the film. Have I missed something? At the time I was struck by courageous characters making difficult sacrifices to fight evil. Despite some clunky exposition and plot compression, those parts were quite moving. I can get behind a Christian, souless polar bear, or atheist if their behavior–their values–evince their inherent morality, by any social or religious measure.
Having read much of the controversy afterwards, I’m concerned by the undercurrent, admittedly implicit, that Pullman’s loud (and, okay, arrogant) atheism by definition rules out his ability to tell a moral tale. Perhaps I’ll have a different opinion about the books, but we’re talking about the movie now. Rather than finding it anti-Christian, I found it demonstrated Christian values. Rather than anti-religious, I found it spiritual.
Thank you for this fantastic post! I’m very greatful for your thoughtful, balanced, thorough discussion. I’m taking a bunch of my high school and middle school students to see it tomorrow — after having written an explanation to their parents so that they would know just what this movie is about. We’re having pre- and post-movie discussions to prepare the kids to process Pullman’s worldview in a discerning mannar, and then conversing about what we’ve seen and evaluating it in light of Scripture and church history. Thank you for all you have done to help prepare me for that conversation. You and Alan Jacobs (on his Mars Hill “Audition” dialogue) have been invaluable.
Type in “Gene Wolfe” in Wikipedia. At the bottom of the page are links to several of his short stories and one of his novels, Free Live Free. I do not think FLF is one of his better works, but I like several of the short stories. Copperhead (a fable of cognates, sharing a common source with His Dark Materials, but with much different results) is my favorite of those, I think.
Of his novels, my favorites are his Wizard-Knight series (a sort of Young Adult coming of age story with elements in common with both His Dark Materials and the Narnia books), The Book of the New Sun (in the far-distant future, an apprentice in a guild of torturers is expelled from his guild for an act of mercy), and the Soldier series (which takes place in ancient Greece, with a main character who starts each day a complete amnesiac of his life, and who daily has to decide whom to trust, etc.)
Wolfe’s works are complex, and require multiple readings to tease out meaning. The rewards of this reading are great. He is perhaps my favorite living writer.
I was offering caution: Don’t join some hasty boycott. Feel free to skip the movie, sure. But don’t get caught up in the anti-Pullman hype that encourages ignorance and anger rather than information and a calm, truthful response.
I have already heard the protests in which people are screaming about how “they kill God in this movie” and “at the end of the movie, a teenage boy and a teenage girl have sex.” Um… no, nothing of the sort occurs. In the third book, there is an incident that suggests some carnal activity between teens, yes, but that’s not in either the movie or the book versions of Golden Compass. And nobody kills God in this movie either. In the third book, Yahweh is killed, but that scene won’t arrive until the third film is made (*if* it is made at all).
You see what I mean? Can you imagine how stupid we look when we respond this way, going out and speaking with spectacular ignorance “in the name of Christ”… while moviegoers stand at a distance shaking their heads at how we don’t know what we’re talking about?
If you feel I have not spent enough blog-space re-printing the catalog of concerns that Christians have about Pullman and his books, feel free to visit the numerous websites and blogs in which Christians are heaping fury and condemnation on Pullman and New Line for making this movie. My post was written for a different purpose than that. I’ve provided numerous links to in-depth examinations of Pullman’s stories. I provided many quotes and links that allow readers to understand the seriousness and severity of Pullman’s intentions to undermine Christian faith.
But as many vehement, zealous reactions to Pullman and his work demonstrate a striking lack of grace or knowledge, I am striving to encourage Christians to stop and consider not just the problem with the stories and the film, but also the problem with an all-too-familiar mode of Christian response to such stuff.
I’ve been meaning to get around to reading some of Wolfe’s work. Where should I start?
And Pullman promises that his next book will have “a whole lot” to say about Jesus himself. How terribly exciting. Emphasis on “terribly.”
This is really fantastic!
You make some fabulous points.
Keep up the utterly marvelous and enlightening work!
To the fellow who just sent a “comment” (a speech, really) about how God is actually evil and Satan is actually good, how Christianity is a “slave religion,” and how the devil and the angels of the rebellion are “the only good guys by definition all throughout the Bible” …
… this post was not an invitation for people to come and insult Christians or anybody.
It was posted as an appeal to Christian readers, asking them to consider how fear can steer us away from a truly Christ-like response to the culture in which we live. Christ exhorted us to speak the truth in love. So I won’t allow elaborate shows of disrespect here, from Christians or anybody else.
Take your theories elsewhere.
First of all in response to the comments it’s blatantly obvious that the angel in the crystal was the Judeo/Christian/Muslim god Yaweh/Allah whatever you wanna call it. It was stated clearly throughout the last two books that Yaweh “the creator” was just an angel and that he was old and he’d been gone. You can deny it all you want but I think that’s a little dishonest… but go figure given that truth, wisdom and honesty is what the book is about.
Second of all, he’s condemning not just organized Christianity, but religion as a whole for being anti-truth, anti-reason, anti-wisdom and horrifically abusive both psychologically (sometimes physically) towards children by their parents and as far as history is concerned – murderously (the only thing holding them back is it’s competition, the state). The bad apple comparison is ridiculous, it’s like saying:
“Nazism doesn’t harm people – the problem is people abusing Nazism.”
He’s attacking religion on it’s core ideology. The mythology itself depicts the “God” character as a genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, capriciously malevolent bully with a narcissistic personality disorder. Strangely this same god has an eerie similarity to the Egyptian Saturn god (El) and the greek god Cronus.
He points out that “God’s” only definition of good or evil is disobedience or obedience. Talk about a slave religion. Then along comes the serpent (Lilith) who “tempts” eve by telling the truth about the “fruit” of knowledge and “God” gets angry when she eats it. Thus, “God” is anti-knowledge, anti-truth. The “devil” or rather the angels of the rebellion (in the mythology) are the only good guys by definition all throughout the Bible. “The tempter” even confronts Jesus himself, calling him on his B.S. and he responds with some argument you would hear from a psychic being asked to demonstrate her psychic powers. “Oh I don’t use it for personal gain.”/”I don’t test god”. “The tempter” as he is called, is just trying to keep people from being defrauded by what Penn & Teller would call “bullshit”.
So really, it’s obvious what Pullman is trying to point out, that the good guys are the in the rebellion, … and the bad guys… well, they’ve been calling themselves the good guys all along. How Orwellian, up is down, black is white, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, war is peace, love is hate, good is evil… and so on.
As I read through the article and the comments, as well as others that have been written on other websites and blogs, it occurs to me that those who talk of blasphemy and are so protective of Christianity overlook a minor glitch in their arguments: Jesus was seen as a blasphemer and a threat to the church (synagogue) by the Pharisees and others of His time.
Am I defending the movie/book? No. I’ve not read the book nor seen the movie and so am not qualified to discuss that (a problem it appears is doesn’t seem to deter others). Rather, I simply to want to remind people that we humans can only see from a single point of view and, like the Pharisees, may not be willing to see from other points of view. Is it possible that through these stories we could grow in our faith? Moreover, if you already have a strong faith, could a book or movie disrupt that? Do you truly believe that if you are raising your children right and teaching them as you should, that a single book or movie could undermine and destroy in a few hours, the teachings you’ve provided over the years?
