Is “First Things” getting a pass in “The Golden Compass” controversy?

Is “First Things” getting a pass in “The Golden Compass” controversy? December 4, 2007

I will not be seeing The Golden Compass.

As enticing as it may be to conduct a spectator revolt against the Catholic League’s latest histrionics, I have no interest in seeing it. There has been no shortage of uninformed opinion on the Catholic blogs regarding the USCCB’s recent evaluation of the film. First, the USCCB does not “endorse” the film, as one poor blogger confusedly suggests. Second, is it not a bit audacious to suggest the USCCB was somehow wrongheaded to rate the film “A-II” (adolescents and adults), especially if one has not even seen the film adaptation of a book one has not read? Well, Thomas N. Peters of American Papist (not American Episcopist. obviously) has done just that with his prolix “commentary on an advance review,” whatever that may be. How one provides commentary on a review of movie without having seen that movie is beyond me. If that’s not forming one’s perspective at a second-hand, derivative level, then I don’t know what is. But back to the matter at hand…


Why is it that the USCCB is coming under any sort of fire for its review? To be specific, the “review” under question comes from two men, neither of whom are bishops. Notwithstanding that fact that the USCCB is often criticised by self-styled “conservative” Catholics or illusioned “papists,” something these neo-Montanists hold in common with their “progressive” counterparts, I want to pose only a simple question:

Among those who have criticized the USCCB for its evaluation of the movie The Golden Compass, why has there not been similar and stronger criticism for the positive review of the book The Golden Compass published in First Things back in May 2001? The First Things blog, On the Square, offered once more this review for our reading early this morning.

If you are not familiar with this review, check out the following points of Daniel Moloney, Associate Editor of First Things, on the entire Dark Materials series:

Religious people should find nothing objectionable in the moral message (though Pullman seems to think they will), but the failure of imagination here is unforgivable.

Pullman challenges the most fantastic and yet most persuasive parts of the Christian myth—Creation, the Fall, Sin, Death, Heaven, Hell—and one credits him for gumption. If his alternative were more compelling, I would recommend parents keep their children away.

As is, I can fairly characterize His Dark Materials in this fashion: imagine if at the beginning of the world Satan’s rebellion had been successful, that he had reigned for two thousand years, and that a messiah was necessary to conquer lust and the spirit of domination with innocence, humility, and generous love at great personal cost. Such a story is not subversive of Christianity, it is almost Christian, even if only implicitly and imperfectly. But implicit and imperfect Christianity is often our lot in life, and Pullman has unintentionally created a marvelous depiction of many of the human ideals Christians hold dear.

That’s write (er, “right”), the Associate Editor of First Things does not think children ought to be kept away from Dark Materials, and he even suggests that Pullman’s depictions actually buttress the truths of Christian faith. Wow.

The movie The Golden Compass is said to have distilled most of the anti-religious elements found in the literature on which it is based. The British National Secular Society has even commented that the cinematic adaptation is “taking the heart” out of the books. Now, if Moloney of First Things thinks the books are not really morally or religiously objectionable, and there has not been much criticism of his viewpoint, then why would a USCCB review, written by two of their film guys, that notes positive aspects of the more religiously and morally neutral film adaptation draw so much concern?

So, again, where is the criticism of First Things, which ran the review of one of its editors, if there is any criticism to be heard in the first place? Has ideological alliance given First Things a pass?

UPDATE: I managed to come across one blog that has a passing, critical reference to Moloney’s review.  Fumare is consistent here in its criticism, despite the unfortunately mindless title of the post and the obvious lack of familiarity with the books themselves (e.g., “Magisterium” is not the name of the enemy in the books, but in the movie).  Once more the itch to criticize and fear the unknown prevails.

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  • Um, a six-year-old book review gets a “pass” because it’s six years old and mostly forgotten.

    The FT review sounds like typical desperate Evangelicalese, aching to find something mainstream with admirable but latent Christian themes.

    It reminds me of people who fawn over the latest raunchfests because they are anti-abortion or anti-promiscuity in a minimal, backhanded way.

    If there really aren’t latent Christian themes in pop culture anymore, then insular Fundamentalist enclaves or the trad Catholic ‘ghettoes’ actually have a better grasp of the situation than aspiring “Christian leaders” yearning to have a place in secular circles of influence.

