Monday 3 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?


Anonymous said...

Can I re-post with a link?

Matt Jenson said...

kim, i love your posts. and i'm grateful for your good reminder that gods who are not God need killing. but i don't think that's the main point here. what concerns me most is not that pullman has found an idol worth lampooning, but that he has done so in a day when few of us know enough about the real thing in the first place. it's a problem of religious and cultural literacy. what worries me is how many people i know find it hard to move past the stage of firing pot shots. so, rather than thinking critically, they dismiss - usually not even knowing what they're dismissing. it's awfully sexy to be a cynic. i'm afraid pullman seems to encourage this.

Matt Jenson said...

for another really helpful theological reflection...

Unknown said...

The movie critic I follow, James Berardinelli, said: "They [the atheistic themes] don't make it to the movie, which ignores religion altogether and makes the story about the exercise of free will against tyranny."

People don't have to like Pullman's philosophy or books, but I'm disturbed by the idea that we, as Christians, want everyone to see Christ in Narnia, but want to boycott an opposing viewpoint because we're afraid it'll indoctrinate kids. Interestly, non-Christians say the same thing about Narnia. The lack of dialogue is sad.

Ben Myers said...

Yes, Neiswonger, you're always welcome to re-post.

Joey said...

I actually waited for this one. Like Neiswonger, I'd ask permission to repost.


Agnikan said...

In other words, if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.

Fred said...

I'm just waiting for Elric to ride on the coat tails of Narnia. Now, that would be a film for children!

Anonymous said...

Hi Matt,

Thanks for your comment and link. I know the Alan Jacobs essay from his splendid volume Shaming the Devil: Essays in Truthtelling (2004). It is an incisive and scathing critique of Pullman's trilogy, based on the charge of "dishonesty", the same charge I would level at Dawkins, Hitchens, Sam Harris, et. al. More specifically, the charge amounts to caricature, i.e. of the Christian faith. Or, again, in her recent excellent The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion (2007), Tina Beattie refers to Keith Ward's dismay at Dawkins' abuse of texts, his "act of intellectual vandalism against all that is worth believing in and fighting for in Western literacy and culture." All these criticisms are palpabe hits, and relate to what I more charitably refer to as Pullman's theological obtuseness. But, yes, I would not deny the charges.

Conversely, Jacobs also asks the stinging question: "If Christianity, and religion, more generally, are what Pullman is against, what does he stand for?" And he suggets that "One could illustrate the positive component of Pullman's moral merely by quoting some Beatles song" (I suppose he's got "Imagine" particularly in mind). I wouldn't be quite so contemptuous as Jacobs, but, yes again, he is not wrong.

But my post addresses the specific issue of the over-reaction of the Christian right to the film - and to its own dishonesty, caricature, and implicit abuse of texts. I would want to question Jacobs himself about his take on Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, who, Nietzsche excepted (as a deicide Nietzsche is in a class of his own), can also be charged with theological reductionism and humanist naivety, but I'm pretty sure that the Christian right would be less discerning readers of the masters of suspicion and happily invite the kids about whom they are so concerned to a book-burning around the campfire.

You are right, Matt, about the cultural and theological illiteracy of our times which the New Atheists exploit and promote, but the answer is not ecclesiastical denial and meanmindedness, hysteria and picket lines. Rather Christians should own up to the truth in the diatribes of the cultured despisers of religion, especially when it hurts, and do that most counter-cultural thing, publicly repent; point out their half-truths and ignorance, and substantiate those charges of dishonesty; and, above all, proclaim the word of the cross with the power of weakness, not engage in ecclesiastical triumphalism.

In other words, we should do what Dostoevsky did in The Brothers Karamazov. I'd like to see Scorsese take on as a project that greatest of novels on rebellion and faith. That would be a filmic narrative that would piss off New Atheist and Christian right alike - and thus show itself to be right on the money.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this brilliant post!

Halden said...

Love the post. Love the trilogy. Can't wait to see the movie.

