Friday, November 30, 2007

Is The Golden Compass Partly Right?

There has been no small deal made about the forthcoming release of the movie The Golden Compass, based on the book written by Phillip Pullman. The book as been called an atheist version of The Chronicles of Narnia. The Golden Compass book, the first in the His Dark Materials series, has an anti-Christian message, and reportedly have the lead characters trying to kill God. Pullman has apparently said himself that he was "trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief" in a 2001 interview and "My books are about killing God" in 20031.

There has also been discussion among Christians about whether or not they should support this movie. There has been a wide range of opinion, some saying the movie is "poisoning the world" and calling for a boycott and others say that the reaction is "over nothing." Personally, I think that pop culture boycotts never work. They tend to create a buzz around the product that tends to make it more successful. In addition, I think these movies can be good conversation starters for parents to allow their kids to think through important issues. But, there is a wide range of opinion, and I am no authoritative source on this issue, but those are my personal feelings.

The reason for this article is to not debate the appropriate response by Christians. It is to ask some interesting, but maybe tough questions about the nature of the book/movie's claims.

Before I go any further, let me make it abundantly clear that I have not read any of the books or seen the movie. I am new to this topic, and have only known about this issue for a couple of weeks. My comments are based on listening to others who have read the books and can pass along information. But, at best, my knowledge of the material is second hand.

One of the characters in the book reportedly says this: "Every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling."

As we react to this, I want to consider the approach of Tony Campolo in a book he wrote in the 80's called Partly Right. The book looks at some of the harshest opponents of the Church, like Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, seeks to understand their points in context, and considers how their critiques might be a valid indictment of a harsh reality. The first step, as mentioned, is to understand. He says this in his preface(pg ix):

Those who would do battle with these cultured despisers of religion should have some idea as to the nature of their arguments. Too often those of us who rant and rage from our pulpits against the materialism of Karl Marx, the sexual preoccupations of Sigmund Freud, and the God-is-dead philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche know almost nothing about these declared enemies of religion.

The second step is having the humility to listen to our opponents and using their outside eyes to try and get better.

A religious group matures and improves only by correcting its flaws, and usually the enemies of that group can help it to see those flaws better than its friends can. The enemies of middle-class religion who are reviewed in this book have provided some of the most brilliant analysis of the failures and weaknesses of our churches and our theology...I hope that by studying the arguments of our enemies we will recognize our sins, confess them, and work to cleanse ourselves of them.

Now, how can we apply that wisdom to The Golden Compass? Obviously the first step is to comment within our knowledge. It is hard to make sweeping, dogmatic statements about a book you have not read or a movie you have not seen. Sure, we can hear reports, but they are out of context. To do this may require a good deal of work. As I mentioned above, I have not read the books or seen the movie, so I have steered clear of saying things about the books that I don't know. I have kept my comments about this in the areas of the way Christians respond to issues like this, parenting, and the nature of pop culture, rather than the content of the books/movie.

The next step, then, is to ask ourselves if the accusation warrants any truth about our failures as a Church. This, too, requires work. We must think through some hard issues, be transparent, and make ourselves vulnerable. To do this is to mature, to avoid the games that the enemy, and by this I mean Satan, would have us wasting our time and energy on, and be willing to learn from a myriad of sources, to admit that others, who we may think are less holy than ourselves, actually have something to teach us.

With that, let's look at this statement made in the book: "Every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling." Please note that this is in the book. I doubt it will be in the movie. I am also not sure even which of the books in the series this appears in or what the context is. I have not done my homework to appropriately evaluate a statement like this. I do think, though, that there are some introspective questions we can ask ourselves in response, even to this isolated statement. It is certainly easy to disagree with and perhaps even get offended by. It is human nature to reactionarily defend a group that you belong to without considering the validity of the attack. But I think that is the wrong approach. Here are some questions we can ask to evaluate ourselves in response to this statement.

1. First, are we guilty of all of our churches being the same? In one sense, churches are very different. They come in all colors, shapes, and sizes. In a general sense, though, there are some threads that are perhaps too common. Almost every church service involves some combination of singing songs, a sermon, prayer, and fellowship. The prayer and fellowship almost have to be present in some form. But would it be too outside the box to explore other worship forms than music and songs? Certainly some churches are doing this, but it is a small minority. And what about sermons? It seems like we could shack things up in the way we communicate. Our imagination is the limit. It just seems like there should be as many different flavors of church as their are people, and the reality is that most churches are pretty generic.

