December 18, 2007

The Golden CompassAtheism as Fiction

The Golden Compass, a film hitting theaters December 7th, dramatizes Philip Pullman's youth novel by the same name. It is the first book in His Dark Materials trilogy originally published in 1996. The subsequent books, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, continue the fantasy tale that became a bestseller around the world.

Many see the fantasy tales as harmless children's stories. One NBC weatherman has made the book his fall selection for his "Al's Book Club for Kids." A number of organizations and websites are jumping on the official support bandwagon, including Random House children's books, Scholastic, Myspace.com, Sega, and even the World Wildlife Fund.

On the other hand, a variety of Christian groups are warning that the trilogy has an anti-God agenda. Trilogy author Phillip Pullman has been quoted as hating religion and "those who pervert and misuse religion, or any other kind of doctrine with a holy book and a priesthood and an apparatus of power that wields unchallengeable authority, in order to dominate and suppress human freedoms." His contempt seems to be toward religion in general and organized Christianity in particular.

Anti-Christian Bias

While the book's fantasy genre has the look and feel of Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, the storyline has the opposite effect, even being dubbed the "anti-Narnia." Michael Foust of the Baptist Press writes that Pullman regularly expresses "disdain for C.S. Lewis' fictional world and has sought to write a completely different fictional tale . . . . He said in a 2001 interview, 'I'm trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief,' and two years later told another newspaper, 'My books are about killing God.'"

Pullman told the Telegraph newspaper in 2002, "If there is a God and he is as the Christians describe him, then he deserves to be put down and rebelled against. As you look back over the history of the Christian church, it's a record of terrible infamy and cruelty and persecution and tyranny."

The movie version supposedly waters down the anti-religious angle of the books by blandly identifying the bad guys as anyone who oppresses the free choices of others by imposing moral restrictions and intellectual limitations. This is a popular theme in film. From Footloose to Chocolat the "breaking free" movies are popular metaphors celebrating personal freedom. But these movies are generally coming of age stories while The Golden Compass creates a parallel world where the oppressors are thinly veiled leaders of the church, referred to as the Magisterium.

Movie director Chris Weitz has said some of the more contentious ideas have been removed from the film version to make it more acceptable for the general public. However, Weitz noted "there may be some modification of terms. You will probably not hear of the "Church" but you will hear of the Magisterium. Those who will understand will understand. I have no desire to change the nature or intentions of the villains of the piece, but they may appear in more subtle guises."[1]

Weitz commented on a MTV movie blog, "So, how does one go about adapting a book that has controversial elements into a film that a very wide variety of people can enjoy, without betraying the original? One tries to be clever about it." He continued, "The whole point, to me, of ensuring that The Golden Compass is a financial success is so that we have a solid foundation on which to deliver a faithful, more literal adaptation of the second and third books."[2]

If that's the case, then the next two movies will be even more explicitly anti-God. For instance:

  • In the second book in the trilogy, The Subtle Knife, one of the main characters, Will, is told he possesses a magical knife, "the one weapon in all the universes" that can "defeat the tyrant." That tyrant, of course, is "The Authority. God."
  • In the third book, The Amber Spyglass, Will is told that "The Authority" has many names, "God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty." These were names God "gave himself" even though "he was never the creator."
  • One of the final chapters has an ex-nun named Mary telling Will and Lyra, "The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all."

How Should a Christian Respond?

So what should be a Christian's response? Some are calling for boycotting the movie or signing petitions urging theater owners not to show the film. Other Christians, when asked about the film or books, will simply say they think it is anti-God propaganda in the guise of entertainment. But these reactions only serve to further distance ourselves from the non-believers we are commissioned to reach with Christ's love.

We suggest a different approach. The fact that non-Christians write stories and make movies with non-Christian themes is expected. But being aware of the message of the stories is important for Christians if we want to have constructive dialogue with our neighbors or classmates. But instead of paying to see the film, which only encourages Hollywood to make more movies of this kind, we recommend you research the books and movie online (see online articles below) or pick up a copy of the book from the library. In that way, you will be aware of the relevant themes and prepared for an informed response.

If you have children, they need to understand how stories have the power to form, and transform, their moral imagination. The reason C.S. Lewis gave for writing The Chronicles of Narnia was to provide a conceptual framework in a child's mind for accepting the gospel story. It should also be noted that the power for developing one's moral imagination, for good or evil, is enhanced when the story is told through the medium of film. Pullman, Weitz, and New Line Cinema understand this power.

But beyond that, children need to identify how the worldview presented in the story compares with biblical reality. As they learn to discern the difference between what is good in the story from its anti-religious bias, two things will be accomplished. First, they will not as easily fall prey to attacks on their faith. And second, they will develop skills in seeing through the prejudiced views, wrong-headed arguments, and logical fallacies that have become popular among many outspoken atheists in recent years.

A Worldview Critique

One area that Pullman attacks, for instance, is the church's history of cruelty and persecution. There are two things we can say in reply. The first point is the need for a balanced historical perspective. While we should be quick to acknowledge the abuses committed in the name of Christ, the problem with focusing only on the negative incidents shows lack of balance and perspective.

So, you may ask, just what are the positive social contributions of Christianity? Even the need to ask that question demonstrates the anti-Christian bias in our collective educational experience. Most public high school and college history courses tell mainly the negative aspects of the church's history, failing to mention the constructive ways Christianity has influenced society. Writers like Pullman exploit that ignorance to his benefit. That is why we need to correct the distorted vision most people have concerning the history of the church.

