Finding Our Way with the Golden Compass

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The Golden Compass movie has created quite a stir for a number of reasons.

It continues to feed the immense public appetite for epic fantasy films started many years ago with George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy and its more recent prequels. Then came the highly successful trilogy of films based on J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, and last Christmas’s release of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the signature piece of the seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

The Golden Compass (GC) movie is based on a book by British author Philip Pullman (originally titled The Northern Lights) that is part of a trilogy called His Dark Materials. With the advent of digital special-effects technology, the magical imaginary worlds created by such epic fantasies can be rendered on film in a spectacular manner.

The GC movie cost more than $200 million to make and received enormous promotion by the studios involved in its production. In contrast to The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia movies, which were based on books written by avowedly Christian authors, GC has caused considerable anxiety among many Christians because Pullman is an outspoken atheist who has identified himself with current atheist popularizers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

Even though the GC book was first published in 1995 and has sold millions of copies, it is only since the blockbuster movie version was released for the Christmas holiday viewing season that Christians have taken notice, and some, especially in the Roman Catholic tradition, have called for a boycott of both the film and the books.

Pullman’s trilogy is a complex work set in a series of worlds parallel to our own. It certainly aims to critique, if not undermine, a Christian worldview based on faith in a transcendent Being who has sent his Son to save humankind from its original sin of pride and self-sufficiency.

Pullman’s worldview is a thoroughly humanistic one that holds that belief in God is irrational and has been used throughout history as a justification for all sorts of terrible deeds. Pullman is especially critical of religious institutions (“the Church” in his books) that seek to control free, rational inquiry. His “Church” is reminiscent of the medieval Roman Catholic Church that sought to suppress scientific inquiry and burned books during the Inquisition, but he is equally dismissive of organized religion in general.

The Golden Compass is set in our world in an indeterminate time. In many ways it feels and looks like the late 19th century, except that the carriages and air ships are powered by what appears to be a form of atomic energy. In this world all people have a personal animal daemon, which is much like an external soul or conscience. Children’s daemons can change frequently, but around puberty they become fixed and reflect the personality of their owners.

Lyra, the female heroine in this story, inadvertently sets out on an adventure from her home in Oxford to the lands of the North to discover the fate of children who are mysteriously disappearing from the streets of English towns and cities. She becomes aware that a powerful body (called “the Magesterium” in the movie) is spiriting these children away for horrific scientific experiments that sever daemons from their children in an attempt to control the children’s minds and make them subservient to the Magisterium.

Both the book and the movie are strange amalgams of medieval mumbo-jumbo, technological anachronisms, and modern scientism. The movie version basically pits our heroine against fascist forces and glories in the triumph of personal resourcefulness and freedom over collective cruelty and evil. It is quite wonderfully filmed, with grand special effects involving armored polar bears, amazing flying contraptions, and breathtaking scenery.

But is it a dangerous movie for children? The book trilogy opens with a quote from Book II of Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which Satan, cast out of heaven, stands on the edge of hell and ponders the future of using “His dark materials to create more worlds. . . .” It seems strange that an atheist would use a great Christian poet as his muse, but Milton’s Satan has often been a more interesting character than his God.

My sense is that Pullman’s work is not anti-religious as much as it is anti-orthodox. In fact, Pullman embraces the now-almost-out-of-fashion religion of Enlightenment rationalism. The movie does not explore these matters as deeply as do the books, but it is the worry of some Christian parents and church leaders that the movie will foster a renewed interest in the books.

Should Christian parents boycott the movie and ban the books? (Many have already done so, as evidenced by the film’s disappointing box-office numbers on opening weekend: $26 million as opposed to the Narnia film’s $67 million.) Books and movies like GC provide Christian parents and educators with excellent opportunities to explore and explain differing worldviews to their children. Perhaps a medical analogy may be helpful. There are a number of ways to deal with a contagious disease. One is isolation, in which you try to keep yourself from catching the disease by staying as far away as possible from it. The problem with this approach is that you never know exactly where the virus is lurking. Inoculation is a better way to combat a virulent disease. It actually gives you a bit of the disease in a weakened form so your body can build up natural antibodies to it. Then, when a full-blown exposure to the disease occurs, your body already has the antibodies to fight it.

So rather than boycotting movies and banning books, I believe Christian churches should help their members develop critical tools to discern the “spirits of the age” so they can discuss issues raised by these media.

In one sense, judging books and movies like the GC is relatively easy because they wear their anti-Christian bias so plainly on their sleeve. However, so much of our media is just as anti-Christian and anti-God, but seldom do we hear a murmur from our churches about that. Think of that “sweet” classic The Wizard of Oz with its fraudulent wizard (there is no God) and the message that everything we need for salvation can be found in our own character if we just dig deeply enough. Think of all such humanistic claptrap served up by Walt Disneyfied films to which legions of Christians happily expose their children. We should exercise similar discernment of these PG and family rated films.

Is The Golden Compass suitable viewing fare for everyone? No. For one thing it can be pretty scary for young children. When I watched the movie I saw a father take his young son out of the theater. The little boy had his hands over his ears and was obviously frightened. But on the whole I would suggest that Christian parents and kids go and see the movie together and enjoy its artistry as well as critique its message.

A winsome presentation of the gospel will go a long way toward unmasking the ages-old pride in human self-sufficiency that lies at the heart of The Golden Compass and so much of contemporary culture.


Discussion Questions

  1. Is it permissible and wise for Christians to expose their children to works created by avowed atheists? Do you agree with the argument that we should not support such works by buying or viewing the product?
  2. Can you give examples how through-out history belief in God has caused people to justify terrible deeds? Can you give examples where the same is true of people who do not believe in God? What might you conclude from this?
  3. When is it wrong for Christians to read or view media that deal with magic, supernatural forces, or occult imagery?
  4. What does Bruinsma mean when he concludes, “My sense is that Pullman’s work is not anti-religious as much as it is anti-orthodox”?  
  5. Bruinsma observes that it’s probably safer to take kids to see a movie by an admitted atheist than one by those who don’t state their religious convictions. How can that be?
  6. Discuss this brief poem, titled “The Goal,” by Gerhard E. Frost: “In parenting and teaching / let this be our aim: / not to make every idea safe for children, but / every child safe / for ideas.”

About the Author

Dr. Robert Bruinsma is a professor of education and has taught courses in language arts and children’s literature at The King’s University College for more than 27 years. King’s is a Christian liberal arts and sciences undergraduate university located in Edmonton, Alberta (www.kingsu.ca).

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