The Golden Compass

Is it true?

Can it be?

Would they really do that?

It is, it can, and they would make a children’s movie based on a children’s book written by an avowed atheist, a book written as the atheist’s answer to C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.

I first heard of Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass some years ago when I was listening to the radio in my basement, something I used to do when I worked out down there. We’ve since moved the exercise equipment–and the radio–out of the basement. So that’s as good an excuse as any for not working out at all. Which is why my girth grows greater every day.

But back to the radio. I can’t recall whether it was NPR to which I was listening or Christian radio. Check that, by process of elimination, it was most certainly NPR. But there was a report on an award-winning children’s series that was gathering a lot of comment for its controversial treatment of Christian traditions. I only half heard the report, and about the time my subconscious told me that I should have listened more closely, the report was ending. I could only remember tidbits–an Oxford professor, a fantasy series for young adults, religious controversy.

Fast forward several months. I was in Paris (yes, Paris, France), on a university-sponsored trip. I was shaving or trying to shave in the postage stamp sized bathroom in a three-star hotel room. And I had the television on the BBC channel (because I had some difficulty with French). And this Oxford professor named Philip Pullman was being interviewed. And he was talking about his books. I made a note of the name, and also about a comment he made then, unless I misunderstood. He said something like, “I really am not attacking Christianity per se, but religious nonsense in general.” That, I thought, is something I might like to see.

So, sometime after returning home, I checked out the trilogy (His Dark Materials) from the library and read all three books in about five days.

I was pretty seriously upset after I read them. Two things bothered me. One was that Pullman had not been entirely forthright in the interview, for it was Christianity very specifically that he targeted in his books. Secondly, the fact that the story was quite good–at least until the second half of the last book, bothered me immensely. A story so full of disbelief isn’t supposed to be so good. It’s supposed to be crap.

But the story is good. It has all the elements of great myth, even though it’s ultimate goal is to destroy myth. Pullman even borrows heavily from the same saintly sources of the past, from Milton and Dante and Spencer and Homer. The gradual revelation of what the story is building to is masterfully done.

Then, in the second half of the last book, Pullman pulls away the cloth and behold–there’s nothing there.

That’s the hardest thing, and I won’t deliver any spoilers just to vent my spleen, but I can’t recall a more disappointing payoff, unless, of course, you include the third movie of the Matrix trilogy. I actually laughed out loud. Take down all the piles and plies of myth and, well, what’s left? That would be a creative crisis for any novelist, so it’s hard to fault Pullman if he failed to deliver. At least he tried.

Regardless, some important people who give important awards thought so highly of Pullman’s grand effort that they showered him with accolades and rewards. And 15 million or more copies have sold.

And now the movie is upon us and it promises to be a fantastic offering. The casting is dreamy, even inspired, if I may be so bold. The trailer is hypnotic. CGI abounds, and it looks to be magical.

The irony is that a myth cannot be displaced without another myth. Perhaps Pullman didn’t count on that.

At any rate, I wouldn’t have any qualms about going to see the movie. Christians will succeed in getting a great many more people to see the film than might otherwise have gone, though the billing will be very hard to ignore in any case.

Why see this film? Religious people, Christians especially, need to see how they are seen. I’ll wager most people won’t get the symbolism, just as they didn’t with Chronicles. They’ll enjoy the story as terrific narrative, and guess what? Atheism isn’t catching, like the common cold. You won’t have to take your spiritual vitamins to keep from contracting apostasy. You won’t have to sprinkle holy water on yourself to keep from falling into the abyss of unbelief.

How much garbage, on TV and elsewhere, have people consumed without the slightest thought for who made it or what messages they might have been assimilating?

But if, like me, you believe in the sacredness of the earth, then the joke is on Pullman. He might succeed where others have failed and reveal that when you pull the curtain of myth back far enough, the truest of the true is still there.

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8 thoughts on “The Golden Compass

  1. Josh

    “…a myth cannot be displaced without another myth.”

    What, exactly, do you mean by this? Do you think this is an ultimate limitation or a current cultural limitation?

    To me, it would seem counterintuitive to say that a myth can’t be replaced by a rational explanation, as myths most often arise to fill gaps in the understanding of the day.

  2. My husband too wants to see it. I told him to download the damn thing.

    I haven’t done any research on the film or the books behind it; all I have to go on is hearsay, thus far. I was told (though haven’t confirmed) that the chief deity of the books/films is actually named after the Judeo-Christian God.

    I am somewhat ambivelant towards your belief that christians should see the film just to see how we’re viewed. While I do think that’s important (especially considering the current trends of denouncing apologetics–a little research and reason would to the religious right a world of good)I can’t really latch onto the idea of adding to the box office squalor which I’m sure the media will flaunt like Britney’s parenting skills.

  3. Matthew Melton

    “Box office squalor”–what a resonant descriptor.

