Fear Not the CompassMany Christians are concerned about the upcoming release of The Golden Compass. Here's some good advice for how we might respond to it all.by Jeffrey Overstreet posted 11/30/07
• Harry Potter 5 review
Editor's note: CT Movies critic Jeffrey Overstreet has done many interviews to promote his new fantasy novel, Auralia's Colors. But lately, he's being asked about another fantasy novel, The Golden Compass, now in the news as a major motion picture from New Line Cinema, releasing December 7. The film is based on the first book of a trilogy by Philip Pullman, an atheist who has expressed his disdain for Christianity and who, in the course of his three books, has the protagonist—a young girl named Lyra—join people who are trying to kill God and the Christian faith … and they succeed. Many Christians have expressed their concerns regarding the film.
Overstreet recently blogged some common questions on the topic, and how he's answering those questions. His answers represent a calm, rational, and Christlike response in the eye of this Golden storm, so we're running an abridged version here. (You can read the full article here.)
Should Christians be afraid of The Golden Compass?Mercy, no. Let's not be afraid. Discerning, yes. But not afraid.
God is not threatened by Philip Pullman. And people who stop to think through Pullman's story, and how he "refutes" Christianity, will see what a feeble "attack" against Christian beliefit really is.
Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Coulter, a high-ranking official of the Magisterium
Pullman has painted a picture of the church—represented by "The Magisterium" in his stories—that basically reflects only those ways in which the church has abused power. And he has used that selective reflection as an excuse to write off Christianity as a whole. That's sort of like condemning the entire produce section in a grocery store because a few of the apples were bad. (And "Magisterium" is not something Pullman just made up. It's a very real word referring to the church, particularly the Roman Catholic Church. So he's not trying to cloak his intentions here.)
It's interesting to note that Pullman's dismissal of Christianity skips over one little detail: Jesus. Pullman's story never makes any attempt to explore or refute the claims and ministry and person of Christ. He has, in effect, set up a "straw God" rather than a "straw man," and his fans are congratulating him for knocking down Pullman's flawed perception of God rather than the God of Christianity. He's not really undermining Christian belief as he thinks he is; he is undermining the abuse of authority, something altogether contrary to the gospel.
Pullman points to bad people as a way of saying that the faith is wrong. For examples of religious folk, he illustrates people who abuse power. That's not God. And Christ would frown on the persecution carried out by The Magisterium. In the history of the church, followers of Christ have been persecuted and oppressed by others far more than the other way around. So when one of Pullman's heroic characters, the ex-nun physicist Mary Malone, tells our heroes (in the third book) that "The Christian religion is a powerful and convincing mistake, that's all," well, she's not talking about Christianity at all. She's talking about Pullman's misrepresentation of the church.
But here's a question worth considering: Why does Pullman have this wrongful impression of the church in the first place? Could it be that he's encountered arrogant, judgmental Christians? Could it be, to some degree, Christians' fault?
At any rate, no, don't be afraid. The gospel will survive the publishing phenomenon of Pullman's trilogy—and any movies that come from it—without so much as a scratch. It's not worth getting all worked up about it.
Do Pullman's stories pose a threat to children?Yes, if … And that is a very big "if."
Pullman's trilogy poses a threat if our children read these books without any discussion about the claims made by the characters in the story, or without any parental guidance. The stories pose a threat if their parents and teachers are not reading the books too, and participating in the experience, talking about what the storyteller is doing.
They also could pose a threat if parents forbid these stories in such a way that the child becomes fascinated by the forbidden book. In elementary school, I discovered that adults had crossed out certain words from storybooks like Huckleberry Finn. This became the most interesting aspect of the book for me: I held the pages up to the light, fascinated by what had been crossed out. If we make these books seem more powerful and dangerous than they are, and outlaw them, we have just thrown fuel on the fires of curiosity. Better to teach our kids discernment, so that if they do read the books, they can see Pullman's deception for themselves. (And this raises the question: How many adults are discerning enough to read these books "with eyes to see"?)
Teachers who encourage children to accept Pullman's naive definition of Christianity are encouraging religious illiteracy, and exposing their own. In extreme cases, they're glorifying religious bigotry. The author has said, "If there is a God, and he is as the Christians describe him, then he deserves to be put down and rebelled against." For a man who likes to talk about the value of "tolerance," that's a pretty striking show of the opposite.
I've read The Golden Compass, and didn't find anything offensive. What's the fuss about?This conversation—and the concerns that have resulted—isn't just about The Golden Compass, only the first book in the trilogy. That's like making The Fellowship of the Ring our subject instead of the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The conversation is about His Dark Materials, the entire Pullman trilogy. The Golden Compass is just the first chapter, laying the foundation for all that will come after it. It is in parts two (The Subtle Knife) and especially three (The Amber Spyglass) that we get into the most controversial material. We won't see those movies for a while.
