“The Golden Compass”: Atheism for kids?


For the past 20 years or so,

I’ve given my brother grief for reviewing Dune

on his cable-access show without actually having seen the movie. So

it feels a little wrong for me to blog about The Golden Compass,

given that I’ve neither read the book nor seen the movie. But I’m not

claiming knowledge beyond the Entertainment Weekly

article on the religion controversy swirling about the film, so I’m pretty

sure I can still claim the moral high ground.

In case you haven’t heard,

there are two levels of controversy. First, the books (The Golden Compass and its trilogy mates) have angered a lot of religious folk — particularly Catholics — and

have been pulled off bookshelves in some Catholic schools. Why? Because

atheist author Philip Pullman

has apparently created a world in which the authoritarian church is

the enemy and the protagonists set out to destroy it and God. (Again, I’m

paraphrasing without having read the books.) The Catholic League calls

the stories “Atheism for Kids.”

And then there’s the movie,

starring Nicole Kidman and newcomer Dakota Blue Richards.

(What’s with “Dakota” being the new official name of precocious

young actresses?)

The movie is angering the same folks who are angry about

the book. But it’s also angering people who love the books, because

it seems that most of the overtly anti-religion elements (and the heart

of the story) are missing from the movie. According to the article, many of those elements

were filmed but then excised in the name of marketability. Which, of

course, makes a lot of commercial sense. It’s probably not a great idea

to plan for a blockbuster children’s movie to enrage religious conservatives.

(You can read more about the controversy in the Beliefnet forum.)

But, as someone who likes kid

lit and is not a religious conservative, I am intrigued. I’m mostly

interested in the books, but I could be convinced to see the movie as

well. I have to admit that some of the stills make it look pretty cool.

But back to the controversy.

This one has drawn me in for a few reasons. First, the EW article

sucked me in by using a subtitle (“Are You There, God? It’s Me, Lyra …”)

that made me laugh out loud as it evoked one of my favorite

oft-banned books.

That got me to read further.

Second, I have a history of

completely missing the religious subtext (and in-your-face-text) in children’s

literature. I read Madeline L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Time approximately

800 times as a kid but did not catch the religion until I read it in

college. I’m curious as to whether I would also miss it here.

Finally, I’m intrigued by the

turnaround in how religion and freedom seem to be portrayed. In A Wrinkle in

and The Chronicles

of Narnia

the oppressive totalitarian forces are overcome via either overt religion

or Christianity-influenced/inspired icons and themes. In Pullman’s novels,

religious authority is the oppressive force and science appears to be

the salvation.

The EW

article includes a quote from the third book that dramatically illustrates

the tension in the books between religion and science.

“I used to be a nun, you

see. I thought physics could be done to the glory of God, till I saw

there wasn’t any God at all and that physics was more interesting anyway.

The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s

all.” — Dr. Mary Malone

It’s not so subtle. But apparently

it’s also not that simple. According to the EW

article, Pullman’s world is not entirely atheistic; some of the supernatural

elements he incorporates have a more agnostic quality that leave some

room for the existence of God.

And then there’s the question

of whether the source material is sufficient grounds to make the movie

legitimately offensive to those offended by the books. And then

there’s the offense of stripping the substance from the books to make

the movies marketable.

Again, coming from a position

of ignorance, I’m intrigued but not yet invested. But I’d love to hear

what others think of this controversy. So post away.

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