‘Compass’ author’s atheism stirs debate on film’s message

[6 December 2007]

By Duane Dudek

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MCT)

Nina Hemmer is a reader. The 11-year-old Shorewood, Wis., girl is plowing through the Bible and hopes “to get to the part about Jesus’ birth by Christmas,” said her mother, Cathy Pinter.

But Nina has also read and is a fan of a series of books that some say challenges or at least questions scriptural dogma and even the very notion of God—a series of fantasy novels for young people under the umbrella title of “His Dark Materials.”

Philip Pullman, the author of the award-winning, critically acclaimed and commercially successful series, is an atheist who has said that the books—“The Golden Compass,” “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass”—are about “killing God,” and that he is trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.

Conservative columnist Peter Hitchens has called him the “most dangerous writer in Britain.”

And some Christian groups are urging a boycott of the film “The Golden Compass,” starring Nicole Kidman, which will be released Friday.

A mass e-mail by one anonymous group warns that Pullman “wants kids to denounce God and heaven, but he does it in a very subtle way that parents may not pick up on. We need to get the word out about this movie and make sure that no one supports it!!!”

Despite all this, Nina has escaped Pullman’s clutches unscathed and with her faith intact, said her mother, who was unaware of any controversy.

She even dressed like Lyra, the trilogy’s heroine, for Halloween, wearing a fur coat and fur boots and carrying items meant to represent devices from the books.

As for Pullman, Nina said: “I don’t think that he’s trying to” kill God. “It’s like the `Harry Potter’ books are about magic. They made up a story.

“He’s making up something that kids will think is good.”

She is not alone in her enjoyment of the books, whose millions of readers include adults such as James B. South, chairman of the philosophy department at Marquette University.

Initially, when a friend recommended the books, he balked: “`But they’re for kids.’ And they said, `Weren’t Tolkien’s books kids’ books when you were a kid?’”

South discovered that Pullman’s books bore a “striking similarity” to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” in that they offered “a fully created world, a well-thought-out moral system, clearly delineated bad guys and an incredibly entertaining story.”

It could be argued that the Roman Catholic Tolkien, the Protestant C.S. Lewis, writer of “The Chronicles of Narnia” series, and Pullman—who all attended Oxford University—are using the fantasy genre to engage in a literary debate on faith and Christianity, with Pullman as the skeptic.

“The Golden Compass” is set in a world similar to ours but where people have animal alter egos, called daemons.

It is governed by a church-like body called the Magisterium, which has dismissed a metaphysical substance called Dust as the equivalent of original sin, but that others believe to be of divine origin and purpose. The Magisterium has also declared a belief in the existence of parallel worlds to be heresy.

Lyra has a compass called the alethiometer that only she can manipulate and that is perhaps powered by Dust. With the help of a polar bear, witches, angels, a nomadic race called Gyptians and a cowboy with a hot-air balloon, she uses it to save children from Magisterium experiments to sever their daemons. She follows the explorer Lord Asriel from the ends of her world into others, where his armies are gathering to battle a God-like figure called the Authority.

On the one hand, it is the stuff of fantasy and adventure with a loyal and brave central character, common to children’s literature.

But at a deeper level—with its references to “Paradise Lost” and the book of Genesis, words of Greek origin and the institutional tyranny of the Magisterium—it is the sort of dense allegory that is open to interpretation. So interpretations abound.

Daemons are the “externalization of your soul,” said Jean-Pierre Isbouts, author of “The Biblical World: An Illustrated Atlas” and director of a straight-to-DVD film called “Beyond the Golden Compass: The Magic of Philip Pullman.”

“Christians would (call a daemon) a guardian angel. It’s the element of ... divine breath that sustains us at all times.”

He called the alethiometer “a moral compass” and an “archetypical articulation of the subconscious.”

And Isbouts, who interviewed Pullman, called Dust “the matter that creates self-awareness. He told me that it’s a metaphor for human consciousness.”

After Pullman’s father died when he was 7, Pullman, now 61, spent his formative years with his grandfather, a clergyman, and “of course God existed—one didn’t even think of questioning it,” he said in an online interview at Surefish (snipurl.com/surefish ).

Pullman said he lost his faith as a teenager when “I began to look around and see how other people thought about things.” He graduated from Exeter College, Oxford, in 1968 and began teaching and writing school plays. He started writing children’s literature in 1972.

“The Golden Compass,” was first published in 1995 in England as “Northern Lights.” Pullman was influenced by John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and William Blake’s illustrations.