Is Pullman overrated? Is he a good storyteller?Pullman is an amazing storyteller, with one of the most formidable imaginations since J.R.R. Tolkien himself. I was enthralled by The Golden Compass when I first read it: Colorful characters, fanciful creatures, a strong sense of mystery, and a compelling story about young and vulnerable characters being oppressed and abused by adults.
In the second and third book, when those cold-hearted and abusive adults turn out to be the good guys, exploiting children in their quest to destroy God, my feelings about the story changed. As Pullman's agenda became more important, my favorite characters began to lose their personality and color. So, we must take into account that, beneath the formidable imagination, there is a dagger concealed within this extravagant overcoat—and the intentions of the fellow preparing to use that dagger.
It's interesting that a man of such extraordinary imagination would have so little regard for the storytellers whose work his style resembles. Pullman scoffs at the stories of Tolkien and Lewis. He says, "The Lord of the Rings is just not interesting psychologically; there's nothing about people in it." And his scorn for Lewis's fantasy world has been widely documented. Pullman has said, "I hate the Narnia books. I hate them with a deep and bitter passion, with their view of childhood as a golden age from which sexuality and adulthood are a falling away." He has called the series "one of the most ugly and poisonous things" he's ever read.
But Pullman is following in the footsteps of Lewis and Tolkien. Like them, he has created alternate worlds of fantasy that vividly manifest his own particular worldview and his perspective on spiritual matters. Tolkien and Lewis established the foundation of modern fantasy storytelling, adding to what George MacDonald imagined before them. And Pullman continues that tradition, especially in The Golden Compass.
It's also worth noting that his characters are interested in truth, freedom, friendship, justice, and love. People are drawn to Pullman's trilogy for the powerful writing, but also because it is another story about an oppressed minority rising up and striking back at an Arrogant, Cruel Authority figure—just like the heroes of Narnia rise up against the wicked White Witch, and just like Tolkien's Fellowship rises up against Sauron and his tyrannical power. The big difference is that Pullman has cast history's greatest champion of the oppressed—their Redeemer—as the enemy. He would rather leave us to our own fractured will, which is certain to doom us very quickly.
What does Pullman say about his own beliefs?Pullman told the Sydney Morning Herald, "If we're talking on the scale of human life and the things we see around us, I'm an atheist. There's no God here. There never was. But if you go out into the vastness of space, well, I'm not so sure. On that level, I'm an agnostic."
Pullman says God should be 'put down'
On the one hand he says, "What I am against is organized religion of the sort which persecutes people who don't believe. I'm against religious intolerance." But then elsewhere he says that if there is a God, and he is as Christians describe him, then that God should be "put down."
For Pullman, embracing the questions of science, mathematics, art, and literature is a rejection of religion. He seems ignorant of the fact that much of modern science was discovered and established by very religious people, and that mathematics inspires many to faith, and that art is one of the primary avenues for religious discovery and expression.
His opinions have taken quite a turn recently, perhaps to make the movie seem more appealing. Now, he's saying things like this (in a Today interview): "As for the atheism, it doesn't matter to me whether people believe in God or not, so I'm not promoting anything of that sort. What I do care about is whether people are cruel or whether they're kind, whether they act for democracy or for tyranny, whether they believe in open-minded enquiry or in shutting the freedom of thought and expression. Good things have been done in the name of religion, and so have bad things; and both good things and bad things have been done with no religion at all. What I care about is the good, wherever it comes from."
That's quite an astonishing change of tone there from "My books are about killing God."
Why is New Line Cinema conspiring against Christians?They're not. Just last year they produced The Nativity Story, and not so long ago, brought us The Lord of the Rings films. New Line is a film studio, a business trying to make money—not a conspiracy of blasphemers. And in the wake of their extraordinary success with Tolkien's stories, they went to the obvious follow-up—another fantasy saga that has become an international bestselling sensation.
Why are so many people, including many Christians, drawn to this story of people who fight against the church?People are drawn to stories about brave souls who stand up against oppressors. And, for many people, the church represents fear, power, and condemnation.
The best way to make Pullman's stories look like gospel truth is to respond by acting like the villainous Christians in his stories. The best way to expose Pullman's lie is to respond like Christ himself: With grace and truth, not wrath and condemnation.
I'm not saying we shouldn't point out where he is wrong. His story is deeply flawed, and his religious bigotry is shameful. We should not ignore that. But we also should not ignore the excellence of his artistry.
We should encourage people to compare the church of Pullman's universe with the church in the real world, and how it is growing and ministering to so many needs—all around the world. We should remind people of the church that serves, and that Christ would not have wanted an oppressive church.
