John 8:32 “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Although I was soundly condemned back in 1985 in Christian Herald magazine for daring to find spiritual succor in such heretical works as The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, most church groups have since come to their senses and made their peace with those works by Christian authors. Harry Potter has had a rockier road, even before anybody knew that Dumbledore was gay, but still a lot of people recognize the goodness of Christ in its themes, even if Rowling is not exactly a Christian apologist like CS Lewis. But in The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman we have a new challenge.
Pullman, you see, is an atheist and has written a book specifically designed to discourage children from the follies of the Church. And now it’s in theaters at the family-movie-seeing-time of the Christmas holiday. What to do? Ban it? Condemn it? Discuss it? Avoid it? You know me…I went this afternoon. As an aside, I’ve only just begun reading the book, so this is just about the movie version with a bit that I’ve learned from the book in the first few chapters.
The book pulls no punches when it comes to naming the cold, fascist hierarchy that seeks to erase free will from this and every universe. While the movie calls the organization “The Magisterium,” the book calls it…ummm… “The Church,” and names its leader as Pope John Calvin. From Geneva. Harsh, but as I remember some of the intolerant brutalities of the real John Calvin, I think he probably had it coming to him.
But whether you call it “The Church” or “The Magisterium,” the trappings and intent are quite clear, even in the movie. Pullman does not love the Church. Against the Magisterium’s evil stand an orphan girl with a golden compass, a cadre of sea-faring gypsies (lightly disguised as “Gyptians”), witches with a prophecy, the children of the underclasses, an armed polar bear seeking to reclaim his honor, and a scientist that asks too many questions. The compass of the title is a device for discerning the truth. There used to be many of them, but the Magisterium had them destroyed, and would like to get their hands on this one as well. Who knows how their power might be threatened or diminished if others could seek out truth for themselves. One of the witches in the film directly names the battle as the fight for free will.
The storyline is quite compelling, and I’ll refer you to the regular movie reviewers to decide if you want to go on the usual sorts of considerations. I’m here to answer, “Should Christians see it?” and I respond, “absolutely.” While I can’t yet speak to the book or what happens in sequels, in this film, it is your basic good versus evil. It may be distressing that someone has named the Church as the one to fill the evil role, but the roles themselves are still accurate. In other words, Pullman’s values for good and evil are exactly what most of us would name as good and evil--it’s just the casting department that might throw you for a loop.
In a way, it is like what Jesus did in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus’ original listeners would have been horrified that the hero of that story was a hated Samaritan. The Samaritans were heretics and racially impure. It was almost treasonous for Jesus to paint the priest and the Levite as the heartless ones and the Samaritan as a hero. There was nothing wrong with the act, the problem was that Jesus got the casting wrong.
Pullman has done the same thing, and I found myself cheering him on. If you ask me, Jesus would very quickly have come to the aid of the poor orphans, the despised underclass of Gyptians, and those who ask uncomfortable questions of those in power. That’s exactly what he did during his time on earth. If you recall, it was the religious hierarchy of his own day that Jesus called horrible names and roundly condemned.
In responding to The Golden Compass the Church has a chance to show its stuff. But which stuff will it show? Will it show itself to be true to Pullman’s assessment by trying to silence the opposition and assert its moral superiority to the heretics? Will it acknowledge that in too many times and places it has behaved exactly the way Pullman portrays it? Will it hear the criticism and try to learn from it, or will it smugly turn its back and assign Pullman a place with the infidels? The girl and the bear and the witches, the scientist, the Gyptians, and the kidnapped children seek to destroy the Magisterium, and for good reason. If today’s Christians will join with them, perhaps we shall find its salvation instead.
Use your golden compass, Lord, to free us with a Samaritan’s truth.
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Be sure to check out my books: Blowing the Lid Off the God-Box and God’s Top 10: Blowing the Lid Off the Commandments. Order now on Amazon.com or check local bookstores.