Thursday, December 6, 2007

Of bishops and compasses

If you're like me (and really, who isn't?) your jaw dropped to the floor and you went ga-ga over the lush, juicy visuals and copious worldbuilding that literally oozed from every frame. Will the film be any good? Will it be faithful to the books? I have no idea, but I knew from the first shot of that golden zeppelin flying over the city that this movie would be a priority for me.

But wait, you say. Isn't this movie raving anti-Catholic propaganda? That's what William Donohue of the Catholic League says:
"New Line Cinema and Scholastic Entertainment have paired to produce 'The Golden Compass,' a children's fantasy that is based on the first book of a trilogy by militant English atheist Philip Pullman. The trilogy, His Dark Materials, was written to promote atheism and denigrate Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism. The target audience is children and adolescents. Each book becomes progressively more aggressive in its denigration of Christianity and promotion of atheism: The Subtle Knife is more provocative than The Golden Compass and The Amber Spyglass is the most in-your-face assault on Christian sensibilities of the three volumes.

"Atheism for kids. That is what Philip Pullman sells. It is his hope that 'The Golden Compass,' which stars Nicole Kidman and opens December 7, will entice parents to buy his trilogy as a Christmas gift."

Well, gosh. I guess I'd better not see it then. After all, who's more of a moral authority than William Donohue? Certainly not the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for which the film was recently screened:
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.

There is, admittedly, a spirit of rebellion and stark individualism pervading the story. Lyra is continually drawn to characters who reject authority in favor of doing as they please. Equally, only by defying the powers that be, can a scientist like Lord Asriel achieve progress. Pullman is perhaps drawing parallels to the Catholic Church's restrictive stance towards the early alchemists and, later, Galileo.

Later in the review:
Will seeing this film inspire teens to read the books, which many have found problematic? Rather than banning the movie or books, parents might instead take the opportunity to talk through any thorny philosophical issues with their teens.

The religious themes of the later books may be more prominent in the follow-up films which Weitz has vowed will be less watered down. For now, this film -- altered, as it is, from its source material -- rates as intelligent and well-crafted entertainment.

What a novel idea--parents discussing books and ideas with their children! Who would ever have thought of such a thing? Apparently, such concepts are foreign to Donohue, who seems to view any concept outside of his personal belief system a threat to universal harmony. In a few years, when they're old enough to express interest in reading the Golden Compass books (or disinterest, as the case may be) I won't have a moment's hesitation in letting my children do so. In fact, I'll encourage it--and not because I'm an atheist (Catholic, actually, which I suppose in some circles is viewed as equally suspect).

Last Christmas season, I was reading Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, along with Lost Scriptures which included fragments of Gnostic gospels, orthodox yet non-Biblical early church writings and the like. I eat this stuff up, you see, and Ehrman's an engaging writer even if he does tend to be a little superficial at times. Around this time, one of my wife's friends stopped by for a visit. A nice enough person, but very conservative in her religious views. Fundamentalist, I believe, although we've never actually discussed it. She viewed my reading material with an undisguised mix of bafflement and horror.

"Why are you reading that?" she asks.

I explained that I found the changes in meanings, the changes in actual words through error and intent, the lost context of many passages--all of this was fascinating to me. I was disappointed that Ehrman discussed the origins and source material of the Gospels without once mentioning the elusive "Q" document, but the long and short of it is that these books give me a deeper understanding of my belief tradition.

"I could never do," she answered. "If there were mistakes in the Bible, I couldn't believe anymore."

That statement, unadorned, unelaborated, yet absolute, dumbfounded me. That a mis-copied word or a well-meaning but erroneous correction by a weary monk with a cramping hand 1,500 years ago could utterly destroy everything she believes in? Any person with faith that tenuous and fragile has far more serious issues to worry about than a movie with talking polar bears and zeppelin-flying cowboys attacking the notion of God and religion. God (or at least the concept of a supreme deity) has survived far worse slings and arrows over the course of human existence. Personally, I can't think of a better person to watch The Golden Compass with.

I'll even spring for popcorn and drinks. My treat.

1 comment:

Stu Shiffman said...

Jayme, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League is a number one bully and thug and apparatchick of the Far Right alliance. For a fellow who has slipped with plenty of anti-Semitic and other religiously bigoted remarks, he's awfully sensitive about how expressions of free thought might damage the delicate structure of the Church.

Frankly, I would run out and see, buy or taste almost anything that he is against.

Pullman's books are great, but kids need to have a bit of maturity and skepticism about received wisdom before essaying them.