Anonymous said...

Very, very helpful post. Thank you. I haven't seen the film yet but have already encountered the boycott brigade.

Isaac M. Alderman said...

Where does R. Williams comment on the books?

philq said...

Here's Rowan Williams's comments:,11710,1165873,00.html

It's a review of a stage adaptation of the trilogy from 2004. Shortly after that Williams had a conversation with Pullman. Here's the transcript:

I'm glad we have Kim and Rowan as an antidote to the humorlessness of these crazies!

Anonymous said...

Very, very insightful--and beautifully written, as always. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Here in the American South, I've been deluged with the "I'm rilly rilly worried about THIS one" e-mails from women I know through ministries I take part in. They are decent people but the deeply held anti-intellectualism is depressing. With Bush's "No Child Left Behind" to drive the nails into the coffin of education in this country for another generation, it leaves me bewildered. When did people stop thinking for themselves? When did it become "Christian" to be afraid of everything? Afraid of fictional characters? Afraid of books? These people who perpetrate this are college educated people. The Bush inspired "all propaganda all the time" media blitz has brainwashed so many people. I make it my practice to try to rationally answer people who send me this nonsense. They never reply. It's the "megachurch" crowd who are taught to take their politics and "talking points" from the preacher, who mostly is a shill for the neoconservative movement in this country.

Anonymous said...

Yes! A Scorsese version of The Brothers Karamazov. That would be a good film... we'd hope.

Matt Jenson said...

great thoughts, kim. and the call for public repentance - i couldn't agree more. that's always the place to start.

but i do wonder whether you aren't giving us a false dilemma. might we not begin with repentance and then proceed to articulate the ways in which pullman's work can be real bad news? again, a hearty amen to repentance and patience. and then a critique coupled with a call for writers like pullman to write better.

Robert Cornwall said...


Thanks for your thoughts on this -- which I've reposted on my blog. I also have Martin Marty's as well -- similar thoughts.

I've not read the books nor seen the movies, but all this "stuff" makes me want to see the movie. But I guess I'll have to read the books to see what it's really about.

Anonymous said...

The 'war on Christmas' must not be going well, either that or The Catholic League is on a movie kick.

Donohue has gone nuclear about another movie that finally got a distribution company.

Unfortunately the company is Gener8Xion; the writer/producer doesn't care about anti-Catholicism or anti-Protestantism or anti-Christian.
He just wants to sell his movie.

Donohue is a jackass, and I haven't had to apologize to any Catholic friends for saying so. Nor will I.
Hollywood has always been one of his favorite targets. It's a win-win for him and his more money than brains friends.
I honestly haven't an ounce of charity for the man. The latest film he is foaming at the mouth over is Noelle.

Bene D

Anonymous said...

thanks, Kim.
Great stuff as always.

Anonymous said...

I saw the movie yesterday. It was very boring and very confussing. My friend beside me even fell into sleep.

For me, the movie is nothing more than different groups of people get together and fight at the end. Quite a childish ending. Honestly to tell you, I laughed in tears with my friend as we saw such an ending. We may see the movie as comedy rather then a serious piece of atheist work.

Besides, I found elements from
1. Harry Potter (the dinning hall)
2. Narnia (animals in human language)
in the movie. The movie is not quite original and creative.

The story is rather against religion (esp Christianity) than God. As I reflect on Barth's CD para. 17 more deeply, I find that the movie has no big deal at all. For in the paragraph Barth clearly states that even Christianity is under the judgement of God if it does not receive Christ in faith.

furthermore, the movie does not only concern religious issues. regardless all the religious terms in the movie, we may find that this is also a movie to teach children against all authorities, esp. their parents.

Rushan said...

Thanks, great stuff! I have reproduced this on my blog and posted a link.

Daniel said...

Hmm...looks like the movie bombed in the box office. Did the boycott work? Or maybe the bad press just killed the mood, especially since this is billed as a "family" movie.

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