The Golden Compass has been a source of anxiety and anger for some Christians since it began screening in the cinemas in December last year. It is said to be a profoundly anti-Christian film that is intended to undermine the faith of children in God and the Church.
The Golden Compass is the film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s book, Northern Lights, which is the first novel in the trilogy, His Dark Materials. It relates the story of an eleven-year-old girl, Lyra, who travels to the frozen wastelands of the North to rescue some children who have been kidnapped by Gobblers, who in league with the all-powerful Magisterium are subjecting the children to cruel experiments. Lyra also hopes to rescue her father, who is being held prisoner by armoured polar bears. Along the way she is helped by gypsy-like gyptians, good witches, a balloon-flying Texan aeronaut, an exiled armoured bear and a truth-detecting alethiometer, which is the golden compass of the film’s title.
Viewed in its own right, the film does not seem to warrant the concern it has generated among Christians. It seems to be a straightforward fantasy tale. Some of the witches in it are good and this may be bad from a Christian point of view. Yet Christians have excused good witches before in tales such as the Wizard of Oz, so perhaps they can be excused here, especially given that they are of the long-living nonhuman flying variety who exist only in fantasies.
Also, every person in the film is constantly accompanied by a personal daemon, which manifests itself as an animal of some sort. The words “daemon” and “demon” are homonyms and can also be synonyms, so it is understandable that Christians might initially associate the term with the occult. Yet the daemons of the film have nothing to do with the demons of the Bible: they are not familiar spirits but are visible expressions of their companions’ souls. Indeed, the film begins with a narrator explaining that in some worlds the soul lives inside a person’s body, while in Lyra’s world (which is uncannily like ours, only a little skew-whiff) the soul walks beside a person in the form of an animal. And later in the film the good armoured bear tells Lyra, “A bear’s armour is his soul, just as your daemon is your soul.”
There is no gratuitous violence in the film, no sex scene, no swear word. There is no mention of God or the Church, although some of the wicked officials of the Magesterium wear priest-like robes. All in all, then, the film seems fairly innocuous.
Indeed, I think that, in and of itself, the film is basically harmless. But unfortunately, it should not be viewed in and of itself. It needs to be viewed in connection with other things. It needs to be viewed, firstly, in the light of the book that inspired it. It needs to be viewed, secondly, in the light of the two books (and eventually the two films) that follow and fulfil the first book. And it needs to be viewed, thirdly, in the light of what Philip Pullman himself has said about the books.
As a work of art, the novel is far superior to the film. Northern Lights is as far above The Golden Compass as a Monet painting is above a comic drawing. The book is a masterpiece of the imagination. Pullman has created characters, situations and fantasies of astonishing originality, plausibility and appeal. And yet there is a dark ideological element to the tale. For Pullman links the baddies, who are very bad indeed, to Christians and the Church.
In the novel, “the Church’s power over every aspect of life” is “absolute”. The Papacy has been abolished and in its place has grown up “a tangle of courts, colleges, and councils, collectively known as the Magisterium” (p.31). The Church/Magisterium is a dark, self-serving organisation that suppresses the truth and oppresses the people. All the villains belong to it and it is guilty of conducting horrendous experiments on children it kidnaps and spirits away to the North. The reader cannot help but loathe the Magisterium, the Church.
One of the most decent characters in the book is John Faa, the “king of the gyptians”. He tells Lyra that the child-thieves, the Gobblers, carry out their kidnappings “with the help of the … police and the clergy” (p. 101). He also tells her that Mrs Coulter, the most despicable character in the novel, is able to carry out her schemes thanks to “friends in the Church”. Again he declares, “the Church in recent times, Lyra, it’s been a-getting more commanding. There’s councils for this and councils for that; there’s talk of reviving the Office of Inquisition …” (p.110).
Later in the novel we learn that Mrs Coulter has promised the corrupt king of the armoured bears that she would “get the Magisterium in Geneva to agree that [he] could be baptised as a Christian, even though [he] hadn’t got a daemon”, a human soul (p. 280).
The second half of chapter 21, “Lord Asriel’s Welcome”, consists of a somewhat tedious and strained discourse about certain theological and philosophical matters pertinent to the overall story. This discourse is full of prejudicial references to God and the Church, such as, “God’s admitting his own nature to be partly sinful” and “the Church’s obsession with original sin”. And there are several references to the Church’s obsession to suppress through interrogation and excommunication scientific discoveries that conflict with “the doctrines of the Church”.
The film does not display the book’s smouldering hostility towards Christianity and the Church. Nonetheless, it could facilitate that hostility by motivating the children who view it to read the novel that inspired it. As a compass points north, so The Golden Compass points to Northern Lights. This is a legitimate cause for concern for Christian parents.
