February 2008 – The Golden Compass, the $180 million fantasy that was expected to be a smash at the box office, partly due to all the controversy surrounding the film, appreared to be a slight disappointment for New Line Cinema.
Opening weekend in the U.S. in early December brought in almost $26 million – about $18 million less than expected. But by press time, the film had grossed $257.5 million worldwide.
So why all the fuss? It’s just a movie, right? Not exactly.
According to the Los Angeles Times, “The Golden Compass is based on the first novel in a series for young readers by British author Philip Pullman, an atheist who once wryly told an Australian newspaper that ‘my books are about killing God.’” In Pullman’s The Dark Materials fantasy trilogy, Lyra Belacqua is the young heroine who helps undermine the church and the Christian concept of original sin. Lyra’s activities lead to the death of God.
The trilogy has been translated into 40 languages and sold 15 million copies. Based on the author’s following comments, it’s easy to see why there is more to the Pullman pandemonium than the movie:
▶ “Well, I look at the world, and I see no sign of God anywhere. … No sign of God – a living God. So I have to consider myself an atheist. But because of my upbringing I’m a Christian atheist, and I’m a church atheist.” (Ignatius Insight Scoop, 2007)
▶ “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.” (The Washington Post, 2001)
So what are Christians to do?
First, they need to grasp the spiritual state of Pullman’s heart and his need for a Savior. Secondly, Jim Ware, co-author of Shedding Light on His Dark Materials, (available at afastore.net) says Christians need to be equipped to dialogue about Pullman and his work.
In an interview with AFA Journal, Ware offers insights for mature Christians to consider. While Ware’s thoughts have some merit, AFA still stops short of recommending that readers see the movie or read Pullman’s books.
AFAJ: Describe Philip Pullman.
JW: Pullman represents himself as an agnostic, but his actual beliefs seem to have more in common with pantheism and other forms of New Age spiritualism. His books communicate that man has a great destiny to fulfill, and that he doesn’t need the “repressive” myth of God to help him fulfill it.
AFAJ: What do you find most disturbing about Pullman’s writings?
JW: [It] … is the very thing that leads me to believe they are not as big a threat as many people make them out to be: namely, that his criticisms of Christianity fall largely into the category of false, groundless, and uncritical clichés. For example, the idea that the Bible regards mere sexuality as “dirty” and “sinful,” or that God is a killjoy who opposes all kinds of pleasure. What’s disturbing about this is that clichés are easily accepted and “swallowed” by uncritical minds. Fortunately, they are also very easily answered. …
AFAJ: How can Christians respond to Pullman without attacking him?
JW: Pullman himself is an intriguingly complex and self-contradictory character. … Pullman, whose beloved grandfather was an Anglican minister and whose father was conspicuously and disappointingly absent from his early life, has made some comments that betray a deep-seated longing for a personal relationship with a genuinely caring Heavenly Father. …
In his Arbuthnot Lecture, he described his writing as a way of “coming to terms with an absence – the absence of God – because I cannot believe in the God who is described by churches and in holy books.” He goes on to say, “So I’m conscious of God only as an absence, but as an absence which is full of echoes, troubling echoes and unhappy ones, consoling ones and kindly ones, chastening ones and wise ones. These echoes fill my mental universe. …”
Philip Pullman is not simply a “God-hater” … who needs to be shunned, boycotted, and regarded with fear. He is, in fact, a fairly typical man of our times, a man who is raising some profound questions about the nature of the universe, the existence of God, and the true character of the Christian faith. In doing so, he is not merely speaking for himself. He is, in fact, voicing the doubts, fears, and frustrations of an entire generation. That’s one of the reasons his books have been so popular.
And that’s exactly why intelligent, informed and caring Christians need to encounter him on the level of honest dialogue, engage with his message in a thoughtful way, and provide solid answers to the questions he asks. We can’t do this if we aren’t willing to listen to his story and take his ideas seriously.
AFAJ: How should parents protect their children from Pullman’s influence?
JW: “Protecting children” is not necessarily the central issue at stake here. The real issue is that Pullman raises questions that many people are raising today. He deserves to be answered – just as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens [both outspoken atheists] deserve to be answered. Younger children may not be ready for this kind of debate/controversy. But the time is quickly approaching – in college, high school, maybe even during their junior high years – when they will have to face it.