    “Atheists can kick us and blaspheme God as long as they profess semi-humanist values” is the rationale that let the execrable Christopher Hitchens become so popular with neocons.

  • Policraticus

    Um, a six-year-old book review gets a “pass” because it’s six years old and mostly forgotten.

    First Things blog, On the Square, offered that six-year-old book review in a post early this morning. Given the time it took for criticism of the USCCB’s review to hit the blogosphere, I’d say criticism of Moloney’s review is awfully late.

    I’ll note the On the Square post in my own piece.

  • They linked to the old post as a matter of cross-reference and self-promotion. But even the “new” material is a reprinted review from the Weekly Standard. I presume the Jacobs’ piece is more indicative of FT’s present editorial stance than the other review quoted here.

  • Policraticus , it seems a bit reactionary to criticize an entire magazine for one book review? This post isn’t an engagement of that editor’s argument as much as it is an attempt to malign the magazine and those people associated with it. Where’s the intellectual rigor?

  • Policraticus

    Policraticus , it seems a bit reactionary to criticize an entire magazine for one book review?

    I didn’t criticize First Things in the least. I made no disparaging remark toward the periodical whatsoever. If you had read my post with attentiveness–with “intellectual rigor,” as you put it–you would see that I am expressing bewilderment over the alacrity with which the “entire” USCCB has been criticized for “one” movie review, while the crickets are heard chirping in terms of criticism of First Things. In other words, why the criticism of one positive review and not the other, when the latter is a positive review of a far more morally and religiously objectionable medium than that of the former.

    You’ll notice I make no value judgment in terms of The Golden Compass, which is why I criticize neither the review of the USCCB nor that of First Things.

    This post isn’t an engagement of that editor’s argument as much as it is an attempt to malign the magazine and those people associated with it.

    Again, not a single malicious word was uttered against First Things.

    Where’s the intellectual rigor?

    Exactly.

  • “Such a story is not subversive of Christianity, it is almost Christian, even if only implicitly and imperfectly.”

    This work of fiction is Gnostic. The American religion is heavily Gnostic. First Things has often held the American civic religion in high regard. Does it all come down to the same misunderstanding of Gnosticism, the tendency to see things that look Christian as “almost Christian” when they are certainly not? And you know what I’m talking about here (hint: not a work of fiction). Or is this reading too far-fetched, even by my standards? 🙂

  • carmelcutthroat

    So, again, where is the criticism of First Things, which ran the review of one of its editors, if there is any criticism to be heard in the first place? Has ideological alliance given First Things a pass?

    Perhaps a better (and less ideological) question for you to ask is: “has anything changed in the last 6 years to account for the change in First Things position?

  • Policraticus

    Perhaps a better (and less ideological) question for you to ask is: “has anything changed in the last 6 years to account for the change in First Things position?

    What change? Jacobs’ review is from 2000 and from a different periodical. It was merely reprinted in First Things, and states nothing about the danger of the books. Moloney, the associate editor of First Things, wrote his review in 2001 specifically for First Things. But my post is not about First Things in itself, but about the lack of critique of First Thing‘s only extended review of the books from those who feel they must criticize the USCCB’s review, which was similarly positive. I suspect the reason is ideological, but I would love to be proved wrong here. Let’s not get distracted here from the point of the post. Why criticize the USCCB review but not the First Things review?

  • jonathanjones02

    I’m more interested in Nicole Kidman 🙂

  • Daniel Moloney wrote a fairly substantial review in First Things — he teases out some Christian elements in Pullman’s work (probably to the author’s own dismay). I thought this section was on the spot, however:

    Pullman has set himself an ambitious task, trying to tell a complex yet realistic tale about the death of God and the true nature and destiny of man. He has the talent to have pulled it off, but unfortunately, his atheism gets in the way. For unlike John Milton and his other hero William Blake, Pullman is a Richard Dawkins-type materialist, and his atheism fatally flaws The Amber Spyglass, and therefore, retroactively, the whole series. Pullman, who raised more than a few eyebrows with an article in the Guardian excoriating C. S. Lewis’ Narnia stories for their tendency to lapse into preaching, falls prey to that same bad habit himself. Indeed, to facilitate his preaching, he breaks many of the rules of fantasy-writing in this third volume, and although this probably makes his novel more appropriate for children, it seriously weakens it as art.