Isbouts believes the series retells the fall of Adam and Eve as “the pivotal moment in the evolution of mankind ... where we become cognitive.”

While such interpretations are fine for adults, some worry that the books and film could have a corrosive effect on the faith of youngsters.

“We live in a culture where kids are bombarded by ideas and images, many of which are contradictory to Christianity,” said Adam Holz, associate editor of Plugged In Magazine, a Focus on the Family publication. “We want people to know seeds are planted in the minds of kids you don’t want planted there.”

The organization is not advising people not to see the film or read the books.

“But we would encourage parents to be informed and understand what the issues are,” Holz said. And he said that parents could consult reviews of the books and film at the group’s Web site at www.pluggedinonline.com “to make the decision of what is best for your family.”

Pullman, he said, “is writing with an agenda. And anytime an author has a strong agenda, it’s good to know what that agenda is,” Holz said.

The books paint “the church as an evil organization that wants to stamp out every good feeling,” he said. Pullman takes the “worst episodes of Christian history and (claims) that they are representative of the Christian faith across the board. And that’s not an accurate statement,” he said.

Nonetheless, Pullman has supporters in the religious community, notable among them the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Father Peter Schuessler, associate director of spiritual and human formation at the Sacred Heart School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wis., believes the church Pullman is portraying in his books “is the medieval church” of the Crusades and Inquisition. Children are no more likely to be “led to believe that God is dead” by reading them, “any more than watching `Bambi’ is going to teach them that animals speak,” said Schuessler, who read the books with his fantasy book club.

In fact, Donna Freitas, an assistant professor of religion at Boston University, encourages parents to “give your kids the books, see what they say and sit down with them if they have questions.

Freitas is co-author of “Killing the Imposter God: Philip Pullman’s Spiritual Imagination in `His Dark Materials,’” and video footage of her interview with Pullman is posted at Beliefnet.com (snipurl.com/gcvideo).

When Freitas read “The Chronicles of Narnia” as a child, “I had no idea it was about Jesus.” It was “just a great adventure story.”

Similarly, Pullman’s trilogy “is one of those works of literature you can enjoy as a child ... and come back to as a college student and study for literary references, and even as an adult reading it to a child as a parent.”

Many of the criticisms directed at Pullman, she said, are just “juicy sound bites” and are “taken out of context.” She said that the “thrust of the book is very Christian and theological” and deals with God, the soul, virtue and salvation.

South believes references to “killing God” refer to God as a “distant authority figure ... issuing commands. God as a coercive being.”

Schuessler agrees: “I think the God that is killed in the books is the God of any time religion is oppressive or repressive, or where people practice atrocities in the name of religion.”

To Freitas, “it’s not a trilogy about the death of God, it’s about the revelation of a different vision.”

The godlike Authority in the books is really a false God, who, Freitas said, “tricks everyone into believing he was the creator.” The death of the Authority “opens everyone’s ability to see what I look at as the true God, which is Dust.”

Nina Hemmer came up with a similar conclusion on her own.

“When I got to the part with the angels,” she said, “I thought, `This is kind of leading up to God.’”



Philip Pullman, author of the fantasy novel “The Golden Compass,” has been called in the British press “the most dangerous author in Britain.” He describes himself as an atheist, and his writings are controversial to some for their negative portrayal of organized religion.

“The Golden Compass” is the first book in a trilogy called “His Dark Materials”; the big-budget movie version of “Golden Compass” opens in theaters Friday. Some groups, including the Catholic League, have already called for a boycott of the film.

Below are comments made by Pullman, and an excerpt from his writing and from the film.

“Whenever you see organized religion and priesthoods and power, you see cruelty and tyranny and repression. It’s almost a universal law.”—Pullman, in an interview on the British Web site www.surefish.co.uk

“Religion is a ... body of thought that deals with the big questions. Who created the universe? Was it created at all? What are we here for? What is the purpose of life? What happens when we die? And in that sense I am a religious man. Because I think about these things, too, and I have all my life.”—Pullman, in an interview on www.beliefnet.com

“There is a war coming. I don’t know who will join with us, but I know whom we must fight. It is the Magisterium, the church. For all its history ... it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can’t control them, it cuts them out. ... So if a war comes and the church is on one side of it, we must be on the other.”—a witch, speaking in “The Subtle Knife,” the sequel to “The Golden Compass”

It “keeps things working by telling (people) what to do ... in a kindly way to keep them out of danger.”—the villain Mrs. Coulter (played by Nicole Kidman), explaining the role of the Magisterium, or the church, in the film “The Golden Compass”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/compass-authors-atheism-stirs-debate-on-films-message/