The following are only a few of the historic ways that Christianity contributed to the betterment of mankind. For instance, if you appreciate having access to hospitals when you're ill, you have Christianity to thank for following Jesus' admonition to care for the sick.[3] If you like the convenience of air conditioned homes and listening to music on your iPod, you have Christianity to thank for laying the foundation for modern science and free market economics.[4] Or, if you are grateful for the opportunity to vote in free elections, you should give thanks for the political theorists and statesmen who, working from a biblical worldview, made the connection between individual freedom in Christ and political liberty.[5]

Also, we should note that it was primarily through the influence of Christianity that we find people intent on ending slavery,[6] stopping the abuse of women, rescuing unwanted newborn girls left to die from exposure, or refusing to judge people by the color of their skin.[7] If you think it was right to do away with these kinds of abuses, you have the Judeo-Christian worldview to thank for the notion that every person is created in God's image.

A balanced perspective of history reveals that each of the above social contributions came out of a worldview grounded primarily in biblical Christianity. Yes, there was some Greek and Roman influence along with a smattering of Enlightenment ideas, but the core elements and main motivation behind these changes are attributable to the Christian influence. In no other culture do we find the basis for making such dramatic social changes. They are not to be found in Greek, Roman, or barbarian culture, not in any of the Eastern religions or Islamic nations, nor in pagan or animistic peoples. Yet, in the places where Christianity has influenced the larger culture, these concepts of hospitality, individual liberty, and social responsibility developed and flourished.

Living in a Moral Universe

The second response to Pullman's decry of the church's past abuses comes from a worldview analysis of ethics. The question must be asked, "On what moral foundation does Pullman, and other such atheists, judge the actions of the church?" In other words, what is the standard by which an atheist knows what is moral? To this, a materialist like Pullman can only respond that he doesn't like cruelty and persecution. That's because, in a universe made up of molecules in motion, there is no basis for affirming that any action is right or wrong, for how do molecules discern justice from injustice? We are left with only personal preferences.

At this point we uncover the crux of the matter. As it turns out, Pullman is borrowing a notion of justice from the biblical worldview in order to critique the biblical worldview. But that means he must affirm that we live in a moral universe, otherwise he has no reason to think that some moral standard has been abused. He is thus denying his own materialist view and relying instead on that of biblical Christianity. But he can't have it both ways. If Pullman wants to make moral judgments, he must admit that we inhabit a moral universe, and that demands a moral Lawgiver.[8]

Responding in Truth and Grace

In recent years there has been a proliferation of misinformation about Christianity, from the bias found in classrooms and school textbooks to the distorted diatribes of the so-called "new atheists" such as Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris. And now, added to the mix is Pullman's anti-religious trilogy being made into film for an even broader audience.

The point that needs to be stressed is for Christians to respond in love and truth. This means being gracious in our tone when speaking or writing but equally unyielding in correcting misinformation and providing needed perspective. As we engage our non-Christian friends in this way, we will provide a platform for them to hear the truth.

With all the publicity surrounding The Golden Compass, we are given another chance to discuss the truth about Christianity. It provides an occasion for us to talk about the reality of living in a fallen world and offer the greatest story ever told, the story of forgiveness and true freedom found, not in a materialistic worldview, but in the spiritual reality of Christ.

Resources for Further Study

Footnotes
  1. http://www.bridgetothestars.net/index.php?p=weitzinterview, accessed 12/10/2007.
  2. http://moviesblog.mtv.com/2007/11/14/golden-compass-director-chris-weitz-answers-your-questions-part-i/, accessed 12/15/2007.
  3. See chapter 6, "Hospitals and Health Care: Their Christian Roots" in Under the Influence by Alvin Schmidt, (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 2001) and chapter 6, "Christianity and Charity" in Christianity on Trial: Argumetns against Anti-Religious Bigotry, by Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, (Encounter Books, 2002).
  4. For biographies of the early founders of modern science, see "The World's Greatest Creation Scientists: From Y1K to Y2K". For more on the Christian influence of modern science, see chapter 9, "Science: Its Christian Connections" in Under the Influence by Alvin Schmidt and chapter 2, "God's Handiwork: The Religious Origins of Science," in For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery, by Rodney Stark, (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2003). For the Christian influence in the development of free market economics, seeThe Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, by Rodney Stark, (Random House, NY, 2005).
  5. See the Christian influence of politics in The Theme is Freedom: Religion, Politics, and the American Tradition, by M. Stanton Evans, (Regnery Publishing, Washington, DC, 1994) and chapter 8, "Christianity and American Democracy" in Christianity on Trial, by Carroll and Shiflett.
  6. See "Christianity and Slavery" (Truth & Consequences, February 2007) and "Becoming a World-Changer" (Truth & Consequences, November 2007). Also, see chapter 11, "Slavery Abolished: A Christian Achievement" in Under the Influence by Schmidt and chapter 4, "God's Justice: The Sin of Slavery," in For the Glory of God, by Rodney Stark.
  7. See chapters 2–4 in Under the Influence by Schmidt. See also "Letter from The Birmingham Jail: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Natural Law," (Breakpoint Commentary by Chuck Colson), accessed 12/15/2007.
  8. See "The Relativistic Fog" (Truth & Consequences, September 2006). Also, see C.S. Lewis' development of the moral argument in The Abolition of Man and "Part VII: Christianity and Morality," in What's So Great about Christianity by Dinesh D'Souza, (Regnery Publishing, Washington, DC, 2007).

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