But isn't Pullman attacking all religions?He calls the "God" character in the series "Yahweh." And his characters specifically condemn Christianity as "a powerful and convincing mistake, that's all." (Allah, on the other hand, isn't mentioned.) Pullman has said he wrote these stories "to undermine Christian belief"—quite a different claim than undermining religion in general.
Pullman's characters come to the firm belief that Yahweh is not the creator of the universe. In fact, he's just a big liar. And later in the series, when the Almighty shows up, he's a feeble, senile joke. And they kill him.
Isn't this just the Harry Potter controversy all over again?No. This time, there really is a serious problem. But God forbid that we respond to Pullman the way we've responded to J.K. Rowling. We've just been through a decade in which fearful, judgmental people have burned Harry Potter books, called J.K. Rowling a witch, and warned us that children who read her books will become warlocks. (This reminds me of those folks who told me, when I was ten, that if I saw The Empire Strikes Back, I might be lured into Buddhism.) What we missed with Harry Potter was the power of fairy tales, which use magic metaphorically and symbolically to help us understand mysterious concepts and appreciate the marvelous, otherworldly reality of grace.
And we encouraged a generation of children to believe that you can't be a Christian and also value fairy tales—a devastating deception. As Lewis and Tolkien have discussed and proposed, fairy tales reflect the truth of the gospel in a unique and timeless way. In fact, Lewis became a Christian through discussions with Tolkien about fairy tales.
Many Christians also overlooked the fact that, in damning the Potter series, we were persecuting a Christian woman who has admitted that the process of telling those stories was a journey of sorting out her own faith and persistent doubts. We missed that there were Bible verses woven through the stories and glimmering with truth.
But Pullman is a different storyteller. He says, "I've been surprised by how little criticism I've got. Harry Potter's been taking all the flak. I'm a great fan of J.K. Rowling, but the people—mainly from America's Bible Belt—who complain that Harry Potter promotes Satanism or witchcraft obviously haven't got enough in their lives. Meanwhile, I've been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God."
Okay, maybe we shouldn't boycott and complain. But what should Christians do?These recommendations come from my humble opinion, and you're welcome to disagree.
Essentially, don't behave in ways that the Magisterium in Pullman's books would behave. You'll just make his stories more persuasive, by confirming for the culture around us that Christians only really get excited when they're condemning something.
Instead, respond with grace and love. And truth. Admit that, yes, Christians have committed grave sins in the name of Christ, and that those shameful misrepresentations of the gospel have made many people fearful of, and even repulsed by, the church. But Christians have been called to serve the oppressed, proclaim freedom for the captives, bring healing to the sick, to seek justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly, and to bring good news of "great joy." And by God's grace, many are living out that calling. They paint quite a different picture than what Pullman has painted.
Finally, educate yourselves and equip your kids with questions—lenses, so to speak—that will expose the problems in these stories. (Worried about padding Pullman's pockets by investigating the books? Fair enough. But there's always the library.)
What questions might you and your kids ask as you read Pullman's books? Some suggestions:
If we cast off all "authority" and set up "free will" as the ultimate source of guidance, where will that get us?
Has the world shown us that the human heart is a trustworthy "compass"?
Does free will lead us always to the right choice?
If the heroes accept the "truth" of the alethiometer (the compass itself), aren't they letting themselves be guided by just another source of truth—another "Authority"? But didn't the story tell us "Authority" is bad and we should only follow our own hearts?
If there are "many truths," then aren't these heroes being as self-righteous and wicked as the oppressors by demanding that their version of the truth is better than others?
What is so inspiring about the battle between the bears? Hasn't this story led us to a place where it's just "survival of the fittest" all over again? Should we really hope that the world falls into the hands of the strongest fighter, rather than into the hands of love?
Finally, pray for Philip Pullman. Pray about the influence of his work. And pray for humility and wisdom in your own response. Pullman is just a man who, somewhere along the way, got a very bad impression of the church. It's also worth noting that Pullman's father died in a plane crash when Pullman was only seven years old. I don't know if that had anything to do with his view of God, but many men who have struggled with the idea of a loving, caring, benevolent God are those whose fathers abandoned them or died while they were young. Boys without fathers often grow up with deep resentment, and having no focus for that pain, they target God.
I want to be careful here: I am not explaining Pullman to you, because I don't know him. But that detail made me stop and think about how little I know about his experiences and motivations. Shouldn't I be praying for him instead of condemning him? Shouldn't I be looking for ways to show love and respect to the man, even as I look for ways to expose the flaws in his work? Pullman's not likely to reconsider his notions about God if those who believe in God organize a full-scale assault against him and his work.
© Jeffrey Overstreet 2007, subject to licensing agreement with Christianity Today International. All rights reserved. Click for reprint information.