The Golden Compass: the Poop hits the Fan


So, the big budget movie adaptation of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass will hit the movie theatres in about a week. I have to say that I am tempted to go out and see it. It has a good buzz, even though the book’s anti-clerical message appears to have been subsumed into a more generic anti-dogmatic stance for the film. That might still be good. And it will be interesting to see if I have to cross a set of pickets.

Five years ago last month, I gave Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials sequence a massive five part review. It was the first big multi-post series on my blog. So, you can tell that I was profoundly affected by this epic series, even though I profoundly disagreed with Pullman’s agenda. Pullman’s an atheist and I’m a Christian, and I believed that Pullman used far too many straw man arguments to eviscerate the whole of Christianity, myself included. But I still felt that I had been made better for the books’ existence. Ironically, Philip Pullman challenged my faith, and by that challenge, made it stronger.

And, at the time, I made the following statement:

In a way, it is surprising that Philip Pullman hasn’t received more attention than he has. Here we have somebody who has written a set of popular novels that are explicitly critical of Christianity. Despite this, the attention of fundamentalist, evangelical loudmouths (er, speakers), has been routed solidly on J.K. Rowling’s totally innocuous Harry Potter series. Philip Pullman clamours for attention, and he is not getting it.


I figured at the time that what it would take to change this reality would be the adaptation of the books into a big budget movie series. And, lo, that is what has happened.

First we have the usual suspects in the form of Bill O’Donohue and his tight-assed Catholic League (hat tip to Aiden Maconachy). I’ve noted the group’s hypocrisy before, so it’s no surprise to see them coming out of the woodwork on this one, calling for a nationwide (US-wide) protest of Pullman’s work and the film.

The trilogy, His Dark Materials, was written to promote atheism and denigrate Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism. The target audience is children and adolescents. Each book becomes progressively more aggressive in its denigration of Christianity and promotion of atheism: The Subtle Knife is more provocative than The Golden Compass and The Amber Spyglass is the most in-your-face assault on Christian sensibilities of the three volumes. Atheism for kids. That is what Philip Pullman sells.

Well, that is mostly accurate. That is to say, that is an accurate assessment of the books. What this isn’t is some sort of discrimination against Christians — unless you believe that our religion isn’t open to criticism, and those who dare raise their voices are worthy of — oh, I don’t know — a Fatwa? Mass protests? But then, O’Donohue takes a fairly dim view of that… when it isn’t Catholics who are protesting:

“If this is all it takes to anger Muslims — along with cartoons they don’t like — then we’re all in big trouble. It’s time we started asking the tough questions.”


Rather than just shout, wave the pickets about, and otherwise intimidate theatre goers, it might be more constructive to take on Pullman’s criticism of Christianity point for point, to show that the religion as a whole is not the straw man that Pullman makes it out to be.

(And it is a criticism of all Christianity, not just Catholicism. Note that in the first book, Pullman in his alternate history has Pope John Calvin dissolve the Papacy and eschew the Protestant reformation — as blatant a rolling together of the many faces of Christianity into one as one can get)

I believe that Christianity is strong enough that it can take Pullman’s criticism — even acknowledge several of the points he makes — without a collapse of the faith, but O’Donohue does not seem to have the stamina or the intellectual acuity to ferment such an argument, even though one can be made.

Closer to home, the Halton District Catholic School Board has pulled Pullman’s books from the shelves due to parents’ complaints. I’m more ambivalent about this. The Catholic School Board is not the public school board. It is an education system ostensibly set up for Catholics, and funded through tax dollars that parents choose to contribute. Ultimately, they should have their say as to what books to put in their library and what to keep out, even if the motivations seem foolish. Now, if this had been the public school board, or a public library, you’d have more of an argument from me.

But I’m forced to ask, why now? Why all this attention over six years after the release of the final book in the trilogy? Well, ask a stupid question; we all know the answer: because the film is coming out.

I can put down the sudden attention of the Halton County Catholic School Board to parents suddenly realizing that the books existed thanks to the movie trailers and the media publicity. After all, what parent knows the content of every single book within their school’s library. However, what is O’Donohue’s excuse? His raison d’etre has been to vigorously attack and try to silence every perceived slight against Catholicism. What’s the excuse of he and other Christian advocates for whom Harry Potter has been their focus while this book has been in the background, clamouring for attention it didn’t get until now? It strikes me as likely that the focus shifted once the book came to the attention of the mainstream. The question I have to ask is: is the attention the books are now receiving driving O’Donohue’s efforts in order to accrue publicity for himself?

Because I can’t help but wonder if O’Donohue realizes how self-defeating his efforts are. Books and movies like The Last Temptation of Christ and The Satanic Verses achieved a fair chunk of their immortality thanks to the very attacks of those individuals who were offended by these works’ very existence. The producers at New Line Cinema are probably giving thanks for O’Donohue’s efforts. They’ve probably added a few million more to the film’s take on opening weekend.

The His Dark Materials sequence is being criticized for bashing Christianity and promoting Atheism for children. The former is fair comment, but the latter is something Philip Pullman is entitled to do, and it is a bit of a laugh to attack that advocacy as if it was any different Christians trying to evangelize to non-Christians. Which is to say, there is nothing really wrong with expressing what you believe in and advocating it. The only proper response is to respond by showing how a religious belief is better. That’s something that every religious person should be obliged to do. Faith should not be an act of laziness.

Philip Pullman is a decent man. His only “crime” is to come out in criticism of Christianity’s excesses, and to advocate for his Atheist point of view. Last time I checked, we were all free to speak our mind in his fashion. I believe we’ve missed an opportunity, here, to take on Pulllman’s criticism of Christianity and open up a dialogue between ourselves and those outside. We could have acknowledged some of his points, disputed others, engaged in a proper debate, accepting the literary value of a powerful trilogy of books, but coming up with a detailed response to it. We could have accepted the challenge to our faith, and made our faith stronger.

In the end, the actions of individuals like O’Donohue just make us all look like knee-jerk reactionaries. Christianity could do with a far better (read “saner”) advocate for their point of view.

My 5-Part Review of The Golden Compass

Further Reading

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