    Atheists can write perfectly good and realistic fiction, because there is nothing about being an atheist that prohibits a person from understanding human motivation and the physical world. But being nonreligious does deprive you of the one thing an ambitious fantasy author needs: a plausible cosmology, a myth that tells us how things got to be the way they are. The great religions all provide this. One could even hold, as did Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, that a religion is just a story of the world, which in the case of Christianity (they held) happens to be true. A Christian fantasist in his act of subcreation can borrow heavily from the true mythic world created by the Christian God; the fantasist might change some of the names and other details, but the basic infinitely rich story has already been told.

    The nonreligious fantasy author is forced to play the mythmaker twice, as it were. He has to develop a cosmology of the way the world really is, the nonreligious account that re­ places the account given by the religions he rejects. And he has to write the fantasy story, obeying all the rules of the larger account and then creating his own world within it. In the first two books of the trilogy, Pullman merely alluded to the larger account while telling an imaginative and exciting adventure, which promised to be one of the best ever. In the third book, however, he needed to explain his theory of innocence and adulthood, which he thought required him to tell a different story of the Fall, which in turn tempted him to explain how everything we think and feel can be explained simply by scientific materialism.

    Honestly — I’m far more concerned about the books than the movie. But the danger of the films is that they are being directly marketed to kids along the lines of C.S. Lewis’ ‘Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe’ (released around Christmas to boot), and children will likely flock to read them after seeing the film; and (unlike Lewis or Tolkien) they aren’t the kind of books I’d want my children reading until they were able to do so critically.

  • While I will give Fumare credit for pointing out the review (and I suspect he found it via my comments on AmP), he doesn’t really deal with the issue. He suggests Pullman was upset at the interpretation of the FT review; fine, but that is beside the point on whether or not the book is given a “pass” or not. Moreover, I find Pullman’s reasoning to be similar to those of his greatest criticis: both are thinking in a dualistic, us/them mentality; the reality is that Christians can recognize good in non-Christian sources and discuss how they reflect virtues which Christians as Christians revere. Thus, on the one hand, love is a virtue, and it is universal; fine, but for Christians it is also a specific Christian virtue, and this shows the non-dualistic communication which we can have: find points of agreement, and show it is not all “us vs them” but that, behind the dualism, there is some sort of unity in the dialogue as well, and virtues can be held up as a virtue within a given tradition while recognizing it is universal as well. To be upset that a Christian can find sentiments that they appreciate in a non-Christian work is sad, but in the polemic sense, it is clear why Pullman AND his critics want the separation.

  • “I am expressing bewilderment over the alacrity with which the “entire” USCCB has been criticized for “one” movie review, while the crickets are heard chirping in terms of criticism of First Things.”

    Bewildered? Really? You’ve not been long a denizen in the blogodrome. Just practicing for the cafeteria line, they are. They’re not quite up to cannibalism, unless dinner happens to be a particular sub-species: bishops, gays, TLM busters, etc.

  • Policraticus

    Honestly — I’m far more concerned about the books than the movie. But the danger of the films is that they are being directly marketed to kids along the lines of C.S. Lewis’ ‘Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe’ (released around Christmas to boot), and children will likely flock to read them after seeing the film; and (unlike Lewis or Tolkien) they aren’t the kind of books I’d want my children reading until they were able to do so critically.

    I agree with this. In fact, I advised my middle school parents and students not to see the film because they have not yet developed that critical eye.

  • Bill

    “(e.g., “Magisterium” is not the name of the enemy in the books, but in the movie).”

    This is incorrect. Perhaps you should read the books yourself.

  • In the books, the term “The Church” is used as the time, and that is more to the point than the also used term Magisterium; to ignore that aspect of the book while discussing it is what Policraticus appears to be bringing up. The movies dropped this more specific title; Magisterium doesn’t have to be an ecclesial term.

  • I also find it interesting that some responses go, “Well, the FT review is old” as if that is a good reason to dismiss the contents of that review and means we should not discuss them.

