“The Golden Compass” is Book One of a fantasy trilogy written by English author Philip Pullman in the late 1990s called “His Dark Materials.” Philip Pullman is an unapologetic militant atheist. For example, in a 2001 interview with the Washington Post, Pullman said: “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.”
The title for the trilogy comes from a line in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Pullman views his trilogy as a re-telling of Milton’s poem (which means that “His Dark Materials” is in reality Pullman’s re-telling of the Genesis story in fantasy form). Interest in the series has been revived as New Line Cinema is set to release their theatrical version of “The Golden Compass” on December 7—just in time for the holiday movie season.
The preemptive strike from the conservative Christian community, led by William Donahue of The Catholic League and Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association, has become more of a story than the release of the film itself. Donahue views the movie as an attack on Roman Catholicism, denouncing as “pro-atheist” both the movie and the book upon which it is based. He’s calling for a boycott of the film. In a recent press release The Catholic League warned their constituents that “His Dark Materials” was “written to promote atheism and denigrate Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism” (a charge Pullman denied in various interviews even before it was leveled). Donahue characterizes the trilogy as “atheism for kids” and the movie as “bait for the books.” The American Family Association, “because of Pullman’s clearly articulated anti-Christian motives,” is “warning all viewers to run from the film.”
In a strange twist of life imitating art, this reaction to “The Golden Compass” validates the image Pullman creates in his trilogy of Christians and of organized Christianity generally.
In Book Two of “His Dark Materials, The Subtle Knife,” the Queen of the Witches says:
I don’t know who will join with us, but I know whom we must fight. It is the Magisterium, the Church. For all its history … it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can’t control them, it cuts them out … That is what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling. So if war comes, and the Church is on one side of it, we must be on the other.
Pullman is not completely wrong when he characterizes the Church as an organization obsessed with holding power by suppressing and controlling.
But such a Church is not the true Church as defined by Scripture. Contrary to Pullman’s depiction of the Church, Jesus never sought positions of power. On the contrary, he retreated to a mountain alone when the crowds came to make him king, and refused Satan’s offer to be granted all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus mandated that His followers deny themselves, lead by serving, humble themselves like children and achieve true greatness at the end of a path of suffering and humility.
Pullman’s depiction of the Church is a false one, but it does not follow that the Church Pullman depicts does not exist.
Throughout history people who have identified with the Christian faith have done horrible things in Jesus’ name. In New Testament times, when the Church was in its infancy, the true Apostles combated those who claimed to be apostles, but were not, and tested them and found them to be false (Revelation 2:2). In the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul identified men who were disguising themselves as apostles of Christ, calling them “false apostles” and “deceitful workmen,” pointing out that “even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15). Such false apostles are still within the Church today. The Apostle John warned that “many antichrists have come,” and that not all who profess the faith are truly “of us” (1 John 2:18, 19).
Pullman chooses to identify as true what in reality is a false religion in the garb of Christianity—while ignoring the work of the true Church in the world. Redefining good as evil is a plot element Pullman uses throughout the trilogy, and not just in relation to the Church. The books are a prime example of what Isaiah warned against when he said, “Woe to them who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness” (Isaiah 5:20).
Our response should not be to merely paint Pullman as a liar and deceiver, denying that the Church he depicts exists. On the contrary, we should agree, at least in part, with Pullman that such a Church has existed—and still exists—but that it is not the genuine Church, as Pullman leads his readers to believe.
If “The Golden Compass” is a lie passing itself off as truth, is the appropriate course for us to run from it, to bury our heads in the cultural sand, pretending that, if ignored, challenges to the faith aren’t real? Would you deem it a valid response if your college freshman merely ran from the challenges to her faith she can expect from her atheistic philosophy professor? If not, why would you encourage your children to run from the challenges to their faith implicit in Pullman’s trilogy?
It seems to me the proper response from those who are convinced of the truth ought to be to engage error, not run from it. Rather than fearing our children might read a book or see a film that challenges their faith, such a scenario presents us with an opportunity to teach them to earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints.
We should be willing to read the books and see the movie with our children (of the appropriate age and level of maturity), engaging the difficult issues raised by Pullman, and allowing the True Compass, the Word of God, to guide us into all truth—to bring to light the hidden things of darkness. If true followers of Jesus Christ boycott “The Golden Compass” we run the risk of validating Pullman’s thesis that Christians suppress and control, rather than engage in open and honest debate in a vibrant, passionate and intelligent defense of the faith.
Why not counter Pullman by being a living demonstration of the Church he fails to portray in his trilogy rather than validating him by being exactly what he says we are?