Remember, there were those who saw “Bewitched” the tV show as evil, too. It seems to me that more often than not, children recognize stories as just that — stories. The wolf didn’t really eat Red Riding Hood!
Thank you for the informed discussion of His Dark Materials. I read these books several years ago, and was very impressed with Pullman’s writing ability, but less than impressed with the series as a whole. He seemed through the course of the books to allow his anger at God to overwhelm his art, so that in the end my thought was, “What a waste of talent.” Well, I also decided not to allow my impressionable girls to read the books . . . .
A subtext in your discussion was the lack of heirs to Tolkien and Lewis–writers of faith who write rich, wonderful fantasy. I’m surprised that more people are not aware, but such a writer exists: Gene Wolfe. I suggest interested readers try either Wolfe’s Wizard-Knight duology or his magnum opus, the 5 volume Book of the New Sun. A word of caution–adult themes are in both works.
But here‚Äôs a question worth considering. Why does Pullman have this wrongful impression of the church in the first place. Could it be that he‚Äôs encountered arrogant, judgmental Christians? Could it be‚Ä¶ to some degree‚Ä¶ our fault?
I have to raise a tiny quibble here. You’ve linked elsewhere in an interview in which Pullman speaks in glowing terms about his grandfather, an Anglican clergyman, and claims to have warm memories about his childhood in the Church. When asked why he opposes Christianity, he cites abuses like the Crusades and the Inquisition.
So it seems it’s less a case of Pullman’s having encountered “arrogant, judgmental Christians” than it is a case of his passing judgment on the actions of Christians hundreds of years removed from him.
For me, this just makes Pullman seem more disingenuous. It’s not as if the only Christians he knew were horrible people. He’s well aware that Christians like his grandfather exist, but he’s not going to put them in his books.
That might make his characters have second thoughts about killing God.
I can understand your interpretation. But how many young children reading the books… or watching the inevitable movie… will come to that conclusion?
For all of Pullman’s sophistication in subverting Christian terms and symbols, and for all of his mislabeling (naming “the Gnostic demiurge” “Yahweh”… and naming childrens’ souls “daemons”), he wrote this for kids, knowing full well that they do not have degrees in theology or philosophy.
And kids who spend time with these books will have to disillusion themselves from the idea that Yahweh is a tyrant, and that the Church is primarily an entity seeking to oppress, control, and enslave them.
So, no matter how far we want to go in our discussion of how Pullman’s attack on the Christian church really isn’t an attack on the church at all, but on other ideas he has stuffed under that label, it’s his intended audience that is really vulnerable to misunderstanding here. That’s why we need to be so vigilant, and make sure we understand that what Pullman is saying, what is true, and what children are likely to perceive, are THREE very different things.
Thanks very much for that.
I haven’t seen the film yet, but I have read the books (twice).
1. The god that dies is not the Christian God, but the Gnostic demiurge.
2. The end is an anticlimax. After railing against Christian asceticism most of the way through the books, Pullman’s protagonists finally opt for something almost indistinguishable from it.
What annoyed me, however, was the group of British librarians who included His dark materials in a list of 30 books to read before you die, but omitted much better children’s books like Alice’s adventures in wonderland or the books of Alan Garner. The former is certainly more important than Pullman’s work, and the latter are also much better as stories.
Lately, it seems there has been too many knee-jerk reactions from Christians riding just a little bit too high on their horse.
It’s time Christians be known for what they are FOR, not so much what they are AGAINST!
I saw the movie. It was boring.
I remember the scene in which “Yahweh” is killed.
And I have had no trouble reconciling what happens in the book with Pullman’s insistence that he wrote these stories to convey his belief that there Is No God, and No Authority… and that Dust represents science and math and human endeavor. He outright rejects to the word “spiritual” as total nonsense. To interpret Dust as “the spirit” may make sense you to you, but it doesn’t look that way to me.
And I agree that Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel don’t come off as innocent. And that Lyra finds what the author wants us to see as a better way. No, Coulter and Asriel aren’t presented as saints. But their endeavors end up contributing to the overthrow of God. In the opening scenes of the movie, it’s clear that Asriel admires worlds that are free from Authority, and that’s where Pullman’s sympathies lie.
My “ultimate critique”? What do you mean? Pullman’s words about his own story are enough for me. I’m not constructing some argument to make the story say something that the author hasn’t explicitly declared on his own.
While I admire and respect much of what you say and think you’ve brought a new level of thoughtfulness to this controversy, here’s the straw man on which your ultimate critique falls apart:
“In the second and third book, when those cold-hearted and abusive adults turn out to be the good guys, exploiting children in their quest to destroy God, suddenly my feelings about the story changed.”
Exactly who are these “good guys”? Mrs. Coulter? Lord Asriel? And when do they destroy God?
Lyra and Will succeed because they resist the various temptations of their elders and their own desires and their free will and their sacrifice restores the balance of the worlds. The true God, the creator, and God, the spirit (Dust) live.
(And as you’ve pointed out what so many have missed, there is no God, the son, in this fictional world…..)
Jeffery, I’m not suggesting that we “just throw up our hands and run away.” I’m only suggesting that I wonder if your criticism of Pullman is less emphatic than it would have been in other circumstances.
Bubba, if there was a publishing sensation about ‚Äúcutting‚Äù, or a popular children‚Äôs film that encouraged racial prejudice, I would hope that there would be Christians informed enough to expose those evils for the world to see.
Right, but the concern you have for exposing the evils of Pullman’s work seems a little under-emphasized compared to your repeated assurances that we have nothing to fear and that we shouldn’t boycott.
Sorry, Jeff–I honestly wasn’t attacking what you said, as I agree with most of it. My *fire* that you may have felt is more in my desire to warn others about the true messagessss (–empasis on plurals, here :-)) of these books since I first stumbled upon them.
My angle on this has been how it could influence young, impressionable children, as well as the unsaved. I remember, before becoming born again, of having conversations with friends when growing up who doubted there was a god. They later ended up as lost souls with *very* sad lives, and not just meaning attempted suicides, having children out of wedlock, getting into drugs, multiple divorces–those things happen with Christians, too, sadly. But if these, my friends, died without coming to know the truth and saving power of Jesus and were met with the second death (judgment), how tragic that would be.
These books are *Satan’s* tools, which I know you know. I am thankful for those like you who read, view, and review themes like these. If too many of us want to “see for ourselves”, I fear we’ll be feeding and fueling the evil, seeing more and more of it and giving it a false sense of approval, you know?
I merely stumbled this series by “accident”–actually, I believe the Lord allowed my son to bring it home from school so I’d be aware of it and able to warn others.
Thank you *so* very much for pointing out that New Line Cinemas is indiscriminate. I had noticed they had some questionable movies they were promoting, but we had already bought The Nativity. Hopefully that purchase will pay for them doing another of *those* kind of films, instead. :-}
One thing we can *all* do as Christians is to pray that The Golden Compass flops at the box office–our God is able to do that, if He so chooses. An even better prayer would be that those who innocently buy the book or watch the movie will end up as children of God in spite of what they’ve read or seen. Whether we believe it or not, we are influenced by what we read, hear, and see. “Oh, be careful little eyes what you see… .” :-)
Thanks for your post, Jeff! :-)
Nowhere have I said “Buy these books for your young children.”