2. Second, is the Church too hung up on controlling, destroying, and obliterating? I'll admit, that when it seems like the Church could do good by focusing on freeing, building up, and repairing, it seems to focus a lot of attention on controlling, destroying, and obliterating. Could we do a better job at this, and does your local church need to?

3. Lastly, does the Church seem to squash good feelings? Do we put the kibosh on fun? Is your local church tightly wound, or free to laugh and have a good time? What would a visitor say if asked that question about your church? I know that I have certainly been guilty of being too serious and failing to relax in the house of God. Why do we do that?

Remember, from an outsider's perspective, perception is reality. If my local church is really coming across as an organisation that controls, destroys, and obliterates good feelings, just like all the others, maybe I need to consider how we can get creative and fix our flaws, that we may be more like the body that is Christ's dream. Perhaps Pullman is partly right.

May we continue to not get defensive, but actually let criticism challenge us to learn and grow. May we look for truth in all forms, and leave or egos and self righteousness behind. And may we always be walking on the path to maturity.


Mark said...

"To do this is to mature, to avoid the games that the enemy would have us wasting our time and energy on..."

I'm concerned by this language of "the enemy." Enemy is defined as...

1. a person who feels hatred for, fosters harmful designs against, or engages in antagonistic activities against another

Now contrast that definition, which is how you're painting church critics with the statement you are analyzing, "Every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling."

If Pullman's statement about the church is a criticism, Christians using language like the word "enemy" to describe critics of the church are validating Pullman's criticism. The church views critics as "the enemy" so naturally, what does the church seek to do to their enemies? The church seeks to "control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling."

Are atheists the enemies of Christianity because they criticize it? The whole point of your post is to show Christians the value of healthy criticism. But, language like "the enemy" undermines the very point your trying to make. Or, maybe I'm making a big deal over nothing. :)

Nick said...

Hi Mark.

I guess I could have been more clear. My use of "the enemy" there was referring to the devil, satan, whatever you want to call him. It is common in Chrustian circles to refer to the devil this way, who is our only real enemy, as we see it. Critics of Christianity certainly are not the enemy, because they are people made in God's image, our neighbors who we are called to love.

I think it is clear by the context that I wasn't taling about the critics of the church. I don't think critics care whether we waste or time and energy on playing games. That is certainly not their goal of criticism.

Thanks for giving me the chance to make this clearer.

Mark said...

There is a sentence that mentions nothing about Satan but it does mention "cultured despiser's of religion" and "the materialism of Karl Marx, the sexual preoccupations of Sigmund Freud, and the God-is-dead philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche" and then calls them "declared enemies of religion."

Nick said...

I have edited it to make it more clear what I mean.

It still does not make sense that the enemies of the church would have a goal that we would waste time, but it was a bit confusing i suppose.

Mark said...

I've been reading the trilogy. The quote, in context, is, "They cut their sexual organs, yes, both boys and girls; they cut them with knives so they shant feel. That is what the church does and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling." - pg. 45 of the 2nd book (The Subtle Knife).

At most, this can be read as a criticism of practicing female circumcision by Muslims or male circumcision by Christians and Jews. Merry Christmas!

Nick said...

Thanks for the context, Mark. When he says "church", though, is he really referring to all churches, or just the specific order that practices this crude practice that is specified?

How are you finding the books? Enjoyable? Is all the fuss justified?

I started reading them as well, but have gotten side tracked with all the other things I'm reading.

Mark said...

In the selected quote, the word "Church" refers to the fictional Magisterium. Symbolically, the quote refers to the religious practice of female and male circumcision. Symbolically, "church" refers to religions who practice circumcision (Jewish, Muslim, and Christian).

What other reason would a religion have for circumcising a woman other than to, "control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling?" The quote makes perfect sense.

My 2 cents is, only a religion can cause people to actually believe a practice like circumcision, especially female circumcision, is something that is "good," and should be done to children. The quote is a criticism of religion in general, hence the "church" in general. All Churches.

I'm enjoying the books so far.

Mark said...

This series is really building momentum. It's a children's series but it's quite epic. It is much closer to Milton's "Paradise Lost" than it is to the "Chronicles of Narnia."