Critics say 'Golden Compass' is atheist agenda disguised in fantasy

by Robert W. Butler

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

7 December 2007


Since its beginning, critics have denounced the film industry as a godless enterprise leading innocent minds astray.

Now, say the critics, the industry is pushing a children’s movie with an openly atheistic agenda.

cover art

The Golden Compass

Director: Chris Weitz
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Dakota Blue Richards, Sam Elliott, Eva Green, Daniel Craig, Ian McKewan

(New Line Cinema)
US theatrical: 7 Dec 2007 (General release)
UK theatrical: 5 Dec 2007 (General release)

Review [12.May.2008]
Review [7.Dec.2007]

In the crosshairs is New Line Cinema’s “The Golden Compass,” a $150 million special effects-heavy fantasy opening Friday, just in time for the busy holiday movie season.

The film stars Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig (the latest James Bond), Sam Elliott and Eva Green (the latest Bond girl). The story is of Lyra (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards), an orphan living in an alternative universe.

Here people’s souls exist outside their bodies in the form of animals called daemons, and a global evil threatens to dominate all thought and belief.

That evil is embodied in a political/religious dictatorship referred to as the “Church” or “Magisterium.”

The film is based on the first book in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy for young adults (grades eight to 10).

“It’s not just atheistic,” said Kiera McCaffrey, director of communications of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. “In these books everyone associated with Christianity is a torturer of children, a liar, power mad.”

The league has published a 23-page pamphlet, “The Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked,” to alert parents to what it views as the books’ anti-religious and specifically anti-Catholic bias.

At stake are millions in entertainment dollars and, some would argue, the souls of millions of young people.

Philip Pullman is an atheist. No argument there.

The 61-year-old Brit—the grandson of an Anglican parish priest—often has written about atheism, is an honorary associate of the Secular Society (a British organization that promotes secularism) and appeared in the 2005 documentary feature “Why Atheism?”

But he maintains that his “Dark Materials” books target not any individual religion but rather totalitarianism in all its forms, from communism to theocracy.

While the “Magisterium” of his novels may resemble the Roman Catholic Church (it has bishops and monks and an executive committee called the Vatican Council), Pullman never describes its theology or identifies it as Christian. Instead he presents it as an authoritarian entity that attempts to control all aspects of individual’s lives through assassination, kidnapping, torture and strict control of information.

“It doesn’t matter to me whether people believe in God or not,” Pullman has written. “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 inquiry or in shutting the freedom of thought and expression.

“Good things have been done in the name of religion and so have bad things; 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.”

Sounds pretty conciliatory. But in the trilogy—which many see as an allegory inspired by Milton’s “Paradise Lost”—Pullman also challenges one of our most cherished notions: the idealization of childhood innocence.

“In much literature for children, the worst thing that can happen is that a child grows up,” said John Tibbetts, associate professor of film at the University of Kansas and a fan of Pullman’s trilogy.

“These three novels”—“The Golden Compass” (1996), “The Subtle Knife” (1997) and “The Amber Spyglass” (2000)—“turn that notion on its head. In Pullman’s view, maturation is the best thing that can happen.”

Pullman’s trilogy has been called the “anti-Narnia,” a reference to the “Chronicles of Narnia” books of C.S. Lewis, Christian allegories that found their way to the screen in the 2005 hit “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and the upcoming “Prince Caspian ” (due out May 16).

“Whereas the Narnia books idealize childhood, Pullman’s young heroine, Lyra, goes from a state of innocence to what some people might call one of sin: sex, self-awareness, personhood, wisdom,” Tibbetts said.

“Pullman argues that this is exactly what should happen. He views efforts to keep children away from the wicked world as playing into the status quo, where as long as you can keep the flock under your control you can maintain power.”

In the third book of the trilogy Lyra and her colleagues try to eliminate the head of the Magisterium, a plot development that the books’ critics claim is tantamount to murdering God.

That character ” is sort of like the chairman of the board,” Tibbetts said. “I don’t think Pullman sees him as a deity but rather as the controller of an evil corporation.”

Still, it’s the sort of thing guaranteed to set off alarm bells.

“We’d heard whispers that the books were anti-Catholic,” said the Catholic League’s McCaffrey, “but until recently we weren’t all that interested. They’re popular mostly across the pond. But this summer we started hearing about the movie and decided we’d better do some reading.