And nowhere have I said, “These books are fine, we don’t need to worry.”
The reality is that these books are already overwhelmingly popular… a publishing sensation. And the movie is sure to be a blockbuster.
My comments are about how to be salt and light in our culture. If we speak in ignorance about the books and the movie, we’ll end up making fools of ourselves, and playing the part of the presumptuous, judgmental Christians that Pullman has described.
It’s good to be guardians for your young children.
But many children, mostly teens, will be surrounded by these stories… at school, online, at the movies, in the bookstore. My caution is about equipping them with intelligent questions about the books. If they’re just taught to say “That’s bad,” they’ll come across as fearful and ignorant. The Apostle Paul might have just walked away from Mars Hill, which was filled with idols and altars to other gods. What a dangerous, corrupt place! But he set an example for us by boldly going into that place, equipped with knowledge about those false gods, and he was able to speak with discernment and integrity, showing the weaknesses in those beliefs, exposing the lie. And then he was able to show them, as a speaker of grace and truth, that there was an unfulfilled longing in their hearts for the One True God… that “Unknown” God.
If he had responded to them with contempt and rejection, and “not given them the time of day,” he would have had no ministry there.
I’m not saying “Throw your children to the wolves.” I’m saying teach them. Train them up, by instruction and example, to have discerning minds that will be able to ‘test all things’ (as Scripture exhorts us to do).”
Bubba, if there was a publishing sensation about “cutting”, or a popular children’s film that encouraged racial prejudice, I would hope that there would be Christians informed enough to expose those evils for the world to see. If we just throw up our hands and run away… I’m not sure how that fulfills our role of “being *in* but not *of*” the world, or how that allows us to be salt and light.
The corner pub was full of deceit, reckless indulgence, and temptation. And Jesus was smack in the middle of it, showing such grace that people wanted to follow him when he walked out the door.
Alas, most Christians would rather hold a picket sign outside the pub, or say “I don’t want to give people in that place the time of day,” and disappear into a “safe” Christian culture where they are protected against all sin. (As if that works.)
Leza said: “If we go to the movie(s) or *buy* the books, all we‚Äôre doing is perpetuating his evil.”
Well, at this point, if we buy anything related to The Lord of the Rings movies, or The Nativity Story, then I guess we’re perpetuating evil too… because that money is going to New Line Cinema, which is going to use that money to make the sequels to The Golden Compass. I think we have to think a little more carefully, and not narrow our concerns to “where the money goes.”
I feel a lot is really being missed, here. This movie–AND the trilogy of books–is being aimed at innocent *young* children.
The real danger is in the books. Not necessarily the first book in the trilogy, but definitely in the second and third. My son innocently brought home one of the books from his elementary school’s library. While I read this second book in the series, “The Subtle Knife”, I had wondered how a book which is so violent and defiant in nature could translate into a movie. There would have to be a *lot* of modifying.
Some defiant messages it sends–“it’s okay if you do something bad (like beat people up if you think they deserve it) as long as you don’t get caught”, or “you can pretend to be sorry and still plan on doing something violent, again”–are awful teachings. In these books, good is evil, and evil is good.
I was totally shocked and disgusted with this book’s content which also speaks of castrating boys and girls; Lyra calling a murderer a “worthy companion”; a witch implying “if you were older, you’d understand and accept why I killed my lover and am killing myself”; etc.
These books, again, are geared toward children, and are found in many *elementary* schools which, as the parent of young children, believe should *not* be.
On my blog, I have parts of this book quoted for anyone interested: http://naturemom.blogspot.com/
Really, would we be so tolerant if there was a book series out featuring one of our sweetest, dearest friends vehemently being called a tyrant and in need of being overthrown and killed? Even in the name of fantasy, would we really want to? After all, it’s just fiction, isn’t it?
Humm, no, I’m guessing. So how would we, as Christians, want to do the same when our God is the target? It should be no different.
With Pullman’s own admission that his books are about killing God, why on earth would any one of us Christians want to give anything he’s written the time of day? Anyone can have their own opinion, but if the author says he’s killing God, in reality, that’s what he’s doing.
If we go to the movie(s) or *buy* the books, all we’re doing is perpetuating his evil. The war I believe Pullman describes in his books are Armagedon, only he gives it an alternate, dilusional ending.
In our reality version, Satan looses in the end, taking with him as many people as he can. These books are Satan’s tools. Don’t let him use it on the innocent who don’t know the truth of the cross and salvation, and of the real struggle unseen by us humans.
“But here‚Äôs a question worth considering. Why does Pullman have this wrongful impression of the church in the first place. Could it be that he‚Äôs encountered arrogant, judgmental Christians? Could it be‚Ä¶ to some degree‚Ä¶ our fault?”
Sigh. Do materialistic atheists worry that some fraction of their number might be giving the wrong impression? Do they fret that the 100 million people killed by atheists in the last century could give religious folk a less than perfect impression of them? Hardly. If you brought it up they would laugh in your face at the connection. Yet their most often applied technique is to take the worst “Christians” that they can find and present that to the world as the typical example.
No matter how meek and loving the vast majority of Christians are, the materialists will find the obnoxious fringe that exists for any grouping of human beings and pretend that this is what Christianity is. To say this is “our fault” is a foolish mistake.
The invocation is to be “as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves”. Might I suggest that you make your recommendations for action along those lines. Christians should not be passive in confronting evil, and at the very least all practicing Christians, observant Jews and even Muslims should be appraised of what the “Dark Materials” books and movies contain.
To concur with Peter, Jesus specifically mentioned in Matthew 16:18 that He was building His church. There remains a deep divide over whether He was making the Apostle Peter the first pope (or even whether He was referring to Peter, the Twelve, or Himself), but the Gospel uses the Greek word ekklesia, which almost certainly means “church” in this context.
To address this thread however, I think I’ve finally figured out how to verbalize my unease at what Jeffrey wrote:
I can’t conceive that he would take a similar approach with a fantasy book series for children that, no matter how well written, glorifies self-mutilation (“cutting”) or racial prejudice. A book that glorifies cutting would promote a wrong relationship with yourself, an a book that glorifies racism would promote a wrong relationship with your fellow man. It seems that Pullman’s books are quite clearly intended to attack Biblical Christianity, in promoting an anti-theistic worldview which would engender a wrong relationship with God.
Pullman’s goal is at least as dangerous for children as either of these two hypotheticals. Because I cannot imagine anything less than a unequivocal criticism of those two hypotheticals, it is disappointing to see less from Jeffrey regarding Pullman.
Jesus did not come to start a religion called Christianity . . .
But he did start a Church. He even appointed apostles to lead it. And those apostles, in turn, appointed deacons (Acts 6) and formed at least one Council to deal with a controversy that had implications for the entire community (the Council of Jerusalem, described in Acts 15 and Galatians 2); and this Council, in turn, set the standard by which future Councils would be held and future controversies dealt with.
