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November 07, 2007

“The Golden Compass” Controversy


Editor's Note: We've posted links to four good film reviews on The Golden Compass. You can also read some thorough and thoughtful commentary from Jeffrey Overstreet and Dr. Al Mohler on Wednesday's post by clicking here.

In recent weeks, e-mails circulating within Christian circles have expressed concern about the upcoming film, "The Golden Compass", based on a fantasy novel by Philip Pullman. This puts us in a quandary, because it is generally unwise to criticize a movie until you’ve actually had the chance to see it. In this case the concerns are understandable in light of Pullman’s statements that he wrote in His Dark Materials trilogy (of which The Golden Compass was the first book) to promote his atheistic views.

In a recent interview (not yet aired) for the Ear Reverent podcast, Bob Lepine interviewed Jeffery Overstreet, who frequently reviews films for Christianity Today magazine. Overstreet has read the entire trilogy and had some insightful comments:

"The book, The Golden Compass, showed up on my radar screen back in 1995. My wife and I both are big fans of fairy tales and fantasy stories. We both grew up with The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia, and the books of Madeleine L’Engle. And when I started reading The Golden Compass, I thought to myself, ‘This is the most imaginative, enthralling fantasy novel I have read since The Lord of the Rings.’ For me, that’s saying a lot; I’ve read a lot of fantasy. I was so captivated by the characters, by the world that author Philip Pullman created.

“But then, as we went into the second and third book of the trilogy, something very strange started to happen. The characters and the situations started seeming more and more pointed to present us with an aggressive idea or with an aggressive argument about the way the world is. It was very discouraging for my wife and I as we read the third book, because these characters that we had come to know and love were suddenly turning into pawns in Pullman’s clever game to try and portray the Church as devoid of anything loving or good or gracious.

“In the third book in the series, The Amber Spyglass, where everything that began in The Golden Compass comes to fruition, you have characters turning to each other and saying things like ‘Christianity is a mistake, a powerful and seductive mistake, but a mistake all the same.’ And you start to realize that it is playing out exactly what its author, Philip Pullman, has said in interviews – that he wrote this book to strike at the idea of Christianity portrayed in C.S. Lewis’ work … He has openly said in interviews that if there is a God, and if he is as Christians describe him, then he deserves to be put down, which is exactly what the characters in the series that The Golden Compass end up doing.

“[Pullman’s] characters, as they make their way through the world, end up waging a second war in heaven. And Pullman portrays them killing God, who turns out to be just a supernatural imposter who’s feeble and cruel and senile. He [Pullman] has determined to draw young readers into this world, and try and show them a world in which … Christianity … is a tyrannical institution, and God is a tyrant. And all the church, which he calls the Magisterium, wants to do is control them. And as a result, God is overthrown in the end, and you have a restaging of the Garden of Eden at the climax where eating the apple as an act of defiance against God, is the triumphant conclusion.”

"The Golden Compass" is being released by New Line Cinema, producers of the famed “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. New Line maintains that it removed the anti-religious elements from the film, and we won’t know how well it did so until the movie is released on December 6. New Line naturally hopes this movie is successful enough so that the trilogy can be completed, which would set up a larger problem for the last two films. As Overstreet says, “I don’t know how they can stick to the story that Philip Pullman has written and not loudly put down Christians.”

A number of concerned parents have written FamilyLife asking about “The Golden Compass.” In this situation, a cautious approach would be wise. First, be cautious about over-reacting to a movie that has not yet been released. Overstreet says:

“… whenever Christians are linked with movies in the media, you can expect it has something to do with protesting. And it’s already begun. There is such a loud, aggressive protest against 'The Golden Compass' happening, that Christians are playing right into the hands of the ugly stereotype that the world has of us; which is that we only wake up and get busy when we’re angry about something.

“For me, I’ve found it much more productive to talk with my neighbors about these movies, ask them to consider what the stories say and whether the stories really have any bearing on reality. In His Dark Materials – which is the name of the series that 'The Golden Compass' begins – the way the churchgoers are portrayed are as malevolent, controlling, heartless puppeteers, people who want to rob people of their freedoms and their joys. I think that Pullman is reacting against his perception of the church, and if we come out with our picket signs and our guns blazing, so to speak, we’re playing right into the image of the Church that he is showing people in that series. Wouldn’t it be better if our response to the movie argued with the movie simply by being different, by showing people that Christ sets an example of grace and of dialogue, and argument, yes, but argument with love.”

Second, we urge caution before you take your children to view the film. See it yourself first and evaluate if it is appropriate. (We will provide an update to this article in December when we have the chance to view it.) If you do see the film with your children, talk about it afterward and discuss any questionable elements. And in the same way, be cautious about allowing your children to read the books without supervision and involvement from you.

Overstreet finds it interesting that, “in the entire trilogy, while he [Pullman] is constantly bashing the Church, he never, never wrestles with Christ himself, with Christ’s claims, with the kind of life that Christ encourages us to live. You have heroes acting in the name of their ideas of freedom and love, and they’re playing right into what Christ taught us. But Pullman doesn’t seem to see any connection between love and Christianity, and I think that’s a real shame.”

You can hear Overstreet’s interview on the Ear Reverent podcast when it airs later this month. We will post a link to that episode as soon as it becomes available.


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