As part of preparing for a radio appearance on Monday, I went to see the new movie, The Golden Compass. The movie, and the fantasy series on which it is based, have become controversial among some Christians. The author, Philip Pullman, is an atheist, you see. His critics claim his books are an attempt to lead children away from Christianity.
The movie is set in an alternate world where worldly authority is exercised by the Magisterium, who do not appear to be very nice at all. Given that the Roman Catholic Church refers to the Church's teaching office as "the magistetrium," it is hard to deny that there is some dig at the world's largest Christian denomination. Likewise the depiction of the Magisterium's headquarters in a northern city - clearly a Church with recognizable icons on the outside walls.
Well, Philip Pullman is, by his own admission, an atheist. The sometimes to heavy imagery of his story certainly seems to be a criticism of the authoritarianism of religion - and possibly of the Roman Catholic Church in particular. And, in what might be his greatest sin in the eyes of many conservative Christians, he says he doesn't much like the C.S. Lewis Narnia books.
But is there some sort of threat to religion in Pullman's popular series, or in this movie?
Seems to me the story, while entertaining, is hardly new. A few freedom loving individuals engage in a struggle against a dark, oppressive authoritarian cabal. It could be Narnia. It could be Lord of the Rings. It could be Harry Potter. It could be Star Wars. It could be any one of several dozen expressions of this same meta-narrative.
Mrs. Coulter (the villainess so subtly played by Nicole Kidman) is a rough parallel of Narnia's Winter Queen, of Saruman, of Lucius Malfoy, of Darth Vader. She is not the supreme evil, but she is its principle visible agent. Lyra, by logical turn, parallels Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, or the children who stumble through the wardrobe. She is the child or child-like hero who brings about the final salvific event.
Yes, Pullman's symbolism is sometimes heavy-handed. Mind you, so was Jack Lewis's. Heavy-handedness is not the worst sin in a storyteller.
But is the message of this film a threat to religion?
Does it threaten faith to say, with Lord Acton, that power corrupts?
As a Christian, I believe in a God who, having become a human being, found himself in constant conflict with the religious authorities of his day. To the point that they conspired with the secular authorities to have him killed. Those who have gone before me in this faith include innumerable first and second century Christians who were executed on the charge of atheism because they were in conflict with the religious establishment of their day.
Institutions become oppressive out of fear. Fear of losing their power. Fear that their authority is a lie and that any challenge will cause it all to unravel. The religious and secular authorities of Jesus's day were afraid of him. The religious and secular authorities were afraid of the first generations of Christians. The medieval church was afraid of Martin Luther. The Winter Queen was afraid of Aslan. Sauron was afraid of the band of hobbits. Voldemort was afraid of Harry. The Emperor was afraid of Luke Skywalker.
But, somehow, I cannot bring myself to believe that my God is afraid of Philip Pullman.
If your faith is threatened by The Golden Compass, I urge you pray for a stronger faith.