Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christians Lose Their Compass

Weeks before the film adaptation of the Phillip Pullman book The Golden Compass was scheduled to open, Christian groups began plastering newspapers and in-boxes with dire warnings of a hidden anti-Christian agenda. Editorials began appearing in newspapers encouraging boycotts and Fox News picked up the drum beat, dovetailing as it did neatly into their War Against The War On Christmas. Before the film even opened, the controversy drifted into schools and libraries, with a flurry of challenges against the books and some groups organizing boycotts against Scholastic, the books' publishing company.

As the book series was actually published almost a decade ago, and has been in print and popular ever since, this outrage at Scholastic seems pointless at best and more honestly a transparent publicity stunt. It makes about as much sense as a lawsuit against Adobe Garamond, a typeface based on the sixteenth-century type designs of Claude Garamond, redrawn by Robert Slimbach in 1989 and used, shamelessly, on every page of the series. Now, in case you've allowed your attention to drift from what is happening in literary cinema, the Vatican came out again on Wednesday to condemn the film one more time, dubbing it "godless and hopeless".

I'm strongly reminded, in a "Alice Through the Looking Glass" way, to the kerfuffle that surrounded The Chronicles of Narnia two years ago. In that case, Christian groups still buzzed off The Passion of the Christ trumpeted the film as proof of Christianity's triumph over godless Hollywood while the average parent wondered if they could take their kid to see it without enrolling in Vacation Bible School. In this case, Christian groups, perhaps still agitated over Apocolypto, issue blanket condemnation while the average parent wonders if they can take their kid to see the film without turning them into Nietzschean nihilists. This confusion isn't necessarily helped by a new flurry of articles from theoretically "open minded" but still "concerned" parents who think the books are "great" but perhaps not safe for children, like this confusing confection from Slate in which the author simultaneously states a desire to protect her children from the darkness in Philip Pullman's trilogy while reminiscing over her childhood infatuation with the Gothic incest classic Flowers in the Attic.

In the face of this gathering storm, I decided to do something radical: read, or in my case re-read, all three books of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. It's the books after all which are truly inspiring the angst, with some groups agitating that the film is in fact an atheist plot to trick parents into buying the books for their children. I had read the series before, as they came out starting in 1994 but I decided I couldn't rely only on my decade old memories of the story. Re-reading the tale, particularly with my mind on the brewing storm, was fascinating and enlightening. It re-established the books in my mind as true classic literature, not just children's literature, but literature, and heightened my awareness of the hysteria that has enslaved this nation when it comes to religion. In these books, Pullman raises issues which, as Americans and residents of a free democracy, we should be embracing, such as the importance of free will and the danger of religious oligarchy. The free will championed in these books is not irresponsible "the heart wants what it wants and damn the consequences" free will, but the challenging painful sort of free will that allow us to choose the hard path because we know it's right.

Phillip Pullman has been writing literature for children and teens since the 1970s. He is beloved in his native country of Great Britain and has even received an OBE (Order of the British Empire) from the Queen. Pullman specializes in adventure tales full of dire situations and cliffhanger endings, and often reads as if Dickens and Kipling got together to create a rip roaring yarn. The Golden Compass trilogy shares many qualities with Pullman’s earlier work. Pullman clearly likes and respects children. His youthful protagonists are neither cutesy moppets or miniature adults, but convincing young people. Adults in his world are human and flawed and often behave in disappointing ways. One of the myths of “children’s literature” is that it portrays, or at least ought to portray, a world somehow simpler than the real one. Pullman respects his young readers too much to offer them this illusion of simplicity, and his popularity reflects their appreciation for it. Pullman's appreciation for the dark and challenging comes out as early as the opening of The Golden Compass which includes a quote from John Milton's Paradise Lost. In fact, the collective title of the series, His Dark Materials, is taken from Paradise Lost, a 17th Century poem and cannon of Western Literature about a battle between the forces of heaven and hell.

The stories feature Lyra, an orphan raised by the scholars of Jordan College in Oxford. One quickly realizes that, although there are some familiar touchstones in this tale, Lyra inhabits a world that is not ours. In fact, every person in this world has something called a daemon, an external projection of their soul which takes the form of an animal. Children's daemons change form at whim, but as a person ages and reaches adulthood, their daemon becomes "fixed" into a permanent form.

Lyra sets to rescue her friend Roger, who has been kidnapped by a mysterious group known as The Gobblers. The Gobblers turn out to be part of The Magisterium, an all powerful religious oligarchy which controls Lyra's world. The Gobblers are part of a secret group whose investigations into a mysterious substance called Dust involve cruel experimentation on children. Lyra's adventure involves gypsies and witches and armored bears and a mysterious instrument which tells the truth to those who know how to read it. It also becomes clear that Lyra is being used as a pawn between two powerful people, her Uncle Asriel and the wicked and beautiful Mrs. Coulter.

In book 2, The Subtle Knife, Lyra escapes into another world through a tear that was created at the end of Book 1. In this world, she meets a young man named Will and together they discover that the universe is full of many different worlds, and tears in the fabric of those worlds are starting to cause a great threat to the universe. Meanwhile, The Magisterium hunts Lyra and her Uncle Asriel foments a war which, he hopes, will destroy the power of The Magisterium. In the last book, The Amber Spyglass, the battle is joined by many more, including angels. Lyra's hunt for her friend Roger takes her, Odysseus like, to the underworld and back, each step along the way giving her another tool to battle against forces attempting to manipulate both her fate and that of the universe.

