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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Golden Compass

My e-mail box was recently the recipient of a barrage of e-mails about an upcoming children's movie that should be avoided at all costs. I glanced at the first few, not really worrying about it because I so rarely get to the movies that it was unlikely I'd have to go out of my way to avoid seeing this one.

Then I got one that went into more detail. It said that while the movie would likely be innocuous enough, it was intended to draw people into the books and the books were an atheist's attempt to kill God. The mention of the books sparked my interest. I read further and discovered they were talking about Phillip Pullman and the "His Dark Materials" trilogy.

Possessing the contrary soul that I do, I immediately went out and bought the trilogy, prepared to feel the same frustration that I did when people called for the banning of Harry Potter books. The outcry over Harry Potter I considered to be sheer idiocy and the result of intellectual laziness.

After reading The Golden Compass, the winner of a Carnegie Medal, I can at least understand where the critics are coming from. Yes, this book does point out the abuse of the church. However, I'm still not convinced that this is a bad thing nor that there is anything in this book that I would consider harmful.

This is the response that I have drafted, but not yet sent to those who forwarded me the e-mail along with (in some cases) their outraged commentary:
I would encourage everyone to read this interview:

http://www.thirdway.org.uk/past/showpage.asp?page=3949

before making a final judgment on the movie or the book. The Third Way is a Christian magazine that describes itself as a "virtual home of rigorous Christian thinking on politics, society and culture. Third Way is a magazine for people who haven't lost faith in God or lost touch with the world." It is a rather intense interview with the author that deals specifically with his viewpoint on Christianity and how that is manifested in the books.

As a result of these e-mails I did go out and buy the trilogy because I'm always wary when someone starts a campaign that preys on our fears. I've now read the first book and would certainly agree with the assessment that this is not a pro-Christian book (of course, neither are the majority of shows we watch on television). It does, though, raise interesting questions that we as Christians ought to be prepared to respond to and frankly, consider. He does address abuses of the Church throughout history, abuses that we should be aware of if we wish to prevent them from being repeated. Knowing that the Church has done evil things in the past does not mean acknowledging that the Church is an evil entity. It means acknowledging that we must understand the cultural forces that led to those acts so that we can be vigilant about not falling into the same errors. If we pretend that they did not exist, then we provide fuel to our enemies who know otherwise and will (and do) use those things against us.

These books are only dangerous to children who believe everything that they read or are told. As Christians, we raise our children to have spirits of discernment, to not believe everything that they read. We raise them to be able to listen to an idea and then compare it to God's teachings. If we don't let them read or see things as children which are contrary to Christian beliefs, then we risk them being swayed or shattered by the first eloquent argument they meet as an adult. Haven't you met the adults who left their Christian faith because they came across a single fact that seemed to contradict what they had been taught as a child? Rather than be able to meet the seeming contradiction with a spirit of inquiry, secure that God has the answers and that we can search for them, they throw everything away.

Yes, Pullman dislikes Narnia. Personally, I adore Lewis' work but I also recognize that he proposes a pretty unconventional theology (do you know that in the Narnia books he says anyone who does good does it onto God even if that person is serving another religion by a different name? That people do not need to be Christian in name in order to achieve heaven so long as while practicing the other religion they act in a way consistent with Christianity?). For that matter, fellow Christian theologian J.R.R. Tolkein didn't like the Narnia series. Pullman has some valid criticisms of the series, but while he didn't like the series, neither did he set out to write the opposite.

I won't encourage my son to read Pullman's trilogy, but neither will I forbid it. Rather, I will be vigilant so that if he does read it, I'll ensure that we can discuss the ideas and where I think they are flawed. If he reads it, it will be an opportunity to talk to him about Christian theology and how the misreading of it can lead to the errors that were committed historically and how we can avoid it now. I will teach him also, how our God is so strong that he is not weakened by the searchings of those who have not yet found him nor by their outrage at what they see as the wrongs of those who serve Him. By teaching him that God is stronger than doubt, I hope that I will teach him that God will love him through the inevitable doubt that his faith will suffer.

Please forgive the length of this e-mail. I think literature and storytelling is important--it was Jesus' favorite way of teaching. I get nervous whenever there is a call for censorship. I would far rather we be called upon to read and engage with things that we disagree with than to call for it to be banned or ignored. Every time we have done the latter, the sales of the targeted book or movie go through the roof as its defenders rally around it. Wouldn't it be more effective to arm ourselves with God's grace and wisdom rather than with our anger and indignation? Couldn't we use this movie as an opportunity to engage people on the ideas set forth? Because we won't silence the ideas even if we refuse to participate in the debate. We serve a mighty God. Perhaps we ought to look at this movie as an opportunity to bring about greater things for Him by speaking up to dispel some of the myths or even to ask forgiveness for those things of which we are guilty. Perhaps there is a message that Christians might take from this movie and these books that can be used to strengthen our faith.


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