Some Very Dark Material: A warning about "The Golden Compass"

Here is the article on Philip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass”/”His Dark Materials” which I will be submitting to the Kairos for publication tomorrow. Tell me what you think. You have 48 hours for me to incorporate any suggested alterations!

Some Very Dark Material: A warning about “The Golden Compass”
by David Schütz

I first became aware of the upcoming movie “The Golden Compass” when my wife and I saw the shorts for it at the cinema. We instantly put it on our “must see” list and said to ourselves: “The children would enjoy that.”

Next I heard that Nicole Kidman—our Australian Catholic Nicole—was under criticism for appearing in a movie based on an anti-Catholic novel. It was the very same film. What was all this about?

“The Golden Compass” is the US title for a book that in Australia is called “The Northern Lights” by Philip Pullman. It is billed as a “children’s book” (I found it in the teenage fiction section of our library) first published in 1995 by Scholastic. It won the Carnegie Medal, which (according to their website) is “awarded annually to the writer of an outstanding book for children”. It is the first of three novels, the others being “The Subtle Knife” (1997), and “The Amber Spyglass” (2000), which won the Whitebread Book of the Year prize.

Let there be no mistake about it: these are NOT children’s books. The blurbs on the back of the books compare Pullman’s novels to Lewis Carroll, E. Nesbit, C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. The only thing he has in common with these writers is a grand imagination and the ability to create convincing imaginary worlds. But in style and substance, Pullman reminds me more of Anne Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles”, in particular “Memnoch the Devil”.

Philip Pullman is a militant atheist along the lines of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. What makes him more dangerous by far than either Dawkins or Hitchens is that he has decided to target children rather than adults. Moreover, whereas Dawkins (et al) go for scientific argument, Pullman uses the power of story.

We Christians cheered when the stories of Tolkien and Lewis were made into films because we know that deep down these are Christian stories. People saw them thinking they are entertainment, and in reality, the seed of the Gospel was being planted in them.

Pullman’s novels (and I have now read all three) are the exact opposite. The bad guys are “The Church”, “The Magisterium”, and “The Authority” (as God is called in these novels). By then end of the “His Dark Materials” series the primeval temptation in the Garden and the War in Heaven have been replayed and this time the rebels win, God is killed and the Fall is celebrated as a victory. In the place of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Republic of Heaven is established.

“Original Sin” is described as mankind’s true liberation from the tyranny of “The Authority”. Depicted as an actual physical substance called “dust”, it is leaking out of the world and it is the task of the 12 year old heroine to stop this leakage. She and a boy the same age finally achieve this through having a sexual experience with one another.

Pullman sets out, through his characters, to poison the very idea of God and the Church in the minds of his young readers. But no Christian would ever recognise his appalling caricature as the Church we know and the God we love. Most significantly, his story is completely devoid of Christ. “Jesus” finally gets a fleeting mention 50 pages before the end of the third book, but there is never any suggestion of his redeeming work and saving love.

The Catholic League in America has called for a boycott of the movie. I wouldn’t go that far. My wife and I will still go to see it. But we won’t be taking the kids, because whatever the movie turns out to be like, the books are intentionally aimed at destroying the reader’s faith in God.

In fact, I must say that I felt a real sense of spiritual oppression while reading the books. I don’t normally talk in such terms, but there is little other way of describing that experience. I admire the imaginative depth and passion in Pullman’s work–it is so much more intelligent than Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”–nevertheless, the subtlety of the lies Pullman tells are profoundly disturbing. As an author, he seeks to play the serpant in the garden with our minds.

If you are firmly grounded in your faith and are ready to answer a real challenge to that faith, then maybe you might benefit from reading this series. But I would only recommend it if your teenage child or someone else close to you has gone to see the movie and then reads the books on which it was based. In that case, I would say that it is imperative for you to read the books also, if only so that you can engage your child or friend in discussion about the serious themes and issues which the “His Dark Materials” series raises for Christians.

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3 Responses to Some Very Dark Material: A warning about "The Golden Compass"

  1. Anonymous says:

    What Pullman presents is a call to Neitzchean world view. Throughout the novel all I could see was the heavy influence of Also Spake Zarathusa.

    Consequently, I would call for a boycott of the film. If this film fails financially, then the subsequent films will not be made and it will be assigned to a footnote.

  2. Schütz says:

    I don’t really know how they could make the films to follow without making the anti-Christian elements explicit.

    I would like Christians who are capable of doing so to really engage with Pullman in much the same way that they engaged with Dan Brown (who was nowhere close to Pullman’s cleverness) and Dawkins/Hitchens etc. (who are close to his cleverness but not to his imagination).

    This stuff must not, under any circumstance, be underestimated. It is my guess that the film will underestimate it–but I fully intend going to see it because I want to know what New Line does with it.

  3. Past Elder says:

    Much achoo about nothing — a sneeze.

    Random thoughts, out of season:

    Maybe the better thing is to forget about imaginatively constructed worlds that deep down are Christian stories for plain old Christian stories. Then imaginatively constructed worlds that deep down are anti-Christian stories take care of themselves.

    Nietzsche? Not nearly good enough.

    Can anything with Nicole Kidman in it really be all that bad?

    One doesn’t have to read Pullman to find a text in which one would not recognise in its appalling caricature the church we know and the God we love. The Documents of Vatican II are great for that!

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