Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Golden Compass

Amy Welborn on the Golden Compass:

Here are the basics:

1. Pullman’s triliogy, in his own words is about “killing God.” And yes, God (the Authority, who is really a weak, decrepit, drooling powerless old man) dies.

2. In Pullman’s vision, authority - specifically religious authority, although he is saying all over the place that there’s no reason to think that he’s only talking about religion - is inimical to human freedom. Stands opposed to it.

3. In Pullman’s vision, human beings only find their true selves freed from the enslavement of religious authority. A reverse Garden of Eden scenario - very gnostic - is at the core of this.

Jeffrey Overstreet has seen the film and is observing the embargo on releasing reviews until the release date. However, he has commented:

Today, I saw the movie. And I’m not going to change a word of what I’ve written as a result. If the filmmakers tried to “tone down” the anti-religious content, they pretty much failed. “The Magisterium” is not a term invented by Philip Pullman. It’s a reference to the Catholic church, or at least to the truth that shines through scripture and the history of the church. And it isn’t hard to see that in the film.

Again, I’m not going to repeat what’s being very well said elsewhere. Pullman wrote a set of books to convince young readers that Christianity (and, we can assume, theism, period) is inimical to their true selves, best interests and ultimate happiness.

What I have to say is about the responses to the Nitwits.

1) Of course, as was the case with DVC, sneering is widespread and appropriately accompanied by disdainful sniffing. Hysterical Catholic Apologists bumbling into the Culture Wars. How typically retrograde and frankly, embarrassing. It’s Art.

So what you’re saying…is that this Philip Pullman is the Magisterium? The Authority we Must Not Question?

Oh, I get it.

Well, actually, I don’t.

The irony of trying to shut down debate about a work that sees shutting down debate as a crime against humanity is almost too much.

News flash: Being critical and discerning about entertainment choices is not a sin. Last I heard, it was a positive quality.

If a person says, “Hmm. I read those books. They may have their good points, but they’re not high, irreplacable literature and they are built around a false, misleading, bigoted portrait of religion and God. Nah, don’t think I’ll take the kids to see the movie. Oh, and when people ask me questions about the content, I’ll answer them.”…..

that is not a hysterical, culturally myopic, intolerant response.

It is the product of discernment, like saying, “I want to make sure my daughter isn’t exposed to a steady diet of degrading, sexualized images of what girls and women are supposed to be about and value.” or “This movie is a cheap, really awful, lame entry in the “stupid Christmas season” film genre. We’ll pass.” or “That movie glorifies nihilistic, consequence-free violence. Pass.”

Or, maybe, “Hmm. This Passion of Christ movie..I don’t like the way Jews are portrayed. I don’t like the violence. Doesn’t strike me as true to the Gospels or what I understand the Passion was all about. Don’t think I’ll see it. Won’t take my kids.”

Yeah. Like that.

It is okay. Embrace the discernment. Philip Pullman and New Line Cinema are not The Authority. You don’t have to see their movie. You can even…criticize it.

2) The other response I’m seeing - especially from critics who claim a spiritual bent - is that GC is so, so valuable because it will give parents and young people a great opportunity to discuss the important issues raised by Pullman about religious authority, human freedom, and so on.

Of course, anything can be used as a starting point for discussions on spirituality - a point that Christians engaged with culture know full well. Sometimes rather violent disagreements break out on just that score. Witness the appalled “well, I never” reactions to, say, pondering the darkness, scrambling and conflicted yearning for redemption on The Sopranos.

And at times the desire to scour the culture for anything - anything - as a discussion-starter reaches points of absurdity, as in “Bible Studies” based on The Andy Griffith Show or The Beverly Hillibillies.

So it is not, on its face, absurd to say that yeah, sure, GC can be a starting point for discussion. Got it.

The problem is with this starting point and young people and Catholicism.

Look at this way. After we finish with The Golden Compass, shall we break out The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to open up discussion on Judaism?

Probably not. Why?

Because we recognize that the Protocols are lies. It doesn’t matter that some people ascribe to that world view or believe that Jews are as the Protocols describe them. They are still lies. They are not helpful as a “starting point” for a discussion about the nature of Judaism. The starting point for a good - really good, fruitful discussion - is not the bigoted, agenda-driven misrepresentation of others.