Whether or not we call this organization “a religion” or “Christianity”, the fact remains that the Church founded by Jesus has always been an “organized religion” in some sense.
Thanks for the article. It gives some balance to the “pharisee approach” of so many which is so prevalent in organized religion today.
A few observations on the comments:
“what would Jesus do? How did he respond to the sinful woman in adultery? Did he walk away? Did he stand there and loudly agree, ‚ÄúYes, it‚Äôs sin!‚Äù”
I would rather have been brought before Jesus than the pharisees and religious leaders of his day if I were that women. However, I would like to take issue with “what would Jesus do?” Living loved by my Father means I follow Jesus’ example who did what he saw his father doing (Jn 5:19) and I need to do likewise – I need to do what I see Father doing not ask “What would Jesus do?” because we live daily in a relationship with him.
“While it is true that Pullman opposes organized religion, I don‚Äôt think he‚Äôs against Christianity as a collective religion…”
I think this understanding is correct and it is not any different to how Jesus saw the religious leaders of his time. Just a thought here – Jesus did not come to start a religion called Christianity but rather to show us how to see his father and to live in Father’s love today. We really have moved far from this in organized religion.
Talking of good novels that have a good Christian theme I have just finished an imaginative book “The Shack” – http://www.theshackbook.com – I would highly recommend it.
I like how you approached the issues. It’s the best formulated opinion I’ve read about the movie. And I especially liked how you pointed back to the novel and the author’s beliefs.
But what it all boils down to is Ephesians 6:12 (The Holy Bible)
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (NIV)
Phillip Pullman is not our enemy.
Our Middle school, who has read these books, is going to get ahead of this issue and pro-actively teach our children how to Biblical critique the culture that we all swim in. Because of the email that has been going around it has alarmed a lot of parents. But I appreciate our MS director’s courage and foresight in helping to equip and train our youth to engage the world they live in.
I posted about it here:
I am not sure how many Orthodox churches you have attended – but the ‚Äúnever, ever‚Äù vocative you employ leads me to believe you attend quite a few.
FWIW, I have been attending Orthodox churches for almost five years now, and I became a communicant about a year and a half ago, after a long process of discussion and debate. (And Bishop Ware’s The Orthodox Church — which never uses the word “magisterium”, at least not according to the Amazon.com “search inside” concordance — played a key role in my conversion, for whatever that’s worth.)
A search for “magisterium” at Orthodoxwiki.org turns up only two pages: one on the “filiqoue”, a key point in the schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches (where the reference simply states “in the East, the whole Church is seen as the guardian of faith, while for the West, the Magisterium maintains the faith”); and one on “What is Orthodoxy”, which states: “In Orthodoxy, it is not an authoritative magisterium which safeguards the Faith; it is the faithful themselves!”
No doubt there is a polemical element to those references, but they do suggest how foreign the term or even concept of “magisterium” is to the vocabulary of the average Orthodox — though of course figures like Bishop Ware, who have made great effort to emphasis commonality with Catholics wherever possible, may have used the word in their dialogues and treatises.
. . . (2) a commentary by Pullman on authority at large‚Ä¶ not merely an attack on the RC church. This would be a limiting read of his intent. The fact that (to use your simile) the Pope isnt used by Pullman in the film as leader of the Magistrium only reinforces this point of a broader ‚Äòattack‚Äô.
True, Pullman is against Christianity in all of its forms — hence the reference in his book to the atrocities committed in Lyra’s universe by “Pope John Calvin” — as well as to oppressive authority in all of its forms. But while Pullman’s trilogy may be more than anti-Christian, it is not less than anti-Christian.
Pullman has lately begun to talk about how one of the worst “theocracies” of recent years was the atheist Soviet Union, and director Chris Weitz has said that the Magisterium reminds him of the Islamic theocracy in Iran … but for some reason the books and films don’t seem to reference Islam or Marxism at all, let alone bash them with the relish with which they bash Christianity. And I think it is quite appropriate for Christians to point this out.
you wrote: “But it‚Äôs a Latin term, and one that I have never, ever heard in relation to the Greek- or Russian- or Arabic- or whatever-speaking churches of the east ‚Äî so at this point in history, it‚Äôs probably fair to say the word refers to the teaching authority of the Catholic church and leave it at that.”
I am not sure how many Orthodox churches you have attended – but the “never, ever” vocative you employ leads me to believe you attend quite a few. In that event it is suprizing that you havent heard the notion of Magisterium in relation to the Patriachs of the church – e.g. the work of leading theologians such as Bishop Ware, Zizioulous, etc. My point was not to imply that this is a term in play today however – as a matter of fact many RC today wouldn’t know that the Magisterium refers to the Holy See – but (1) a heritage we all share who are “christian”, and (2) a commentary by Pullman on authority at large… not merely an attack on the RC church. This would be a limiting read of his intent. The fact that (to use your simile) the Pope isnt used by Pullman in the film as leader of the Magistrium only reinforces this point of a broader ‘attack’.
I don’t think I’d call myself a “Christian” in the sense that you might call yourself one, but I generally ascribe a much lighter message to His Dark Materials.
While it is true that Pullman opposes organized religion, I don’t think he’s against Christianity as a collective religion so much as he is against organized religion. I don’t read HDM as an attack on Christianity as a religion, I read it as a parable to explain that it’s always good to question authority, even religious authority. The book depicts positively many values Christians embrace.
The only issue you are taking with it, therefore, is that Pullman is attacking the institution of the Church (in whatever form), which you see as the basis for religion. That’s not necessarily a bad thing–I’m not “religious” as you may define it by any means, but I’m no atheist. There’s a kind of middle ground between “religious” and “atheist” that’s not agnosticism, but spirituality. I think HDM is a call for people to abandon organized, ritualized faith and get back in touch with humanity in a more spiritual fashion, rather than clouding their view with the gauze of rituals and theology.
I had a friend once describe the difference between religion and spirituality as “Religion is for people who are afraid of Hell. Spirituality is for those who’ve been there.” That’s not to put down the religious–it’s just a representation of the different worldviews the two represent. One can be religious without being spiritual, one can be spiritual without being religious, and one can be both, or neither.
I think you perhaps paint a rather unfairly negative portrait of Pullman in this article, but I haven’t read EVERY interview and EVERY authorial comment he’s made, so I don’t know for sure. Even then, though, what Pullman says and what his readers get out of the novel can be and frequently are two different things. And at the end of the day, it’s a GOOD thing that a book can challenge someone’s faith. A good challenge to faith never resolves badly for a person, as in the process they learn more about themselves and question their behavior.
And, as a librarian, I’m glad to see someone warn people off burning books. We certainly don’t need to go back to the Middle Ages.
. . . we are terrified of the Piped Piper taking our kids out of Christian bookstores and we will lose our marketshare‚Ä¶
Marketshare!? Is His Dark Materials really the first fantasy series to lure kids into the secular bookstores? Has anyone been going out of their way to buy The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter at Christian bookstores?
