Friday, February 01, 2008

"The Golden Compass" Controversy

Just a quick note today: I have watched, and listened to, with interest the brouhaha that has re-arisen over Philip Pullman's book, The Golden Compass (original British title: Northern Lights, first in the trilogy, His Dark Materials). I have only gotten around to reading the book (which, along with some of the published screeds about it's being an assault on Christianity, was loaned to me over a year ago) and I recently saw the movie. And I've got to say that I honestly don't see what the fuss is all about. The Catholic League is in apoplexy (they've even published a book to debunk the movie); the Conference of Catholic Bishops first published a highly favorable review of the movie and then withdrew it from circulation; pastors and lay people have been denouncing both book and movie, in many cases without reading or seeing either. In contrast, as I recall, Books and Culture, a Christianity Today sister, gave the movie a glowing review, while also acknowledging the criticism in the air.

The movie is as innocuous a flick as I've seen in a long time. Some of my friends disagree with me, and I know that the producers sort of suggest that they toned down the atheistic themes of the book, but I think that the assault on the Magisterium (which many take to be the equivalent of the Christian Church or at least the Roman Catholic Church) is much more direct in the movie than in the book. (In a deliciously ironic twist, Derek Jacobi, of "Cadfael" fame, plays the "Magisterial Emissary" -- a kind of Grand Inquisitor of the movie. I wonder whether that casting was coincidental.) But even then, however, it's an assault on a magisterial group (which according to the book has been "reformed" and moved from Rome to Geneva, where Pope John Calvin presides) that is cruel, self-protecting, evil, dishonest, and all the other things that Luther claimed was true of the Magisterium in his day. The movie even changes some of the events from how they play out in the book to emphasize the evil of the Magisterium - e.g., it has a Magisterium weasel try to poison Asriel, whereas the book has the Head Master try to do so (which makes sense, given how the movie goofs around with the book's ending). But even if my view of the film is correct, it's still a sortie rather than a full-out assault.

The book is structured in a more sophisticated way, but it is still an easy read. (The reading level, after all, is a mere 5.6 -- which means that the majority of USAmericans ought to be able to read and understand most of it.) I found it quite thrilling at times, and I'm impressed with Pullman's ability to establish beyond question the intimacy of the attachment between person and daemon that he does. I think the daemon is one of the most clever creations I've read lately, and making that work is essential to creating the horror of "incision"(After reading the book, I want my own daemon. And what's with the movie's pronouncing "daemon" -- with the a and e overlapping, which this program won't accommodate -- as "dee-mon" and not as "dai-mone" or "day-mone" or even "dee-mone" -- when "demon" raises all the wrong connotations?)

I acknowledge that there are very short diatribes and jabs at religion -- which, because of other references, one can take to be Christian religion. And the Magisterium (rarely, if ever referenced as "the Church") does cause problems throughout the book both through its intention of eliminating the influence of the mysterious "Dust" and by the carnality of its servants. But I watched in vain for any sort of drawn out attack on the Christian Church that might translate into contemporary terms and situations. Instead, I found a sustained, curiously "human" (given the fact that the action takes place in a parallel universe with all sorts of un-earthly phenomenon) tone to the tome.

If I found the atmosphere to be more "human" and charming than the Narnia Chronicles, it may be due to the backgrounds of the two authors -- an Oxford-trained children's-book author versus a Cambridge don. But I also found Pullman to be less obvious a pedant for his personal perspectives on life, the divine, and the like than is Lewis. (Sorry to confess, I have never been able to read all the way through the Chronicles.)

And finally, lest I be misunderstood and be taken for being even more obtuse than I am, I fully acknowledge that the Pullman book (perhaps the series) does indeed promote independence, self-awareness, free and critical thought. (If these are counter to the Christian tradition, then we're in trouble from the beginning. It is only when free will is freely turned to obedience to God that faith exists.) But it also promotes resistance to evil, commitment and love, compassion for one's fellows, courage, problem-solving, service, and self-sacrifice -- and these are qualities that I do not discourage in my daughter. If that somehow undermines her commitment to the Christian Church, then there is more wrong than her reading this book!

1 comment:

Wally Nut said...

I have just written a review of Pullman's trilogy which perhaps might be of some interest. here