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Monday, November 12, 2007

Anti-Christianity in The Golden Compass?

Let's start this right off with a spoiler warning. I'm assuming you've read the book, and am discussing it freely. Do not read further if you don't like spoilers! (However, I'm not discussing the plot, per se; just the background and perhaps some of the philosophy of the story.)

The coming release of the movie has led to a certain... aggravation on the part of certain Christian groups, notably the Catholic League ("Film sells atheism to kids") and the American Family Association. (For other entertaining manifestos, check out Folks, let's try to keep the reader reviews to less than, say, 2000 words, hmm?)

So what makes His Dark Materials anti-Christian? Well, uh... nothing. But it's quite easy to see what could be upsetting to some Christians. The series features (this is just off the top of my head):

- a dogmatic and immoral church
- no true God (the being considered God is in fact an angel)
- a war on the kingdom of heaven (on the putative "God")
- Eve's choice offers salvation, not sin
- no heavenly afterlife (interestingly, there is a hell)
- gay angels
- underage sex (see: Eve's choice and salvation)

So what? Newsflash! It's fiction!

I think the Catholic League and the AFA might want to review that little detail. A discreet trip to the bookstore should do the trick; they could check out where the book is filed. Under non-fiction? Nope? Not there? Oh, right, fiction.

It's true I read the series as a criticism of the Catholic Church (though some have sugested the target is the Anglican Church). For example, the Magisterium grants indulgences to a priestly assassin. Surely no one is going to be indignant about a criticism of indulgences? Rather we might feel Mr. Pullman is a wee bit behind the times. Will someone be offended by a criticism of dogmatism (in the perjorative sense)? I think not. At worst one might bristle at the suggestion that one's church is overly dogmatic, but that particular criticism--whether fair or not--is hardly anti-Catholic, much less anti-Christian. (Gee, I've never encountered criticisms of dogmatism in literature before.)

So basically, the real problem is that the fictional premise of this series conflicts with Christian belief. That makes the series no more or less anti-Christian than any other fictional work not based in Christianity. The Odyssey? Anti-Christian. Watership Down? Magic, a rabbit-god... it's anti-Christian! In fact, take any fantasy story: non-Christian gods, a completely non-Christian worldview -- oop, yep, must be anti-Christian!

This kind of illogic is utter lunacy. Mr. Pullman may or may not be anti-Christian; from what I've read, he is at least not Christian. Even if he is anti-Christian, I somehow think the entire Christian community could actually cope. But His Dark Materials is not anti-Christian. It's a story, folks. And frankly, it's a story that's steeped in Christian tradition (the Bible, Paradise Lost, gnosticism).

Even if it weren't a story--let's say Mr. Pullman wrote a book and said, "Here are all the things I believe about the world." These would be dramatically competing truth claims (at least to Christians; non-Christians might find it to be nitpicking). Would they be anti-Christian? No, they would be "not Christian" beliefs.

So what is it that draws out the "woe-are-we-Christians" crowd? Now that isn't too hard to figure out. Popularity brings with it the opportunity to manufacture controversy. It's about getting attention. Harry Potter: corrupts youth (how dare we teach our children about good and evil!). Come on. Nobody sane thinks Harry Potter can teach anyone witchcraft. It got to be a popular series, so it was time for the attention-seekers to jump on the bandwagon.

Let's take another movie coming out at the same time: The Seeker (about which I have nothing, but nothing, good to say), which is based on Susan Cooper's marvelous story, The Dark Is Rising. On the surface, it's a Christmas story, good-vs-evil, magic, coming-of-age, and so on. But it's pagan through and through. Holly branches, Yule logs, midwinter solstice - all important elements of the story, and all important elements of pagan ritual. At one point in the story, a priest starts gibbering madly about Satan assaulting his church. The Old Ones (some of whom have been alive several thousand years) look at each other and shake their heads. This is most definitely not a Christian story, but as for controversy, nary a peep. Why? Because His Dark Materials is likely going to be more popular, and because His Dark Materials draws on many elements of Christianity; it's easier to manufacture the controversy.

In the end it's clear to me that Bill Donahue (Catholic League) just wants the publicity. Why else could he oppose the movie, when he even admits any controversial aspects have been removed? "The Catholic League wants Christians to boycott this movie precisely because it knows that the film is bait for the books: unsuspecting parents who take their children to see the movie may be impelled to buy the three books as a Christmas present." That dastardly Philip Pullman, who wants to sell books!

Gimme a break. If you don't like it, don't read it; don't watch it. And please, get over it already.


Other links of interest: Hanlon's Razor, Denialism Blog.


chrisd said...

Very good post. Very good points.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Fiction is a hot topic in my community. There are many (not all) who are completely against this genre, even if they are "Christian" related or written by one.

The library is holding the book for me and I'm going to read it; shocked a woman at church by saying so, but I will read it.

I want to see what the hub-ub's all about and if it's concerning.

Also, read ALL the Potter books and am a big fan. But that's another rehashed story (at least around my parts of blogdom.)

Billy Goat said...


Thanks for the reply. I think there are some good points in here as well.

Growing up, I remember clashing with a friend's mother when she found out we were playing D&D in his bedroom. Her intolerance later spread to the Magic the Gathering card game and fantasy books. It always frustrated me to see this kind of baseless demonization of innocent activities that encouraged imagination and problem solving skills.

I plan to read Pullman's books, too, but it probably won't be for a while. This discussion might push the books to the front of the queue, however. :)

Mister Troll said...


Well, I have to admit that being against *all* sci-fi/fantasy is a *consistent* position. I can sort of accept consistency.

Too bad this writes off the vast majority of literature.

Anyways, thanks for checking back - I hope I didn't spoil the series for you!

Mister Troll said...

Er, I guess being against sci-fi/fantasy doesn't write off the majority of literature. Oops. How about, being against anything that isn't positively and openly in religious agreement with one's beliefs, writes off the majority of literature.

I think... that's what I mean... but I'm confusing myself now. I better get back to work :-)

Chris, The Book Swede said...

This was a really quite excellent post :D I loved reading it -- you showed a logical argument with all the facts presented. Brilliant!

Nice one!
The Book Swede

PS: I've just added you to my blogroll.

Mister Troll said...

Shucks, thanks :-)