Many people are asking me about the new movie The Golden Compass. I haven’t seen the movie, only read the books. The main comments have been about the fact that the author of the books is an atheist determined to show the folly of religion, and that the end result of the books has the child heroes killing god. I’ve found that while Mr. Pullman may be trying to aim at God, his aim is actually merely at god – and even that misses in the end.
Now what’s that supposed to mean?
The description of the god at which Pullman aims does not fit the God of Christianity (though it does, unfortunately, fit the god some Christians have claimed over the centuries). The god of the books is closest to the god of medieval Christianity at its worst. The only attribute of Pullman’s god is omnipotence – and that omnipotence is pretty shoddy, reduced in reality to a mere exercise of authority. The real God is omnipotent – but that omnipotence is always expressed in, through and around other characteristics, including holy love. It’s for this reason that Pullman’s picture of god and ‘Christianity’ has no place for Jesus. Jesus is not only the opposite of Pullman’s atheism but also of Pullman’s god. It’s good to remember that one of the things for which the early Christians were persecuted was atheism – they didn’t believe in the right gods. (That’s why when you converse with someone who says, “I don’t believe in god,” it’s always a good idea to figure out which god they don’t believe in. There are more gods that I don’t believe in than that I do.)
So what are we to do?
1. One possibility is to say, “It’s only a movie. Pure entertainment.” Nothing is only a movie, only entertainment. Stories and images are very powerful – why do you think the bible deals in them? They’re way more powerful than mere assertions and commands. As people called to submit our entire being to God (Romans 12:1-2), we need to refrain from the passivity the entertainment industry pushes on us and instead critically engage with what we encounter. This is true for Pullman’s work – and other works. I hope it’s even true on Sunday morning.
2. Another possibility is to just skip it. If your children are too young or immature to handle these themes, then by all means skip it. While we’re called to engage with our culture for the glory of God and the winning of people, none of us can engage with everything. Based on our situation and family configuration and needs, we chose where and how we engage. Many of us just don’t have the time and money to go see every movie out there. Some even find movies boring. So find another area to engage the culture, one more suited to your personality and family.
3. Read the books, go see the movie – but argue with them. Ask them questions. Talk with your children and the people around you. Separate the wheat from the chaff. I’d advice this not only for anti-religious movies, but also for those that purport to be Christian. Approach all things in prayer and with a sense of offering yourself to God. Seek God’s wisdom. Some people are gifted in their interaction with these aspects of culture. If you are, go for it. (You can find one interaction with Pullman here – http://www.christianitytoday.com/movies/commentaries/fearnotthecompass.html).
UPDATE: Here are a couple more sources of insightful commentary: Steve Hayes and Alan Jacobs.
I think your advice is very good, especially No 3.
It’s important to read the books before seeing the film.
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Richard, I couldn’t have said it better, so I didn’t try. I shared this on the sideboard of my blog, and posted a brief recommendation with a link.
Hi Richard, Thanks for the insight. I have been wondering about this movie. After all the knee-jerk reactions to Harry Potter, I have been sitting on the sidelines wondering what was real and what was sparring with shadows. My older boys (now 17 and 19) read the Golden Compass in elementary school, and never said a word to me about it. We have it out in our playroom somewhere — unfortunately, SOMEONE turned the shelves of paperbacks into an avalanche when they were looking for something, and I couldn’t find the Golden Compass if my life depended on it. Anyway, I generally like forming my own opinions about these things. But I think that your take on this is right on.
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