It has been interesting to hear friends and family on both sides of the current discussion about whether or not The Golden Compass is anti-God, anti-religion, anti-Christian, or perhaps just, taking a clue from something the author actually said, anit-Narnia. The discussion was made more interesting because none of those talking about it had seen the movie and only half of those talking about it had read any of the books in the series. My own analysis is that the theme of the books is primarily anti-authoritarian rather than explicitly anti-religion. That being said, it is clear that the author views various manifestations of religion as the worst kind of authoritarianism. But anyone who can’t accept that premise is ignoring 2000 years of Christian history as well as thousands more years of human history. History is saturated with individuals and groups that were convinced that they had the truth and were therefore obligated to force it on those around them. Christians may not like it, but historically there are many more examples of the church as abusers of power than of the church explicitly following the teachings of Jesus.
Now that the movie is being released we have even more confusion sorting out what people are really objecting to: the novels? the movie? the comments of the author? As a librarian I have a built-in, deeply-held bias against those who see themselves as self-appointed censors. I was disturbed but not surprised when the pastor at my church repeated without hesitation many of the distortions of truth that are being circulated in conservative Christian circles.
An interesting analysis of the books come from Catholic theologian, Donna Freitas, who writes in the Boston Globe:
These books are deeply theological, and deeply Christian in their theology. The universe of “His Dark Materials” is permeated by a God in love with creation, who watches out for the meekest of all beings — the poor, the marginalized, and the lost. It is a God who yearns to be loved through our respect for the body, the earth, and through our lives in the here and now. This is a rejection of the more classical notion of a detached, transcendent God, but I am a Catholic theologian, and reading this fantasy trilogy enhanced my sense of the divine, of virtue, of the soul, of my faith in God.
The book’s concept of God, in fact, is what makes Pullman’s work so threatening. His trilogy is not filled with attacks on Christianity, but with attacks on authorities who claim access to one true interpretation of a religion. Pullman’s work is filled with the feminist and liberation strands of Catholic theology that have sustained my own faith, and which threaten the power structure of the church. Pullman’s work is not anti-Christian, but anti-orthodox.
In an era which has recently witnessed film versions of other fantastical worlds, (Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter), comparisons are inevitable. I like the reviewer from the Dallas Morning News who says if Tolkien is like a symphony, Pullman’s work is “more like hip-hop: spiky, violent and angry.” The reviewer goes on to say
. . . here’s what you’ll find in Mr. Pullman’s creation: A transcendent, universal, omniscient intelligence is somehow concerned with the way people live their lives. It takes an active role in human history and seems to want to encourage particular values: loyalty, courage and love. There is something immortal about people that survives physical death and reintegrates with the larger universe. The origin of the universe, and of that cosmic intelligence, is either inexplicable or not explained. And if you want to believe this all fits together, you’ll have to take some of it on faith. That isn’t Christianity. But it sure sounds like a religion.
–How does faith fit into film version of ‘The Golden Compass’? By: Weiss, Jeffrey, Dallas Morning News, The (TX), Dec 06, 2007
I can think of a lot more to say, but not much more that would really add anything substantial to the discussion. Just let me end by paraphrasing a review from the Christian Science Monitor–You can boycott and protest all you want, just don’t pretend you are doing it in the name of religion.