The story told in the His Dark Material's Trilogy is complicated, and not just in regards to theology. Much of the story revolves around the discovery and study of the substance called "Dust", an elementary particle which seems to be attracted to beings with souls. There is also liberal exploration of the "many worlds" school of quantum mechanics, which argues that "whenever numerous viable possibilities exist, the world splits into many worlds, one world for each different possibility (in this context, the term "worlds" refers to what most people call "universes")." Obviously that sounds like something straight out of science fiction, but it is in fact a serious branch of study in quantum mechanics. In fact, Pullman weaves these challenging scientific concepts into his work so seamlessly, as a parent I might be more concerned that I'd be confronted with complicated questions about elementary particle physics than about the existence of God.

The truth is that Pullman never once in the three books says that there is no God. Nor, as has been erroneously interpreted, does he portray the killing or the death of God. In the story that unfolds in the last two books, there are two fallen angels who have placed themselves in the position of God. It is specifically stated that neither of these beings is God or the Creator of the Universe. They are "false prophets" who have set themselves up as the ultimate power and wish to enslave mankind using various tools including The Magisterium.

This is what interests me the most about the hysteria, particularly from the Catholic Church (aside from the fact that clearly most of the people complaining haven't read the books). Yes, Pullman creates a fictitious evil religious oligarchy in The Magisterium. Similarities to the structure of the Catholic Church, as well as the Anglican Church with which the British Pullman is perhaps more familiar, are fairly obvious, although not nearly nefarious as some would have you believe. When the Catholic Church complained about the DaVinci Code, it was silly but vaguely understandable. The Catholic Church was the named villain in that story. In this case, the Catholic Church has not had the kind of influence wielded by The Magisterium in well over 500 years.

So is the Catholic Church unhappy of being reminded that, at one time, they were an all powerful political and social machine that used its power for evil purposes? History is there. The Church does not deny the Inquisition, or the Crusades, or killing Gallileo, or any of the unpleasantness that pop up when you're a 2000 year organization. One of the things I've always kind of appreciated about the Catholic Church is its ability, at least at a distance of many hundreds of years, to say "Oops, our bad! Jews didn't kill Jesus and fish on Friday is A-OK!" It is the Church's flexibility, rather than its rigidity that's kept it going when many dozens of empires have risen and fallen. I usually feel that if one is secure in the quality of one's product, one need not fear criticism. When the Catholic Church spends time and resources trying to discredit Hollywood fantasies like DaVinci Code or Golden Compass while, at the same time, evicting nuns onto the street to pay for their child abuse crimes, they reveal how dangerously out whack their priorities are.

As for the rest of Christendom, the current hysteria being generated by Christian organizations over Pullman’s work really highlights the commensurate skill with which these groups have embraced the politics of victim-hood. When you live in a society which embeds the concept of free will and “the pursuit of happiness” in its very constitution, victimization is one of the few hammers which successfully get people to listen. In a “Live and Let Live” society, the fastest way to interfere with people’s lives is convince them they’re actually interfering with you. Everywhere, an evil “they” are assaulting Christians. “They” forbid children to ask Jesus for help on their spelling test. “They” are attempting murder God in His sleep by removing Him from the Pledge of Allegiance.

Now here comes a book that advocates teaching children about the responsible exercise of free will. It also suggests that religion should be kept separate from both government and science. All of these are ideas that these groups have been actively agitating against for several years now, wielding the argument that your free will, secular government and unhampered scientific inquiry is ruining their day. Nothing about the books promotes atheism or hopelessness. The books are overflowing with an awe of the beauty and wonder of the universe, as well as an acknowledgment that there is much about the universe that surpasses human ability to comprehend. But, it is true that the author, Phillip Pullman has admitted that he is an atheist. Yes, it's true! He admitted it in public! It's safe to say that atheism, like socialized medicine, is not viewed with the same hysteria and scorn in Pullman's home country as it is here in the U.S., but for most of the people agitating against the film, this admission is enough to condemn him and his work, even if his work was an impassioned support of Christianity's beneficence.

I think some of what upsets these groups so much about someone like Phillip Pullman is that he’s mastered their game and is using it against them. He’s an atheist who believes that his rights and values are under attack. He resents children’s books which cloak Christian theology within fantastic tales. This to him is sinister, or troubling at the very least. As amazing as the His Dark Material's trilogy is, there are no new ideas expressed in them that have not been contemplated within philosophical and religious circles for thousands of years. Pullman is not forging new ground. Lyra's journey is clearly inspired by everything from Greek myth to Joseph Campbell whose work The Hero With A Thousand Faces was direct inspiration for the Star Wars mythology, a fiction which Christian groups have embraced.

As for the movie, well, it's not nearly as elegant as Pullman's exquisite books. Pullman's refusal to simplify things for a young audience may have gained a huge following in book form, but Hollywood isn't there yet. It's a fine adventure film though with a plucky female protagonist. I'd take my children, and I'd let them read the books. If it came up, I'd embrace the opportunity to talk to them about God and the universe and what I think about such heady things, and encourage them to come up with their own opinions about the same things. I wouldn't be surprised though, if they were much more interested in discussing armored polar bears.