Another concern for Christians relates to the remaining two books of the trilogy, the books that presumably will form the basis of the film sequels to The Golden Compass. In the second and third novels of his trilogy, Pullman apparently increases his attack on Christianity and the Church. I have not read these novels, so I cannot comment on them firsthand. But this is what several of Pullman’s admirers have said about them:
* The title of his trilogy, His Dark Materials, is taken from Paradise Lost, and the story he tells is a reworking of Milton’s epic poem. Will and Lyra, his two child protagonists, are the new Adam and Eve, who are drawn into a quest to depose the creator of Earth and the evil Church and establish a republic of Heaven.1
* [The third novel,] The Amber Spyglass, recasts the biblical Temptation and Fall as the beginning of true human freedom. The final volume also wraps up myriad plot developments with a great war in Heaven that results in the death of God.2
* Pullman, attacked by a rightwing columnist as “the most dangerous author in Britain” and “semi-satanic”, is celebrated for a trilogy which deliberately takes an opposite line to CS Lewis’s Christian tales. In Pullman’s world, the universe is ruled by a senile, viciously sadistic deity who has to be deposed in battle so that its inhabitants can join with angels in creating a “republic of heaven”.3
* Adult readers … are drawn by … The beauty of his writing … and the profundity of the philosophy that underpins the trilogy: essentially, the heretical notion that there was once a war in Heaven, and the wrong side won. In Pullman’s trilogy, Lyra is the new-age Eve, and Will is the modern-day Adam. God is a wizened spent force of an “Authority”. And “The Fall” is to be celebrated as the defining moment of mankind, rather than the source of all worldly evil. Little wonder that His Dark Materials has been denounced by some religious zealots. [NB. This last reviewer also praised Pullman for presenting “some of the most magical creatures ever devised”, including “Baruch and Balthamos, the homosexual angels”.]4
It seems that the first book of the trilogy, Northern Lights, merely softens the reader for the Church- and God-pummelling to follow in the second and third books, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.
But what does Philip Pullman himself say about all this. Is there some misunderstanding at work? Perhaps I have over-reacted to the anti-Church sentiments scattered throughout the first novel. And as I have not read the second and third novels, perhaps I have been misled by his enthusiastic reviewers, who may have over-stated his promotion of atheism in keeping with their own hostility to Christianity.
As I discovered while searching for reviews and interviews on the internet, Pullman has not been exactly shy about stating his views on God and the Church. Consider his own statements—statements taken not from anonymous emails or unaccountable blogs, but from authentic, verifiable sources such as The Telegraph and The Guardian in the UK, The Washington Post and The New York Times in the USA, and The Sydney Morning Herald in Austalia, not to mention Pullman’s own website:
* I’ve been surprised by how little criticism I’ve got. Harry Potter’s been taking all the flak. I’m a great fan of J.K. Rowling, but the people—mainly from America’s Bible Belt—who complain that Harry Potter promotes Satanism or witchcraft obviously haven’t got enough in their lives. Meanwhile, I’ve been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God.4
* If we’re talking on the scale of human life and the things we see around us, I’m an atheist. There’s no God here. There never was. …4
* Blake said Milton was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it. I am of the Devil’s party and know it.1
* Atheism suggests a degree of certainty that I’m not quite willing to accede to. I suppose technically you’d have to put me down as an agnostic. But if there is a God and he is as the Christians describe him, then he deserves to be put down and rebelled against.1
* You have to wake up a bit and see what a beautiful world this is and how lucky we are to be conscious in it … That’s why Eve is my great heroine, she wondered what it would be like if she did as the serpent suggested and ate the fruit. Good for her. What a pompous little prig she would have been if she had said, “No, I mustn’t”.1
* As you look back over the history of the Christian church, it’s a record of terrible infamy and cruelty and persecution and tyranny. How they have the bloody nerve to go on “Thought for the Day” and tell us all to be good when, given the slightest chance, they’d be hanging the rest of us and flogging the homosexuals and persecuting the witches.1
* I don’t know whether there’s a God or not. Nobody does, no matter what they say. I think it’s perfectly possible to explain how the universe came about without bringing God into it, but I don’t know everything, and there may well be a God somewhere, hiding away. // Actually, if he is keeping out of sight, it’s because he’s ashamed of his followers and all the cruelty and ignorance they’re responsible for promoting in his name. If I were him, I’d want nothing to do with them.5
* As for [CS Lewis’s] Narnia—I’ve expressed my detestation for that series on several occasions and at length … Narnia … is the work of a Protestant … for whom the individual interaction with the Bible and with God was a matter of daily struggle and endless moral questioning. That’s the Protestant tradition. So in Narnia the big questions are urgent and compelling and vital: Is there a God? Who is it? How can I recognise him? What must I do to be good? I profoundly disagree with the answers that Lewis offers—in fact, as I say, I detest them—but Narnia is a work of serious religious engagement …6
* I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief … Mr. Lewis would think I was doing the Devil’s work. 2
Pullman claims, “My books are about killing God.” He claims, “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.” I see no reason to doubt that he is telling the truth. He is, truly, a proselytising atheist who uses his considerable literary skills to win converts to atheism.
Of course, Pullman may be over estimating the power of his novels to weaken the Faith in the hearts of Christian children and to discredit the Faith in the eyes of non-Christian children. Some children may be so engrossed in his story that they fail to notice his philosophy. Others may notice but not be convinced. (Indeed, really smart children would think, Mr Pullman is proof that the Creator made humans in his image: how else could he be such a good creator?) But some children will be intelligent enough to discern Pullman’s worldview and innocent enough adopt it.
The Golden Compass may have been purged of the anti-Christian excesses of Northern Lights. But it will still point children in the direction of Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. That is sufficient reason to avoid it. And anyway, why should Christian parents put money into the pocket of someone who not only hates their spiritual convictions but also hopes to win over their children to his dark materialism?