Please remember – the ‚Äòmagisterium‚Äô is a term coined in the 3rd century for the apostolic leadership of THE church‚Ä¶ this is 1,200 years prior to the Reformation and therefore no Roman Catholic/Protestant split has taken place yet.
This would also be about 700 years before the Great Schism between the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic church. But it’s a Latin term, and one that I have never, ever heard in relation to the Greek- or Russian- or Arabic- or whatever-speaking churches of the east — so at this point in history, it’s probably fair to say the word refers to the teaching authority of the Catholic church and leave it at that.
To put this another way: The word “pope” was originally applied to the Patriarch of Alexandria, who is still called “pope” to this day… but nowadays, in our culture, the word “pope” is almost always used to refer to the Roman bishop and to nobody else. So if a movie came along and had a villain known as “the pope”, and the filmmakers said they weren’t targetting any particular religion, and someone replied by pointing out that the word refers to the head of the Catholic church, then the answer might not be as historically or theologically exhaustive as it could be, but it would still be correct, for all intents and purposes.
I suppose by ‘accurate critique’ I mean… well… what it says I suppose :-) By ‘accurate’ I mean that Pullman is right to assume that the authoritative structures of our world are not as benevolent and generous as they may appear to be. Granted, we always can flag examples of saints and near saints who lead humanity, but the fact remains – power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. As for ‘critique’ – in this Pullman is taking his concerns ‘public’ (going back to Goethe – who provides much of the philosophical backing for Pullman’s Strum and Drang form of ‘kritique’ as opposed to a Greek (Plato, Aristotle) form) in a polemic.
Do I agree with the brash way he denouces Christianity in his interviews? No – he is raging rather than dialoging. Does he feel there is a dialogue to be had? Probably not – if you aren’t in “the club”, who gives you the time of day?! Therefore, Pullman (to riff on our beloved Clive Staples) has to ‘shout to waken a deafened world’ and he does so through fiction geared at children – probably the most terrifying thing for evangelicals. Not that he critiques capitalism (which he does), not that he critiques rationalism (which he does), not that he critiques hegemony (which he does) – but that he is talking to our kids without ‘permission’ about matters of freedom of thought (aka not writing for a ‘christian press’). Given the idolatry of family as consituted as the ‘nuclear family’ (no such designation in scripture given that the family is built around the widow and orphan) – Pullman hit where it hurts but we still dont understand the depth of how right he is on so many things because we are terrified of the Piped Piper taking our kids out of Christian bookstores and we will lose our marketshare… nuff said.
Excellent analysis, I look forward to reading the books and watching the movie with your ideas in mind.
I’m an SPU student and yesterday I listened to the recording of when you spoke at the Day of Common Learning. I just wanted to say thanks, I really appreciated a lot of the things you said. I love all of the stories you talked about (Watership Down is one of my all-time favorites) and you have inspired me to start writing again. I always enjoyed writing stories throughout grade school and high school, but haven’t done any creative writing for a long time.
Anyway, thanks again, I’m going to try and pick up a copy of Auralia’s Colors when I get a chance.
I’ll try to deal with both of your responses in the same message.
Your first part of the article, and indeed the title itself, is heavy with the encouragement that we should not “fear” the Golden Compass. I don’t agree with responding with wrath, nor do I appreciate with responding with ignorance that can lead to embarassment. When fear, wrath (which probably comprises a judgemental attitude), ignorance are used as big warning signs for a person “not to be” in relation to a particular work, whether you meant to or not, it immediately puts anyone who says anything to the effect of “avoid the Golden Compass” as likely, or possibly, falling into one of these three negative camps. Just as I agree with you approaching anything in these three negative states of mind is unconstructive, I would submit to you to consider that perhaps not all approaches to something and calling for a boycott on it are necessarily fueled by these emotions.
My point about blasphemy and heresy (Mrmando, I wasn’t really thinking about heresy in the Golden Compass or in the trilogy of works, as I was thinking about the broad themes of blasphemy and heresy in entertainment works in general that are largely ignored or swept under the carpet) was that that blasphemy is serious, its an affront to truth and God, and a denial of Christ. I think we both agree its bad, and almost always warrants a serious consideration that something should be avoided. Whether its a song, a hot new play, a computer game, or in this case a series of books, I am suggesting that if there is clear, agenda driven blasphemy in the art that is primarily aimed at children, then it should be avoided. When we have a piece of work or teaching that is clearly blasphemous and/or anti-christian, I would have assumed the default position is to avoid it, and yes, for learned, sober members of the body to understand it, and educate others on it. What I am countering here is that when you say don’t be afraid about something, then there’s an implication that its okay to read or watch (ie. nothing to fear here folks, go ahead and buy it for your kids), and/or that people who tell you not to read or watch it, are afraid (those damn entertainment nazis! always boycotting, always fearful!). This may not have been your intent, but I think the implication intentionally or unintentionally, is there given the introduction heading of your article, and the conclusion heading. Before you accuse me of not reading the very MEAT and CENTRE of your article, I assure you I have, and I’ll try to address some of the points you raise in relation to my previous post, and in quite an upset fashion. (I’m sorry if I upset you. I wasn’t trying to).
I agree with you that a person who wants to discuss something, shouldn’t “show up at the table with a speech unless you know what you’re talking about.” I’m not really here to discuss the work, since the points I am talking about, ie blasphemy, anti-christian, anti-christian agenda by writer, are not disputed. What I want to talk about is how we deal with something like that. I would also think that movie reviews, book reviews from trusted sources, are a way for people to be able to be more discerning on what they spend their money on, what they spend their time on, and their to move that forward, what to buy their kids. The library may deal with the money factor, but not the time.
I read through some of your responses which you took my post very personally, and I daresay you misread me as much as you accused I did you. I’ll treat those here:
1) I was making a separate point that good original entertainment isn’t a good enough reason to be entertained, it can be trumped and avoided for other reasons. I never suggested that you said good entertainment was the standard you used in this article.
2) My reworded comment about “does it make it okay that the attack is on Yahweh and not on Jesus” was essentially a point that something does not have to be specifically directed at Jesus to be blasphemous. This was a side comment to your earlier paragraph about how Pullman doesn’t talk about Jesus. Nor was I accusing you of saying that it was okay (How did you infer that?)
3) My comment also about “You don’t explain truth by telling them a lie, and then telling them the lie is wrong. You tell them the truth, and live it” was more that instead of buying these books for kids because its pervasive or because the themes can be discussed, to approach the education of the children without those material as far as possible, in the first instance. I am addressing the process of getting them to read a entertaining and seductive work and then having a discussion of why the work is wrong. Why not just skip that process? I don’t think at least in this case, the examination of evil is necessary to the understanding of good. However, if you are in a situation where your kid already has the book in hands, then rather than throwing it out the window, Of coruse you have to read it, discuss it, and then face the possibiltiy your own arguments for Christ are listened to.