    In the scale of things, at least when looking at things within the perspective of history, the FT is still rather fresh; the Bible, on the other hand, is old. Should it just be ignored? And what about the writings of St Thomas Aquinas? To reference a date like that is to neglect a real discussion of the issue.

  • I also think MM’s post about the book is correct; not only is the Golden Compass gnostic, it seems rival gnostic groups are arguing against which side is “the side of light” and which is the “side of the dark”

    Pullman’s reaction to Christians looking for Christian messages in his works shows this quite well. But many will only enter the fray with the same dualistic mentality: either/or, no third option is ever considered.

  • Surely you can see why people may be more concerned over a positive review coming from the USCCB than they would be of one coming from First Things.

    For one thing, most people probably were unaware of the First Things review – I was until just now, while the story of the USCCB review is all over the place.

    Secondly, all one need do is look at the latest ads coming from the promoters of the film – intended for inclusion in Diocesan newspapers – which imply a USCCB seal of approval.

    Thirdly, I think there is a hope among many who are writing about this that the USCCB will tone down the review the same way that the original gushing review of Brokeback Mountain was toned down.

  • Looking forward to the movie. It sounds interesting.

  • Policraticus

    Surely you can see why people may be more concerned over a positive review coming from the USCCB than they would be of one coming from First Things.

    Perhaps if the reviews were done on the same material. But since the First Things review is over the entire literature series, whereas the USCCB review is on a cinematic adaptation of one of the milder of Pullman’s books, I think the First Things review is deserving of equal if not more criticism by Catholics (and other Christians!), that is, of course, only if one feels the need to criticize any positive review at all. And an important note: the USCCB does not recommend the movie to children whereas Moloney explicitly states that parents need not worry about keeping their children away from the books.

  • ben

    If you disagree with the criticisms of the USCCB, then defend them, If you disagree with the FT review then criticize it.

    To attack those critical of the USCCB for not being critical of a review in FT, seems a textbook example af the ad hominem circumstantial fallacy.

    This post is beneath your talent Policratus.

  • Policraticus

    If you disagree with the criticisms of the USCCB, then defend them, If you disagree with the FT review then criticize it.

    I neither agree nor disagree with either review. I withhold my judgment, for I have not seen the movie nor read the books.

    To attack those critical of the USCCB for not being critical of a review in FT, seems a textbook example af the ad hominem circumstantial fallacy.

    I do not intend to attack so much as to interrogate. I intended only to ask a “why” question.

    This post is beneath your talent Policratus.

    I thank you, but I fear you may have overestimated my talent.

  • [From Amy Welborn’s]:

    New Line did approach diocesan newspapers and media outlets and offered to advertise this movie once the USCCB review came out. From our communications director, I’ve found out that none are taking the bait–most are appalled at New Line’s chutzpah. We will not be publishing the USCCB review. Most Bishops are outraged over the movie and have absolutely no control over their reviewer from the Conference. Yet, that is the problem. Harry Forbes who reviews for them gets to publish his opinion and stick the approval of the Bishops on it. Just watched Fox news mention how the Bishops liked the film. Not true, but folks won’t know that. Maybe this will push the Conference to change the way it approves or disapproves of films. Several dioceses have published either negative reviews of the books or letters from Bishops who warn against the movie. (Check out Bishop LIstecki’s letter from LaCrosse Diocese.)

  • Tim F.