“And it was worse than we thought. Each book is progressively more anti-faith, anti-religious, anti-Christianity.”

The letter Holy Trinity has sent to its parishioners warns that, in a narrative similar to the popular “Narnia” film, “The Golden Compass” may lead young people to early challenges to their faith:

“The concern we share is that the movie and first two books are a gambit, a charming maneuver to lead readers to the real intent. The author, Phillip Pullman, an atheist, is offering an entertaining movie and two books that lead to an attempt to discredit God in the third book, `The Amber Spyglass.’”

It urges parents to think carefully about whether they want their children exposed to Pullman’s ideas.

Audiences watching “The Golden Compass,” the first title in a proposed movie trilogy, may wonder what all the hubbub is about. Writer/director Chris Weitz (whose credits range from the raunchy “American Pie” to the deft humanistic comedy “About a Boy”) has shorn the film of any reference that might seem to identify the Magisterium with the Catholic Church. There’s no mention of aVatican Council.

In the movie the Magisterium’s officials (they aren’t identified as priests or bishops) dress in black, but rather than priestly garb and clerical collars they wear gold brocade ornamentation that makes them look like Czarist princes in fancy uniforms.

Though these individuals rail about heresy and call for fidelity to the Magisterium’s creed (which is never explained), the film actually downplays the idea that the Magisterium is a religious organization (though its London headquarters does resemble the Mormon Tabernacle).

For many viewers, the Nazi-like Magisterium will seem a lot more like the Empire of the “Star Wars” movies than a religious operation.

But in McCaffrey’s view, these attempts to make Pullman’s story less controversial are themselves insidious.

“Our fear is that the movie is a gateway for children to read the books,” she said. “I’m sure there will be much in the movie to excite kids, and what parent wouldn’t be thrilled to say, `Wow, for Christmas I can give my kids 1,000 pages that they’re eager to read’?

“But what drives the plot is the idea that the church is an evil institution bent on destroying good feelings. That’s not incidental—it’s woven throughout the books. And that’s not something that Christian parents—or even those who just have respect for other people’s beliefs—want their kids reading.”

Her boss, Catholic League CEO Bill Donohue, says that even if the movie is “innocuous” it remains part of a “deceitful stealth campaign” to promote the books.

Not all religious figures are critical of Pullman’s trilogy. Craig Detweiler, a filmmaker and graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., said he’s eager for the film “to speak for itself and be judged on its own terms.”

Detweiler is co-director of Reel Spirituality, a pop culture and religion think tank at Fuller.

“The Golden Compass,” he notes, is a work of fiction.

“It resides in and appeals to the imagination,” Detweiler said, “and it’s open to a myriad of interpretations, like all great works of fiction. I’d hate for this controversy to rob the audience of its ability to see it through cinema.”

“I’ve talked to young Christian students who have read `His Dark Materials,’ and they can clearly differentiate between fantasy and reality. Besides, I tend to believe in common grace, the idea that God can speak through donkeys, kings, even Philip Pullman. Through his books Pullman may be indirectly serving a prophetic function.”

Detweiler believes that some Catholics may have picked the wrong fight in taking on the film and the books.

“For the church to be criticizing a book that suggests religious organizations can harm young people is particularly ill-timed. Here in Southern California the Roman Catholic Church is facing $1 billion in judgments in sexual abuse cases. So I don’t think these protests are coming from a position of strength.

“In fact, they tend to make Pullman look remarkably prescient.”

In a recent blog, writer/director Weitz wrote that he saw little point in attacking the church. “I think Pullman probably has an issue with a certain view of God—which is to say, as a subject worth killing people over,” Weitz wrote. “In that regard, the institution that I think most closely resembles the Magisterium is the government of Iran.

“I think it’s a shame that people are reacting to a movie they haven’t seen by attacking a book they haven’t understood,” he added.

KU’s Tibbetts said the trilogy has drawn fire precisely because “these are books about something.”

“Unlike the Harry Potter series, where magic happens without explanation, there’s a philosophical/theological underpinning to the magic in Pullman’s books. I think he wants his readers to examine possibilities of experience and not brand them as evil, bad, wicked, corrupting. ... These books are a call to freedom, a challenge to live life without subjugating it to some sort of world authority.

“That’s always going to be controversial.”

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