Unfortunately, you took that statement, which I meant not in reference so much to you, as I was as a stand alone statement, but instead saw it as as a misreading of what you intended, and go on to call it a spectacular failing, proving your point, Um.. what blog are you reading.. etc. You end of that particular section with “Where did I ever say to tell a lie?!”, which is clearly your reaction to something you think I accuse you of, which if you read my article under the cool light of day, I did not. I’m not sure whether you’re answering me with the same grace and intelligence that you suggest we all should have when writing, but its okay Jeff. I consider you my christian brother, its okay if you want to get mad at me. :)
I wanted to comment a little on “what would Jesus do”. Although that has become a catch phrase and is laughed at in some circles, I like the standard. Do I think Jesus would have bought the book for a child and say “read it, and then lets discuss it” or He would have simply not bought it.. hrm. I don’t know to be honest. I veer towards the latter. You seem to veer towards the former. I suppose that’s why we’re having this disagreement on boycott.
I will examine my own heart to see if I have a pharisee spirit with regard to calling for a boycott on this work.
4) on the topic of my assertion that you claim that Pullman was good, if not better than Tolkien and Lewis, the first part about how Pullman is good is scattered throughout your article in your praise of his story telling, language and characterisation. “if not better than T and L” was my inference from the way you described his work. I’m glad you think that T and L are better. They’re my favourites too.
5) Your final point, again, is it necessary to use descriptive words like entertainment nazi, screaming and yelling, throwing stones just because I happen to saying that we should avoid the work? I don’t think I, or necessarily anyone who calls for people to avoid a book that is anti-christian any of those. I’m not screaming or yelling, I don’t have any stones in my hands. The only close connection to swastikas is when I’m watching Allo Allo. I think you may have reacted to my post so, because you’ve inadvertently associated me with ‘Them fellas that hate all fantasy.” For the record, I grew up on T and L, they were a big part of my childhood (and adulthood) reading.
I wanted to add apoint that I agree with you that we should educate our children and not do option 1 or 3 that you suggest. But I think option 2 can also be moderated with having an initial barrier of weeding out clearly dangerous or useless material. When I say boycott something, avoid something, please don’t take this to the extreme and assume that if my kid winds up with the book, I am going to lock him up in a dungeon, throw out the book and dismiss it. I will probably read it, and discuss it, like you’ve mentioned. I am suggesting a stronger stand of avoidance.
As an aside, and to share, I am boggled at the receptiveness of these works by the christian community. Yes, there are emails circulating around that its bad and “da devil”, but there are also people saying its perfectly harmless, just entertainment, just watchit and feel good. (I don’t mean you). The work is anti-christian, blasphemy, by an anti-christian author with a clear agenda. My own first reaction was “Oh okay. Let’s not read it/watch it then. Let me warn my other christian friends in case they accidentally buy this for their kids thinking its harmless” I’m surprised that this is such a fantastically position.
You may be in agreement with this, you may not. You also clarified in your response to me, that you think its dangerous and people shouldn’t watch it if you can help it. Yet If I summarise the introduction of your article as “don’t be afraid” and the conclusion as “don’t boycott or complain”, I think its to say that a casual reading of your article suggests people should go ahead and read the books. Yes I agree with you that you do attack the religious truths that Pullman seeks to advance, and that you do say that we should educate ourselves.
In conclusion, I’m not sure whether you are in agreement or not, but this is really the position I am advocating with regard to Pullman’s books.
1. You are at a bookstore thinking of what book to buy to read over the weekend. Don’t buy his books.
2. You are at a cinema thinking of what movie to watch to relax and blow steam. Don’t watch the movie.
3. You have a kid that’s clamouring you to buy the book/watch the movie. Explain that the books/movies are bad, and why. If the books end up under their beds, or in bittorent through the monitor, don’t “throw the book” (pun intended) at them, but discuss it intelligently and explore the issues.
4. You’re a teacher in a class and kids and everyone’s talking about it. Read the book, educate yourself so you can discuss it.
In summary – Avoid it if you can. If you can’t avoid it, then read it, understand it, and point out how its wrong.
“Pullman is an amazing storyteller, with one of the most formidable imaginations since J.R.R. Tolkien himself. It would be foolish to argue that. I was enthralled by The Golden Compass when I first read it.”
I totally disagree. Having read all three books, I found them to be some of the most drossy nonsense ever dreamed up. They do not deserve to be mentioned in the same paragraph as Tolkien or Lewis. Like the Harry Potter series, they are not bad because of witchcraft or anti-christian viewpoints, but rather they are bad because the writing is trite and cliche. Read Brian Jaques or Garth Nix. Those are writers.
Pullman said, ” As for the atheism, it doesn‚Äôt matter to me whether people believe in God or not, so I‚Äôm not promoting anything of that sort. What I do care about is whether people are cruel or whether they‚Äôre 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. Good things have been done in the name of religion, and so have bad things; and both good things and bad things have been done with no religion at all. What I care about is the good, wherever it comes from.”
My question then Mr. Pullman, by what standard is something deemed good? Surely you have a standard.
Is it wrong to enjoy the talents of another even more because they deny the source of those talents?
I believe God is teaching us something through people like Pullman. Our response to this teaching should not be turning away, what a shame that would be. Yet, it has already started, I’ve received an email asking me to join the “boycott”.
Thanks for the perspective!
I’d be interested in reading more about what you mean by “accurate critique”?
I think the church has earned a rather severe critique, frankly. And I’m not opposed to that taking shape in art.
But Pullman has repeatedly insisted that his intention is to “undermine Christian belief,” not offer the church helpful criticism.
Jeff – in regard to your statement “‚ÄúThe Magisterium‚Äù is not a term invented by Philip Pullman. It‚Äôs a reference to the Catholic church. And it isn‚Äôt hard to see that in the film.” Please remember – the ‘magisterium’ is a term coined in the 3rd century for the apostolic leadership of THE church… this is 1,200 years prior to the Reformation and therefore no Roman Catholic/Protestant split has taken place yet. Theologically, the ‘magisterium’ is any ecclesiological leadership called forward to a leadership position. That said, I believe Pullman is taking a more Foucaultian route – challenging ANY preceived claim to power that would somehow hold sway over others. To say the ‘magisterium’ is a reference to the Catholic church is to miss (1) Pullman’s challenge is larger than that, (2) that the Anglican influence of Pullman’s British background is part of this so-called ‘attack’ (I prefer ‘accurate critique’ myself…), and (3) that we who call ourselves ‘christian’ have a magisterial hertiage that is part of our past as well as our present. To deny this latter point is to assume some ‘year zero’ faith assertion – that we have no historical tie nor hertiage.
But if it weren’t for the willingness of Christians like you to watch the film and discuss it rationally, then uninformed stone-throwing would be our only option.
For what it’s worth, I saw the movie today. And I’m sorry to say that everything I’ve said about the book also applies to the movie. Whatever they did to “tone things down”, it hardly shows.
I thought I‚Äôd address some of the original article‚Äôs main points in thought-bites.
Well, then, you should actually address the article’s main points instead of straw-man points you wish the article had made.
‚ÄúDon‚Äôt be afraid of the Golden Compass‚Äù.
Have we lost the meanings of the word blasphemy and heresy in the church?
Do YOU know what those words mean? Pullman’s works might well be blasphemy but they’re certainly not heresy. Heresy is false doctrine pretending to be true Christian doctrine, and since Pullman makes no pretense of being a Christian, he’s hardly a heretic.
