Guest blogger Tony Watkins is the author of “Dark Materials: Shedding Light on Philip Pullman’s Trilogy ‘His Dark Materials.’” This is the first of several blog posts he will be contributing to Idol Chatter about the controversy over the Dec. 7 release of “The Golden Compass,” based on the first book of Pullman’s trilogy.
Nothing grabs public attention better than controversy in the media, so New Line must be delighted at the fuss over “The Golden Compass.” It’s hardly surprising that some Christians don’t relish the prospect of three blockbusters based on Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. Director Chris Weitz may have downplayed the religious aspects of the story, but that in itself rings alarm bells in some quarters. Is this an insidious attempt at “selling atheism to kids,” as claimed by Bill Donahue of the Catholic League? Is this a “safe” film designed to lure unsuspecting kids into an atheist trap? “When parents don’t find the film troubling, they’re going to buy the books for their kids as Christmas gifts,” Donohue protests. “They’re doing it through the back door, in a stealth fashion, because each book becomes more provocative, more aggressive and more anti-Christian.”
I can understand, but don’t share, the concern. It’s easy to downplay religious aspects of the first book (though Weitz hasn’t done so entirely: “Magisterium,” the evil entity against which the heroes are fighting, is a religious term, and there is still talk of a connection between Dust and original sin). But I fail to see how the same can be done with “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass,” the second and third books in the trilogy. The rebellion is not a struggle against an earthly totalitarian regime, but against the Authority himself. Æssahættr, the subtle knife, is not merely a blade that opens doors into other worlds; it is the God-killer.
Weitz knows this, of course, and admits that he had to compromise in order to get “The Golden Compass” made. He has said:
Whereas “The Golden Compass” had to be introduced to the public carefully, the religious themes in the second and third books can’t be minimized without destroying the spirit of these books… I will not be involved with any “watering down” of books two and three, since what I have been working towards the whole time in the first film is to be able to deliver on the second and third films.
Nevertheless, he dismisses suggestions that he’s pursuing an atheist agenda as “a ridiculous idea.” He maintains that Pullman’s story is an attack on totalitarian authority, not on religion. Daniel Craig, who plays Lord Asriel, agrees: “These books are not anti-religious. Mainly they’re anti-misuse of power–whether it’s religious or political.” (Curiously, what everyone seems to have forgotten is that, above all else, these stories are about growing up. That’s a subject for another day.)
Philip Pullman gets steamed up about claims that “His Dark Materials” is atheist propaganda. “To regard it as this Donohue man has said–that I’m a militant atheist, and my intention is to convert people–how the hell does he know that?” he demanded in a Newsweek interview. Well, to be fair, Pullman once told the Sidney Herald that “my books are about killing God,” and the Washington Post that “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.” They’re comments which fairly smack of militant atheism. No wonder that Donahue and others are cynical about Pullman’s insistence that “I am a story teller. If I wanted to send a message I would have written a sermon.”
Pullman can’t have it both ways: Does he have an agenda beyond storytelling or not? My feeling is that he doesn’t, at least not consciously. He enjoys being provocative, and I suspect that those oft-quoted comments were intended to provoke a reaction in the days when he was only just becoming known internationally. His agenda, such as it is, in telling the story is to explore questions which he considers are the “most important of all”: Is there a God? What does it mean to be human? What is our purpose?
Inevitably, he comes at those questions from a particular angle because he is an atheist. But such questions are absolutely fundamental and we should neither be afraid of asking them, nor of considering someone else’s answers–even when they are profoundly different from our own. If we believe that our answers are the right ones, we should engage through calm, reasoned discussion, not through closing our eyes, blocking our ears and telling everyone else to do the same.
Boycotting is a deeply negative, counter-productive strategy. Truth can stand for itself, so I am convinced that a healthy Christian response is to listen seriously, respond positively where we can, critically where we must, and always in a way that’s characterised by grace. Knee-jerk reactions, hurling abuse, and scare-mongering benefits nobody, and brings disgrace on the church.
For Idol Chatter’s complete coverage of “The Golden Compass,” click here.