    I doubt seriously many people will “get” Pullman’s Magisterium, at least in this movie. I have a feeling it will be shrouded in all the action and suspense. And my guess is that the script writers for the second and third films will find a way to dance around the implications. So the bet is that they will be fun movies. Unless you have something against fantasy film in general? Which is fine if you do.

    In response to Josh, USC’s Walter Fisher (the man who taught the man who taught me) argues very compellingly that most people make sense of their world, their realities, not by reason and logic, but by the larger implications of Story (Narrative). For me, myth and story go hand in hand. I speak of myth, not as fable or the frolics of gods, but as meta-narratives that help us shape our existence. So, to elaborate my perhaps feeble point, you cannot simply remove a metanarrative and not put something in its place. The funny thing, to me anyway, is that Pullman may not have realized the power of Story when he wrote his. It may grow beyond his vision or control.

  4. That makes sense. I suppose it’s largely wishful thinking on my part, the byproduct of growing up watching Star Trek, to hope that one day we can find peace as a species by putting aside the stories that we’ve always used to keep each other at arm’s length.

    I will say, though, that “myth” has a negative connotation for me as something that is by definition a falsehood; that was part of the reason for my initial reaction.

  5. Dean

    That’s a great point…. that “Christians will succeed in getting a great many more people to see the film than might otherwise have gone,”

    Indeed, it wasn’t until I heard the controversy on Christian radio that I heard of The Golden Compass as well.

    But as usual, I’m going to have to disagree with you. But only because of a strange set of events that transpired for me. A completely non-controversial movie did it for me. Contact, by Carl Sagan, was one of the starting points (or as Christians would put it, “seeds planted”) that contributed to my deconversion. In 1997, when Contact came out, I was happy Christian believer and it was also that year I attended my freshman year at Lee University as well.

    But that was just it… Contact, a movie obviously about skepticism, the battle between science and faith, and belief itself, had won my respect for Carl Sagan and his ideas. In time, I would take the Bible classes required at Lee all the while continuing to read Carl Sagan and others who spoke in terms of skepticism, rather than faith. For me, while the incubation period was in years (and it wasn’t just a single movie that did it), it was certainly there and atheism is indeed catching.

    And unfortunately for believers, sprinkling holy water has shown to be nothing more than placebo in most cases.

    That being said, I’d say Christians would have much more to fear from a “10 Year Anniversary” theatre redistribution of Contact, than the upcoming release of The Golden Compass.

  6. Matthew Melton

    Disagreements always welcome. I would venture to say that “Contact,” like philosophical science fiction in general, is on a higher level than this film will be, though Sagan’s film disappointed me deeply, more on a script-writing level than otherwise. I found it too “gushy,” especially near the end. Though I love to dissect messages in film, I’m affronted by films that are too message driven (ever see “John Q?”) The art is to let the message drape around your story as a non-intrusive accessory.

    I never read the book, so I cannot comment on Sagan’s fiction writing abilities. I should get it, though.

    I think we could all use some de-converting, actually, so as long as a thinker will be honest and maintain integrity, I don’t think anyone need have any fear of or for them.

  7. Rachel

    We’d seen the books, but hadn’t gotten around to reading them. Now we’re getting those mass emails about how evil their message is, and how we need to guard our children against them. Didn’t this all happen when Harry Potter came out, too? Perhaps for different reasons.

    I grew up in one of those homes where logic did not necessarily rule. Instead, church-led boycotts were pretty routine. My mom was among those who destroyed all our old classic Disney films because of the witchcraft and magic and “sex” in the wind. (We also stopped shopping at KMart and watching ABC.)

    Daniel and I will probably read the books and watch the movie(s) just so we can talk knowledgeably and reasonably about them. (Plus, who doesn’t love a good story?) So, in a sense, Christians are pushing us toward, rather than away from, the controversial series.

  8. Diana

    “They’ll enjoy the story as terrific narrative, and guess what? Atheism isn’t catching, like the common cold. You won’t have to take your spiritual vitamins to keep from contracting apostasy.”

    I think this is the bottom line. Everyone will have differing opinions on the effects of film, and though I don’t discount it’s influence, our opinions are largely born of experience: Christians who are moved by films will fear the reach of Golden Compass more than those who are simply amuzed or distracted (a la the Mastercard ad at a box office: “2 hours escape from life: Priceless.”)The point: Film doesn’t spark deep thought in everyone.

    But should it, consider the other side of the coin. Movies have inspired me to pursue filmmaking (one so powerfully I actually went to art school for it). But each time it happens, when I leave the theatre lit up with energy to join a film crew, I realize about 10 hours later what I’ve always known: My heart is somewhere else. In the midst of total desertion Jesus asked Peter if he was to leave too — Peter may have taken hours, days to consider the question, before confidently replying, “Where else would I go?”
    There may be some who, in the light of polar bears, still chose lions all the more. 😉

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