Golden Compass

My guess is that the upcoming movie The Golden Compass will receive a ton of free publicity courtesy of the Christians whose zeal it will be to protest the movie. I understand the dilemma. Hollywood marketing machines will put this movie into the same category as The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia when, in fact, it is in its original conception the antithesis of these films. Christian leaders are concerned that unsuspecting parents will be intrigued by the sanitized version of the film which will be released just before Christmas and will buy their children the books upon which the film is based.

The Atlantic Monthly, no Christian propaganda rag, to be sure, has an article this month about the movie. This article is available on-line only to subscribers, but some excerpts here would not be out of place. The article is entitled “How Hollywood Saved God”. The subtitle is telling: “It took five years, two screenwriters, and $180 million to turn a best-selling antireligious children’s book into a star-studded epic—just in time for Christmas.”

How anti-religious (we would say ‘anti-Christian’) is the book? The article gives us a hint:

This month, New Line Cinema will release The Golden Compass, based on the first book in a trilogy of edgy children’s novels written by the British author Philip Pullman. A trailer for the movie evokes The Lord of the Rings, and comparisons have been made to The Chronicles of Narnia. All three are epic adventures that unfold in a rich fantasy world, perfect for the big screen. But beyond that basic description, the comparisons fall apart. In the past, Pullman has expressed mainly contempt for the books on which the other movies were based. He once dismissed the Lord of the Rings trilogy as an “infantile work” primarily concerned with “maps and plans and languages and codes.” Narnia got it even worse: “Morally loathsome,” he called it. “One of the most ugly and poisonous things I’ve ever read.” He described his own series as Narnia’s moral opposite. “That’s the Christian one,” he told me. “And mine is the non-Christian.”

Pullman’s books have sold 15 million copies worldwide, although it’s difficult to imagine adolescent novels any more openly subversive. The series, known collectively as His Dark Materials, centers on Lyra Belacqua, a preteen orphan who’s pursued by a murderous institution known as “the Magisterium.” Or to use the more familiar name, “the Holy Church.” In its quest to eradicate sin, the Church sanctions experiments involving the kidnap and torture of hundreds of children—experiments that separate body from soul and leave the children to stumble around zombie-like, and then die.

The series builds up to a cataclysmic war between Heaven and Earth, on the model of Paradise Lost (the source of the phrase his dark materials). But in Pullman’s version, God is revealed to be a charlatan more pitiable even than Oz. His death scene is memorable only for its lack of drama and dignity: The feeble, demented being, called “the ancient of days,” cowers and cries like a baby, dissolving in air.

Not real subtle, this.

So how do we respond?

A helpful and cautious answer to that question is posted by Family Life and can be read here. Depending heavily upon the Christian film critic and author Jeffrey Overstreet, this post encourages Christians not to overreact. Overstreet says

“… whenever Christians are linked with movies in the media, you can expect it has something to do with protesting. And it’s already begun. There is such a loud, aggressive protest against ‘The Golden Compass’ happening, that Christians are playing right into the hands of the ugly stereotype that the world has of us; which is that we only wake up and get busy when we’re angry about something.

”For me, I’ve found it much more productive to talk with my neighbors about these movies, ask them to consider what the stories say and whether the stories really have any bearing on reality. In His Dark Materials – which is the name of the series that ‘The Golden Compass’ begins – the way the churchgoers are portrayed are as malevolent, controlling, heartless puppeteers, people who want to rob people of their freedoms and their joys. I think that Pullman is reacting against his perception of the church, and if we come out with our picket signs and our guns blazing, so to speak, we’re playing right into the image of the Church that he is showing people in that series. Wouldn’t it be better if our response to the movie argued with the movie simply by being different, by showing people that Christ sets an example of grace and of dialogue, and argument, yes, but argument with love.“

He notes curiously that Pullman’s diatribe throughout the books is against the church. But he has nothing to say about Christ, and his characters attempt to love and sacrifice in a world in which, devoid of a God, such acts are meaningless.

My understanding is that this movie has been cleansed of any overt content that would hurt it at the box office. We should, as always, be cautious and discerning in our entertainment. And in this case, we should be knowledgeable. But any loud verbal protesting will only be seen by the world as ugly, and help, inadvertently, the prospects of the film.

I think I’ll stay home from this one and watch something harmless, like one of the Harry Potter films.

4 thoughts on “Golden Compass

  1. AH

    Well Pastor Greenwald I am glad to see you’ve gotten yourself a blog! I always thought you would be good with a blog. How are things at Hope going along? How is the family? Things here in mississippi are well as we are leaving *hopefully* very soon! I will look forward to coming by and reading your stuff. We think of the church often, give our love to everyone.The Hatfields

  2. Randy Greenwald

    Yes, Arin, this is me. I don’t have time to do this well. Thanks for dropping by. I use to loiter around your blog, until it seemed to no longer accept my loitering! I’d love to update you on life here, but this is not the place. Send your e-mail to so I can touch base with you properly. Great to hear from you. My love to Corey and to the kids.r

  3. Geoffsnook

    Wow. I had never even heard of the film. But I usually don’t hear about them until they drop into my price range! I can spend 6-7 bucks on a movie or spend that amount on fishing lures-which last a few hours longer!Regardless, I hope that Christians can intelligently dialog with others and ask questions with our neighbors instead of just picketing and protesting movies. However, parents ought to be very discerning. But like the Da Vinci code, I imagine that it could produce some good dialog that wouldn’t have normally been had. That film had Christians scared, and it probably did more good than harm. Christ’s church still moved forward.

  4. cavman

    So, are the Christians who are ready to protest (I too have gotten the e-mails)falling into the stereotype the author presented as the Magisterium- are we guilty of an media inquisition?Sadly, we often do much to maintain the rep of those who are just out to make others miserable instead of revealing the “sweetness and excellency” of Christ.

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