    In reading Michael Iafrate’s comments in this post and the previous one on TGC, you might think he was some rebellious teenager but in looking at his blog, it seems he is just a young hip urban dwelling PHD. Candidate /anarchist with no children. In our society today you can’t really blame someone for confusing the two. He seems to take an individualistic position regarding this film. A film that is according to everything I’ve read a watered down version of the first in a trilogy of books written by an atheist using a Gnostic story in a ploy to destroy the Christian faith of children and young adults. And yes this movie is being marketed to children. My 7 year old son’s National Geographic for Kids had an article on it. The theme of the article was “Do animals really act like they do in The Golden Compass”. Well what do you expect from people who peddled “The Gospel of Judas”. But back to Michael Iafrate. There seems to be zero solidarity with fellow Catholics on this issue perhaps even to the point of going to see the film as a rebellious gesture. There is no concern that this film could make hundreds of millions of dollars that would allow New Line to make the other two entries in the trilogy. The director has said this first one is watered down and the second two will not be in their anti-religious/anti-faith message.
    Now you can see any film you like, but what’s the point in thumbing you nose at people who advocate not seeing it? That might be fitting of an anarchist but is it Catholic? And I find it sad that even the other bloggers here who have stated that they will not see the film seem to feel the need to take shots at other Catholics like Bill Donohue and others even while basically taking the same position. I think Donohue’s tone and methods are probably counter-productive but why all the nasty references to him and others. I think you people are much more willing to find common ground with pro-abortion feminists (as in the exchanges a couple of months back with another blog) than you are with fellow Catholics. Pullman and “His Dark Materials” has become a wedge between Catholics, and even a club with which to bash the “others”. As far as the Bishops Conference and their review which apparently now is being used to market the film, I don’t understand why they are in the film review business anyway.

  • Policraticus

    I think you people are much more willing to find common ground with pro-abortion feminists (as in the exchanges a couple of months back with another blog) than you are with fellow Catholics.

    Based on what you’ve seen of our different responses to The Golden Compass? Ridiculous…and insulting. Please do not ever assume that I would actively seek common ground with “pro-abortion feminists” at the expense of finding common ground with “fellow Catholics.” You’ll find nothing doctrinally questionable in anything we write.

  • Tim F.

    Sorry to offend Policraticus. I may have misunderstood the exhange going on a few months back. I thought it was an effort to find common ground. In regards to The Golden Compass, saying you will not see the film and encouraging others (parents not to take their children) while making negative comments about Bill Donohue doesn’t seem to me to be attempting to find common ground. It seems everyone on this blog who says they will not see the film feels obliged to take a shot at The Catholic League while stating so.

  • you might think he was some rebellious teenager but in looking at his blog, it seems he is just a young hip urban dwelling PHD. Candidate /anarchist with no children

    Is this the same Tim that apparently knows everything about my lifestyles and my “second conversion” and how I hate materialism and want to impose on others my ways of thinking?

    “With no children”? What is that supposed to mean?

    Come on, Tim. Most of us here do not know each other in person, so to start “profiling” people based on what we read about them (or by them) is: 1) unnecessary and 2) border-line slander. If you want to argue someone else’s position, feel free to do so, but I’ve had it with the profiling around here and you seem to be the only one who falls into that. We get into some less-than-pleasant discussions around here, but I don’t see people resorting to making comments about people’s lives (family, spouses, significant others or lifestyles.) Defend your argument and stop attacking people you don’t even know. Those are just infantile cheap shots and disrespectful, to say the least.

  • Tim F.

    The movie is targeted to children. Katerina. He doesn’t have any apparently, at least that’s the impression I get in reading his blog. I think you completely missed my point regarding his statements. I’ll take back the hip part because I don’t have anything to substantiate that other than his glasses and haircut in the picture on his blog. I don’t wish to get into an argument with you though. I will repeat my point. Pullman and his books have become a point of conflict and contention among Catholics. Fee free to continue that conflict.

  • Tim F.

    Katerina, I’ve just noticed that you accused me of borderline slander. I think in doing that you might be in danger of slander. Please be specific in how I have almost slandered Michael Iafrate. You have read a lot into my comments I think.

  • Policraticus

    Tim,

    Morning’s Minion was only one among us who wrote a post on common ground with pro-choice individuals:

    Is a Truce Possible on the Abortion is Issue?

    I wrote a post shortly after in response to the same people Monring’s Minion was in dialogue with:

    I am unequivocally anti-abortion

    Judge for yourself.

  • Tim F.

    Policraticus,

    I never suggested you were not. And I did remember that you wrote that and that it was Morning’s Minion who was the one who posted that. This was while I was out getting lunch. I probably should have left that out since it was implying you all held the same views regarding dialog with pro-aborts. I should have limited my comments to the fact that the people here who have said they will not support New Line and Philip Pullman’s work share feelings that range from irritation to outright contempt for Bill Donohue, The Catholic League, and other’s they percieve to be of their ilk and felt they had to offer negative comments about him even though they had problems with His Dark Materials as well.

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