I have really enjoyed the conversations around the subject of the Golden Compass. The dialogue has been good, the insights have been wide ranging, and it all contributes to a deeper appreciation for God’s work in the world.
There are too many complaints about the movie to respond to each one individually. However, let me address three “grievances” about the film and three things we can take from the film. (I have seen the movie, read Lyra’s Oxford which is a later installment to the series, and read more than a couple of articles on the subject.)
Let me start with the negative side and move to the positive.
1) Pullman speaks negatively about C.S. Lewis and the The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The Narnia movie was a pale representation of the books and I regret that the popularity of the movie has made room for it’s characters to be satarized in SNL, Southpark and elsewhere. In spite of this, Lewis’s books are classics for a variety of reasons. Their religiosity is not so overt to make them unpalatable to the taste of a non-religious person. It is personal and I suppose that Pullman’s distaste for the books is personal too. Either way, I hold this agin’ him.
2) Pullman’s terminology is vague and can be confusing for young and old readers/viewers alike. The most obvious example of this is the use of the word daemon as a reference to the personality. In the alternative universe of the Golden Compass this personality walks around in animal form next to its human counterpart. The word should not be confused with the biblical concept of demon. The words are pronounced the same and if one is watching the movie without reading the books this could create confusion. Pullman could have easily come up with another word that would have brought clarity to what he was trying to communicate without losing the essential idea.
3) Using the church, especially the Roman Catholic Church, as the focal point for his critique of authority is too obvious. First of all, few young people in the Western World look at the church in this way anymore. These kinds of attacks have been taking place for a long time when there are other, more creative, images of authority that could have been used. His use of words taken directly from Roman Catholic theology and practice reveals what I can only believe is his thinly veiled contempt. As regards literature, it seems that Pullman could have come up with a better bogey man.
Pullman’s message is not so much anti-faith as it is an attack upon control based systems. Whether they be religious, governmental or academic. On this side of the argument Pullman comes across more American than British.
Here are some positive things I believe we can take from the film and books.
1. The Golden Compass is a critique of ideology. It holds authoritarian totalitarianism to the fire and asks questions about it. Teaching children to be constructively critical of authority structures is not easy and I am not convinced that Pullman’s books and films do it well. However, for Christian people, including Christian children, the critique of ideology can serve as a critique of our own idolatry. For example, one of the complaints about the film is that the “god” defeated later in the series is a weak and impotent deity. We should welcome critiques that empower us to look beyond simplistic, sub-Christian views of God.
Eugene Peterson, and no doubt countless other thoughtful Christians, when confronted by a person who claims atheism will often ask: “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in?” After the individual describes the deity that they can’t believe in Peterson responds: “Good, I don’t believe in that God either.” This becomes an entree into deeper conversation about both the nature and existence of God.
Movies like the The Golden Compass may be misleading but they are a helpful critique of the conceptual idols we create. Christian are not immune to the temptation of creating idols out of our ideas of God. Our ideas of God should be challenged in order to avoid the trap of idolatry. If we discover that our concepts of God are too small then they should be discarded for the sake of pursuing God in his fullness, rather than in the poverty of our perceptions.
2) Related to #1, this film can help parents and children discuss discernment. In truth The Golden Compass is less dangerous than other films because it is so obvious. The attacks on religion are impossible to miss and one will find himself forced to make a decision about the author/filmmakers intentions. If a parent watches the film or reads the books with her child she can help that child discern the good from the bad.
3) The Golden Compass gives an opportunity for Christians to learn about “common grace”. This is the theological concept that speaks of God’s work in the world through non-Christians unbeknownst to them. For example, throughout the movie the themes of courage, wisdom, self-sacrifice and grace are displayed. It is important for us to recognize these and emulate such virtues in our own lives. Films with little or no Christian emphasis can exemplify these. Tolkien’s novels and Lewis’s fiction, have no explicit Christian references. However, the discerning reader recognizes God’s silent hand moving in the background.
Much to his chagrin, I believe this is true for Pullman’s work too.