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Law, culture, and Catholicism...up in smoke!

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Golden Compass: American Papist - Right; USCCB - Wrong

This Friday, the movie The Golden Compass opens in theaters. The movie is a fantasy story based upon the first book in a best-selling trilogy of children's literature entitled "His Dark Materials," written by Philip Pullman. The movie is being advertised to families in the same vein as Narnia or the Lord of the Rings.

Don't be fooled. Philip Pullman is an outpoken atheist and his trilogy is an attack on the Catholic Church. Pullman has said in an interview: "What I'm doing is utterly different [from Tolkien]. Tolkien would have deplored it. .... I'm trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief. Mr. [C.S.] Lewis would think I was doing the Devil's work."

In the books, the main enemy is called the "Magisterium." God is called "The Authority," is bad, and happens to die at the end of the story. In one of the later books, a main character, a former nun, says "The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all."

Disturbing. Much of the overtly religious references in The Golden Compass have been deleted from the movie:
Director Chris Weitz has said he cut controversial religious content to make the film more commercially viable, with the plan of being more faithful to the original material in sequels.... Britain's National Secular Society, of which Pullman is a member, has said the changes made to avoid controversy amount to "taking the heart" out of the work.
So how does the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops react? Just by calling it "intelligent and well-crafted entertainment." Some more from their favorable review:
Whatever author Pullman's putative motives in writing the story, writer-director Chris Weitz's film, taken purely on its own cinematic terms, can be viewed as an exciting adventure story with, at its core, a traditional struggle between good and evil, and a generalized rejection of authoritarianism.

To the extent, moreover, that Lyra and her allies are taking a stand on behalf of free will in opposition to the coercive force of the Magisterium, they are of course acting entirely in harmony with Catholic teaching. The heroism and self-sacrifice that they demonstrate provide appropriate moral lessons for viewers.
For a much better analysis of the movie and a response to the USCCB's review, see this post from the American Papist. The American Papist is covering this entire controversial story very thoroughly, so be sure to check out his other posts.

UPDATE: Here is an interesting First Things editorial by Daniel Moloney, published several years ago, which considers the "His Dark Materials" trilogy in a positive light. Moloney concludes his editorial:
As is, I can fairly characterize His Dark Materials in this fashion: imagine if at the beginning of the world Satan’s rebellion had been successful, that he had reigned for two thousand years, and that a messiah was necessary to conquer lust and the spirit of domination with innocence, humility, and generous love at great personal cost. Such a story is not subversive of Christianity, it is almost Christian, even if only implicitly and imperfectly. But implicit and imperfect Christianity is often our lot in life, and Pullman has unintentionally created a marvelous depiction of many of the human ideals Christians hold dear.
I'm not convinced that "His Dark Materials" offers these positive aspects. In an interview with Peter Chattaway, Pullman was asked to comment about this same Moloney editorial, and Pullman reacted strongly, even violently, with these words:
But that doesn't prevent me from pointing out the arrogance that deforms some Christian commentary, and makes it a pleasure to beat it about the head. What on earth gives Christians to right to assume that love and self-sacrifice have to be called Christian virtues? They are virtues, full stop. If there is an exclusively religious sin (not exclusively Christian, but certainly clearly visible among some Christians) it is the claim that all virtue belongs to their sect, all vice to others. It is so clearly wrong, so clearly stupid, so clearly counter-productive, that it leads the unbiased observer to assume that you're not allowed in the religious club unless you leave your intelligence at the door.
Pullman goes on to say:
The plainest and simplest description of the world, for me, and the truest, is that there is no God, but that human beings are capable of great goodness and great wickedness, and we don't need priests or Popes or imams or rabbis to tell us which is which.
In conclusion, I don't know why Moloney and the USCCB and others are so desperate in finding some redeeming Christian value in Pullman's trilogy. Pullman is very clear that he is opposed to Christianity as an institution, to the Catholic Church and its teachings especially on sexuality, and to the God of this established religion. Pullman describes this opposition explicitly in his trilogy: the Catholic Church, its teachings and its God, are the enemy, and their defeat forms the main plot. Why try to find something "Catholic" in a story that is purposefully "anti-Catholic"? Yes, I think "His Dark Materials" is of much greater concern than anything Harry Potter-related.

UPDATE 2: I've thought of a better way of articulating my concerns with "His Dark Materials." Every work of fiction has underlying themes or messages. The USCCB and Moloney extract the following "good messages" from Pullman's trilogy: that coercive authoritarianism in an institution is bad, and that love and self-sacrifice are good.

The problem is that Pullman conveys these "good messages" at the expense of the Catholic Church. For Pullman, the Catholic Church (and even the Christian religion) is, in essence, an institution of coercive authoritarianism. It's impossible to have the Christian religion without the coercive lack of free will. Moreover, for Pullman, love and self-sacrifice are human virtues, not Christian virtues, incompatible with the Catholic Church and her strictures. Therefore the "good messages" Pullman is trying to convey in the trilogy are these: not just that coercive authoritarianism in an institution is bad, but also, that the Catholic Church is a prime example of this coercive authoritarianism; and not just that love and self-sacrifice are good, human virtues, but also, that these virtues are in opposition to the Catholic Church and her teachings. To a Catholic well-formed in the faith, Pullman's "messages" are obvious lies; to an impressionable young person, I don't know if that is the case.