So it is with the Golden Compass. The Authority - the God that is killed - is not the Christian God. It is a caricature - the caricature of every village atheist mired in adolescence. The “reality” that the fantasy is trying to create is that religious authority stands in opposition to truth, and that - via the imagery - that Catholicism is the primary embodiment of this, and ergo, Catholicism stands in opposition to the truth that brings human beings happiness and an awareness of their true selves.

That, of course, is simply not true. Christianity has brought millions - billions - real peace and joy. Christianity has been the framework for intellectual and artistic flourishing. Christianity has provided some - quite a few - of the building blocks for our basic understanding of the dignity of all persons.

Not that there are not problems. Not that authority hasn’t been abused to the detriment of human freedom.

But a truly fruitful discussion of the relationship between human freedom and Christian religious authority has to begin with the truth about Christianity, not a vicious caricature. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for such a thing to happen. But in saying that this is a fantastic way to “introduce” kids to these issues is just wrong because the terms that are set by the novels are patently false. Some defenders are saying that this is precisely the point - that what the Golden Compass teaches us is that if this is God and religion then yes it should die. For of course, Jesus had some things to say about religious authorities who lord it over others without taking on burdens themselves. Jesus had some things to say about the relationship between human beings and the Law. Jesus had some things to say about who God is.

And so, say the defenders…the Golden Compass is really, really Christian.

Okay, but the problem is that it is clear that what Pullman is suggesting is that the whole thing - the whole impulse to find transcendent meaning and authority is false, period. The attempt to make his theme into a muted Christ-like critique of abusive religious authority gives Pullman too much credit.

One way, however, that it could be fruitful is this. What Pullman cleverly explicates is, of course, a set of opinions about religious authority that should be familiar to anyone who works with young people or, in fact anyone who remembers being an adolescent.

Of course, religious authority is the enemy. Because, as an adolescent, I believed that my own way of living out my own vision and yearnings - what lay in my own heart - were sufficient for my happiness, and that any authority that questioned my authority was the enemy of my happiness.

In this sense, Pullman plays on sentiments that almost all young people share, and very expertly. The knowing adult who discusses this with young people has a chance to expose the deceptiveness and falsity of this vision, and to point out the wishful, prolonged adolescence at the heart of Pullman’s work, and then to move forward, pointing out its falsity.

Because it is false. At the heart of Christianity is this amazing paradox. The first shall be last. In death there is life. In being joined to Christ, I am free.

I often find it helpful to point out to young people who are struggling (justifiably) with the issue of personal freedom and what seems like absurd religious authority to consider the experiences of converts - from Paul to Augustine to Dorothy Day. We reflect on what they say about what has happened to them - and invariably, what jumps out is not the idea “Hooray, I’m now imprisoned in a dungeon of rules and obligations and my true self is obliterated Shut the door and throw away the key! “

Not quite. It’s the opposite, isn’t it. Peace. Joy. Love.


At last.


It is worth contemplating those experiences, long and hard. And honestly. For the truth is - and I know this from teaching - as much as you try to present the Good News as the Good News of real freedom rooted in the love of God for us - young people resist it. They still see it all as a Plot. Sometimes that is our fault - how many people have walked away from organized religion because it has, indeed, been presented as nothing more than obligations, mostly rooted in fear? But I think we also have to be honest about, well, Original Sin. There is a part of human nature that continues to resist Love no matter what, that persists in seeing it all as nothing more than a potential prison.

But you know what? These are issues that come up very naturally in the lives of adolescents. They are pretty much always present. You don’t need to give Philip Pullman and the makers of this film more money in order to make the discussion happen, just as you didn’t need to add to Dan Brown’s pile of money he’s sitting on up there in New Hampshire to have interesting discussions on Christian origins and Mary Magdalene.

Having good discussions about the nature of religious authority, particularly in the context of one’s own religious tradition is harder when you’ve got the bigotry and unthinking caricatures to slog through.

I have to say, I thought what Fr. Martin Fox had to say about this was very wise, and I’ll let him conclude:

Instead of the $20-50 you may spend at the theater, stay home with a good video and have pizza; you’ll have money left over, you can give to the hungry. That will be a golden lesson that will point your children in the right direction.

Hmmm... Will you watch the movie? You've probably seen it already. Ako wa pa, pero I might. Na-intriga lang ko. Controversial man gud hehehe.

No comments:

eXTReMe Tracker