Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Christians and The Golden Compass

by Kim Fabricius

While Richard Dawkins and his crack troops are busy shooting fundamentalist fish in a barrel, the Catholic League in the US, up in arms over the celluloid version of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (the first instalment of the trilogy, His Dark Materials), is now taking steady aim at its own foot by calling for a mass boycott on this “atheism for kids.”

Hey, objects this kid, where are the Presbyterians and the Anglicans? In the novel the head of the wicked Magisterium is Pope John Calvin, while Pullman has called St Lewis’ The Narnia Chronicles “one of the most ugly and poisonous things I have ever read.” Let’s at least be ecumenical in our vilification of the film. I should be careful: the ultra-evangelical Christian Voice in the UK, infamous for its attacks on Jerry Springer: The Opera, doesn’t do irony.

Of course Pullman does have the church in his sights. Indeed he is on record as saying that “My books are about killing God.” I just hope that The Golden Compass faithfully executes the deicide that the author so imaginatively conceived and elegantly crafted in the novel.

For the death of this God would actually do the church a great service. He is the god Pullman’s mentor and fellow iconoclast William Blake, whose 250th birthday we celebrated last Wednesday, called Old Nobodaddy, who bears as little relation to the God Jesus called Abba as the straw deity that the New Atheists so tediously torch. This god, who is finally defeated in the third book of the trilogy, is a bearded old fart “of terrifying decrepitude, of a face sunken in wrinkles, of trembling hands and a mumbling mouth and rheumy eyes.” He is the object more of ridicule than indignation (one thinks of the satire on idolatry in Isaiah 44).

The real target of Pullman’s animus is not this impotent wretch but his grand inquisitors who deploy religion in the (dis)service of control and repression, the ecclesiastical authority so savagely pilloried by Blake in “The Garden of Love”:

    And I saw it was filled with graves,
    And tomb-stones where flowers should be;
    And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
    And binding with briars my joys & desires.

As Rowan Williams, a great fan of Pullman, has written: “What the story makes you see is that if you believe in a mortal God, who can win and lose his power, your religion will be saturated with anxiety – and so with violence. In a sense, you could say that a mortal God needs to be killed.”

But the narrative does more than smash empty idols, expose institutional hypocrisy, and condemn vice – “cruelty, intolerance, zealotry, fanaticism … well, who could quarrel with that?” asks Pullman – it inculcates what are decidedly Christian values. Pullman’s coming-of-age story is articulated in terms of growth in wisdom. Here is the winsome heroine, Lyra, reflecting at the very end of the trilogy on selflessness and truthfulness, the virtues it takes to create anything good, beautiful, and enduring: “We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and brave and patient, and we’ve got to study and think, and work hard, all of us, in our different worlds, and then we’ll build.” If such values are indicative of a “pernicious atheist agenda,” bring on the AOB.

Okay, Pullman’s onslaught is unrelenting, his didacticism can get the better of his art, and for a writer so knowledgeable about a literary tradition steeped in Christian faith – not only Blake and, of course, Milton (“his dark materials” comes from Paradise Lost), but also, among others, Edmund Spenser, George Herbert, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Emily Dickinson – he can be theologically quite obtuse, if not without flashes of insight.

But that’s not the point. The point, for the church, is the embarrassing mini Magisterium of Christian Pharisees and Philistines who prove the point Pullman is making. And the ultimate irony: there is nothing like a good boycott to market a product. Popcorn, anyone?

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