Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Golden Compass

In theaters this December 7th, there will be a new film titled The Golden Compass, marketed as a children’s fantasy story. The movie is the first of a planned trilogy of films based on the trilogy of books titled His Dark Materials by English author Philip Pullman. Previews of the movie are reminiscent of the Christian allegory The Chronicles of Narnia—recently converted to film. The storyline involves a young boy and girl, Lyra and Will, who come from parallel universes, and engage in a series of adventures involving a “battle to decide who rules heaven.” Some have raised concerns about the movie(s) and the potential interest they might drive in the book trilogy His Dark Materials.

Why the concern? According to an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Pullman is a self-described atheist or agnostic, and he does not deny that his beliefs are integral to the storyline of his trilogy. Concerning the early lack of reaction by Christians against his book, he remarked that,
I’ve been surprised 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
. (emphasis mine)
Pullman’s own comments show that the religious themes are not just incidental to the plot. However, he has publicly denied that his books are about promoting atheism.

The director of the film, Chris Weitz, acknowledges that the anti-religious elements of the first book have been softened or altered in the first film, to allow for appeal to a larger audience (see his interview on the MTV moviesblog). Weitz defends his actions against the fans of the book trilogy, saying that,

Some people will only be satisfied if the film I’ve made is an outright attack
on religion, which to me shows that they have misapprehended the meaning of
Pullman’s books as much as the “other side.”
and continues:
The whole point, to me, of ensuring that “The Golden Compass” is a financial
success is so that we have a solid foundation on which to deliver a faithful,
more literal adaptation of the second and third books. This is important:
whereas “The Golden Compass” had to be introduced to the public carefully, the
religious themes in the second and third books can’t be minimized without
destroying the spirit of these books. There is simply no way to adapt them
without dealing with Lyra’s destined role, her secret name, and the war in the
heavens. I will not be involved with any “watering down” of books two and three,
since what I have been working towards the whole time in the first film is to be
able to deliver on the second and third films.

According to reviews of the books, the 2nd and 3rd volumes of the trilogy are said to contain the more overt references to religion, ending in the death of God.

Christian response to the film and movie has ranged widely. Bill Donohue’s Catholic League has called for a boycott of the film, and has denounced the books as “sell[ing] atheism for kids.” On a fan website for the trilogy, another response from Christian apologist Anthony Horvath, was quoted:

“We need to learn how to keep our guard up whenever we are being 'entertained' and teach our children to do the same. … “Boycotting the series gives the impression that we need to be afraid of the ideas it contains. … “Pullman's 'God' is nothing like God as Christians perceive Him,” said Horvath. “For this reason, one might think that the series poses no threat because any reasonably informed Christian would see the inaccuracies and the agenda behind the series in an instant. However, the apologist asserted, “Young Christians will not be able to do that, which exposes the real issue: we need more reasonably informed young Christians.”
Horvath’s website (http://www.sntjohnny.com/) contains a “Christian Parent’s Guide”/Bulletin insert that you may find useful. In that guide he adds that in the book, “God is an evil tyrant whom many of the characters set out to kill…sound like an innocent children’s book to you?”

Certainly parents will have to individually exercise their own parental discretion about whether or not to take their children to see this film. Either way that you decide, we should at a minimum be informed about the films/books, and be aware of the messages that might be contained therein. If you do take your children to see the film, it might be wise to discuss the themes and ideas portrayed afterward, and be prepared to identify some of the mischaracterizations of God or religion that are presented. As Christians we are called to be “in the world, but not of the world.” In that vein of thought, we should be ready to face and address challenges to our faith with “speech that is seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6), and know fully what we believe, so that we may “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks [us] to give the reason for the hope we have” (1 Peter 3:15). The hope that we have is Christ, our redeeming Savior, the God who is no tyrant, but a self-sacrificing King who is boundless in love, even for those who are His enemies. (Romans 5:8)

For further information on the web (from both sides):
http://www.snopes.com/politics/religion/compass.asp
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/His_Dark_Materials:_The_Golden_Compass#_note-10
http://www.hisdarkmaterials.org/
http://moviesblog.mtv.com/
http://www.sntjohnny.com/

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