Are these concepts lost in the worship of original entertainment? ‚ÄúChristianity is a mistake and a lie‚Äù. ‚ÄúLets kill Yahweh.‚Äù How much more explicit does a writer or movie have to be? What must a writer say, what must a movie show, before we decide that ‚ÄúNo, that‚Äôs just too much.‚Äù
Well, that’s up to you. It’s too much for me, certainly. I see no reason I should read the books or watch the film, but I’m grateful to Jeffrey for levelheaded assessments of them.
Its starting to seem like there is no line. Dress up something nice enough, you can tramp all over the ressurection, baptism, scriptures, as long as its in an entertaining storyline. Then parents will be forced to buy the thing for their kids, and then discuss how wrong they are.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Who’s “forcing” parents to buy anything? All Jeffrey said was “Don’t be afraid of the Golden Compass.” That isn’t a recommendation to buy the book, or to watch the film — nor is it an endorsement of what they say. And even if it were, no one is holding a gun to your head and telling you to buy the book.
How about you don‚Äôt buy the thing, AND discuss how wrong they are?
Perfectly legitimate response, as long as you are sufficiently informed about what the thing says. That’s one reason articles like this are written.
How about instead of letting your child‚Äôs mind be dictated by what their friends like or what the media says is good, you educate them from the start that the brain is a sponge, and just because you put something in it, doesn‚Äôt mean you can take it out?
To some degree that’s true of children. But even so, better you should teach them what is true, and show them how to measure all other claims against that standard. Because the brain doesn’t remain a sponge forever. At some point, in order to become a mature Christian adult, you need to have a reason to believe that’s stronger than “This is what my parents believed.” You need to have a filter around your sponge so that you can test the claims people make about God and hold fast to what is true. Your parents won’t be around forever to try to keep you from harm.
Will this book destroy the church? No. But there are casualties. People can be deceived. Entertainment, good writing, original story line, nice cinematography, are not good enough reasons to watch something that is explicitly calling christianity a lie, written by a person calling christianity a lie.
I agree with that … but of course now you’re not even talking about this film, because reportedly the screenwriters have watered down its anti-Christian message! I’m not saying that makes it a worthwhile film, but how do you know this film “is explicitly calling christianity a lie”? You haven’t seen it! And again, where in this article did Jeffrey recommend that anyone see the film?
Uh… no. I’m just saying, let’s not respond hysterically, with wrath. Let’s not respond ignorantly, or we’ll end up embarrassing ourselves.
I do believe that I made it very clear in the post that what Pullman is doing is blasphemous and an expression of religious bigotry.
It was Jesus himself who said, “It’s not what goes into a man that corrupts a man.” Paul went to Mars Hill and walked among the idols to other gods… and then, educated, he responded… even quoting the pagan poets back to the pagans and showing them the hole in their own argument.
Truth and discernment cut through lies. Fear and hysteria and hasty anger cloud our judgment and lead us into rash, clumsy statements we reget later. I say that from experience… I’ve reacted in outrage many times, and done more damage than good.
If you don’t want to *pay* for the books, here’s a solution. It’s called the local library.
And I’m not saying “Everyone Must Read the Books and See the Movie.” I’m just saying If you’re going to participate in the cultural discussion of this work, “Don’t show up at the table with a prepared speech unless you know what you’re talking about.”
I don’t believe I ever said, “Go to the movie and have fun! It’s just entertainment! Soak it up!” No, I said if you are going to participate in the cultural discussion of this work, go in there with eyes to see and ears to hear. And then speak the truth… in love.
Um… what blog have you been reading? When did I ever say that what Pullman is doing is okay? We live in a country where freedom of expression is legal. What he’s doing is legal. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I don’t like it. Reading the book, I was heartbroken when I realized what he was doing. Now… I can either throw the book away and walk away and let the culture around me get swept up by imaginative lies, or I can respond intelligently, with humility and grace.
You are misreading my post. You’re misreading rather spectacularly. And this is actually a fine example of what I’ve been saying…
If we don’t read carefully and answer with grace and intelligence, we end up making a bit of a spectacle of ourselves. I know you have the best intentions, but you haven’t understood me, and now you’re accusing me of things that are very much the opposite of what I believed and wrote.
Where did I ever say “tell the lie”?! I said, “The lie is being told. We can ignore it and walk away, or we can examine it (“test all things,” say the scriptures), shine the light of Christ’s truth upon it, reveal its rotten core, and show up its weaknesses to the rest of the world.
I agree with you. There are lies out there that will endanger children. They’re waiting on billboards. On television. In public schools. On the internet. They’re everywhere.
Now, we can respond in several different ways.
1. We can *remove* our children from the rest of the world and cut them off from all of these things, just to be safe.
2. We can teach them, directly and by example, to be cautious but also brave and discerning.
3. We can say, “What the heck? It’s just a risky world. Have at it. You’re on your own.”
There is no perfect answer. But I’ve seen the consequences of taking Path #1 and Path #3. Most of the discerning Christian adults who are making a difference in the culture around them have found a healthy balance along Path #2.
And I definitely don’t recommend these books for young children. No, they’re not discerning enough yet. Of course, I don’t recommend that we let small children wander wherever they want on the internet, or let them go to whatever movie they want either. I’ve spent more than ten years trying to equip viewers to make good decisions for themselves and their kids.
Ah yes, but *how* we call it sin… that makes all the difference.
The Pharisees stoned the woman in adultery. They stood around shouting at sinners all day long. But… if you’ll excuse the expression… what would Jesus do? How did he respond to the sinful woman in adultery? Did he walk away? Did he stand there and loudly agree, “Yes, it’s sin!”
No, first, he came up close. He helped her up. He reprimanded the pious judges who cared only about *reacting* against sin. And then, as a friend and helper, an intimate guide, he instructed her in the way that she should go.
That’s hard to do. I’m trying to learn how to do that. You could say this post is a beginner’s attempt.
Please. Point this paragraph out to me.
I said he built on the foundation of Lewis and Tolkien. He followed their example, to some extent. Where did I ever come close to insinuating that he’s better? I’ve never believed that. I’ve believed that he’s inferior all along the way.
You have read my post through a lens that adds in things that aren’t there.
Do as you think is best. I was saying, “Let’s not respond with some hasty, hysterical boycott and make ourselves look like Entertainment Nazis.”
Cancer is deadly and dangerous. Shall we respond by just walking away from the problem? Or shall we learn about the disease, learn how to prevent it, and try to help those who are afflicted?
If you believe that you or your children are not prepared to sift this story to find the weaknesses amidst the strengths, by all means, steer clear. But the New Testament I read said that, while “the weaker brother” is unprepared for some endeavors, others should train themselves up for the complicated matters, and behave with conscience and dignity.
Christ went into the bars. He sat and dined with prostitutes and sinners. And when he walked away, they followed him. They wouldn’t have done so if all he did was sit there and tell them how sinful they were. He was a friend to them. He went into the messy places, but he did not sin.
Culture is a messy place. The Golden Compass is one of the latest fashionable lies. We can steer clear of it to protect ourselves and our kids, and for some, that may be the best thing. For others, it will be the job to go into that discussion and represent the truth… with a spirit of love and grace.
But it’s is not for any of us to stand at a distance and scream and yell and throw stones.
You wrote this “in a bit of a hurry?!” :)
Very insightful article. I for one agree that by condemning the stories before we have even read them is folly; we should be informed so that we can better dialogue with non-believers in an educated way. This is why I read the Potter books and I enjoyed them very much (although I’m still a little upset by her recent “outing” of Dumbledore).
You also hit the nail on the head in regards to allegory – it IS our zealous desire to reach the lost (which is GOOD) that makes the “imaginative” stories by Christian authors of late rather obviously preachy (which is BAD).
Thus, I am VERY interested in your book! I think it’s going on the Christmas list!
awesome. thanks for writing all that. :-)
“The reason we‚Äôre having this controvery and conversation is, in part, due to this truth: Christians have become so suspicious of fairy tales, fantasy, and imagination that we have created an environment in which it is very unlikely that we will see another imagination like Tolkien and Lewis emerge.”
Of all the things you wrote, this part touched me the most. I have read these books, I really liked them, and in no way did I feel that they were attacking my faith. I figured out pretty quickly that the author had a certain point of view of Church and Faith and I accepted that in order to read the story…but it doesn’t mean that I believe him or changed because of it. I mean, really, aren’t most people smarter than this? I hope so, anyway.
I read these books as good works of science fiction/fantasy and enjoyed them for what they were. Thank you for addressing the controversy surrounding this author and his work because there are so many people who just don’t get it: It’s fiction! It’s another person’s beliefs and you don’t have to adopt them!
And as for the movement in Christian literature…well, I have had a real problem with most of it for many years. As a matter of fact, I rarely read it because it’s mainly poorly done and so obvious that I can’t even enjoy it. Some of the greatest art in history was done for Christianity, but what we have going on today barely rises to the level of art…in my opinion anyway!
This is a great response to Pullman’s series. A Christian friend introduced me to the books this summer, and I read all 3 rather quickly. He is a master storyteller, whatever his motives may be. I think, as Christians, we so often tend to limit God’s power and when something “bad” comes out, or rather something a group sees as bad, the reaction tends to be one of fear and anger, as if it is our responsibility to make sure the whole world knows that these books are not advocated by us. And in doing so, more attention than ever is drawn to that controversial item. In reality, we serve an all-powerful God who is in control at all times, and something tells me God isn’t sitting up in heaven, all in a panic because of Pullman…or Rowling…!
It seems to me, as Christians, so much of our time could be better spent by reaching out to those around us, rather than getting on our high-horse over one small work of art. I’ve had some of the most interesting discussions about Christianity with unsaved people after they find out I have read His Dark Materials and the Harry Potter books – people seem to appreciate discussion rather than attack, go figure! :)
I thought I’d address some of the original article’s main points in thought-bites.
“Don’t be afraid of the Golden Compass”.
Have we lost the meanings of the word blasphemy and heresy in the church? Are these concepts lost in the worship of original entertainment? “Christianity is a mistake and a lie”. “Lets kill Yahweh.” How much more explicit does a writer or movie have to be? What must a writer say, what must a movie show, before we decide that “No, that’s just too much.” Its starting to seem like there is no line. Dress up something nice enough, you can tramp all over the ressurection, baptism, scriptures, as long as its in an entertaining storyline. Then parents will be forced to buy the thing for their kids, and then discuss how wrong they are. How about you don’t buy the thing, AND discuss how wrong they are? How about instead of letting your child’s mind be dictated by what their friends like or what the media says is good, you educate them from the start that the brain is a sponge, and just because you put something in it, doesn’t mean you can take it out?
Will this book destroy the church? No. But there are casualties. People can be deceived. Entertainment, good writing, original story line, nice cinematography, are not good enough reasons to watch something that is explicitly calling christianity a lie, written by a person calling christianity a lie.
“He doesn’t mention Jesus and has a false view of Christianity.”
No, Pullman didn’t present a true and accurate reflection of Christ, because the God he was killing didn’t mention Jesus, just Yahweh. So that makes it okay? I don’t think the book is going to demolish the truth. I don’t think its going to affect the millions of christian prisoners in russia or chinese jails for refusing to renounce Christ. While these people are being martyred and having cattle prods put in their mouths for calling themselves christian, do you mind if I just make a gentle plea on their behalf, could you give up being entertained by a story that calls their tortured faith a lie? You don’t explain truth to people by telling them a lie, and then telling them the lie is wrong. You tell them the truth, and you live it.
“If Pullman’s work shakes up people’s faith, their faith was poor to begin with.”
Considering that this book is targeted at children, I’m not particularly certain what sort of level of faith he is expecting children to have to begin with so they aren’t shaken. I’d like to think that a parent discussing a wonderfully dressed up lie is enough to destroy it. I suspect it isn’t always the case if its deceiving enough.
“Could it be that Pullman encountered judgemental christians? Could it be our fault?”
Someone who is judgemental is someone who finds fault in people, and condemns them for the sin in their lives, or determines that they are hypocrites. Calling something sin if it is, according to scripture, sin, is not being judgemental, unless you think Christ was judging on the sermon on the mount. Its just calling it what it is. Are we only going to call something a sin in front of a non believer, if we know that person is going to implicitly agree? Yes, child molesting, murder, oh, its easy to call that sin. But being the light of the world is more than just being loving to everyone. Its about being called out, drawn out, being different, and being radically different. If we’re only going to call something sin if the person next to us won’t be offended, we’re not shining any light anywhere. We’re sitting in the darkness next to them quietly, happy that when we go home we can switch on a torchlight when we read our bibles.
“Okay. So we shouldn’t boycott or complain about books.”
I’m not sure how the critic arrived at this conclusion. the major parts of the latter his article talks about how Pullman is a good and skilled story teller with good characterisation, then goes on to explore Pullman’s atheist beliefs, there are a couple of paragraphs about how damning Pullman is like damning Harry Potter, and finally a whole paragraph about how Pullman is as good, if not better, than Tolkien and Lewis.
So basically the other half of the article which I haven’t addressed here in blurbs, is about how good Pullman is as a story teller. From the above, and that, I get the conclusion I shouldn’t boycott the books.
I shouldn’t boycott something literary because its original, entertaining, and has nice themes, and potentially might be a big hit with the world?
Since when did those become values we determine what we read, or don’t read?
Thanks! I particularly appreciated your point that, in neglecting to deal with Jesus, Pullman has set up a “straw God.” I’ve seen some people arguing that Pullman is actually defending Christianity by killing “the false God,” but that sort of ignores the fact that, for him, the false God is the only God there is.
I also really enjoyed The Golden Compass but got increasingly annoyed with the books as they became increasingly preachy–especially because I’d already seen Pullman’s lambasting of Lewis for HIS preachiness. Et tu, Philip?
Great advice, though, about entering into dialogue with the books/movies, rather than ignorantly reacting against them.
Thank you very much. You said exactly what I thought as I read the books, and you said it better.