The Golden Compass and Misunderstanding Christianity

So The Golden Compass (a movie based on the first book of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy) opened yesterday, and there has been a lot of controversy about it. There is an article in this month’s Atlantic Monthly about it (and also an accompanying article online), and also one in this month’s Christianity Today. Matt Barber has also written critically about it in the Examiner.

Many Christians have been critical of the books because Pullman is an atheist who has told interviewers that his books are about killing God. The gist of the Atlantic articles is that Hollywood, now aware of conservative Christians, has toned down the explicitly atheistic tone in the movie. But some Christians (and I must admit, I’m one of them) are not interested in seeing the movie because they don’t want to see the next two books made into movies, and don’t want to give Pullman any more money or success or encouragement than he already has (You may notice, however, that off to the right-hand side of this page it says that I am reading The Golden Compass. This is true. I checked it out of the library. Because while I am not interested in supporting Pullman, I am not against reading books that are popular both for entertainment and to see why they are popular).

Some Christians, though (some quoted in the Christianity Today article and others, I am told, which include Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams), have a more positive view of the series. They see in Pullman’s books a criticism of things that should never have become part of Christianity, or are Pullman’s own misunderstandings of Christian doctrine. An example is Pullman’s caricature of the Christian understanding of sexuality, which he talks about in the first Atlantic article:

This is exactly what happens in the Garden of Eden,” Pullman told me. “They become aware of sexuality, of the power the body has to attract attention from someone else. This is not only natural, but a wonderful thing! To be celebrated! Why the Christian Church has spent 2,000 years condemning this glorious moment, well, that’s a mystery. I want to confront that, I suppose, by telling a story that this so-called original sin is anything but. It’s the thing that makes us fully human.

It is true that some stripes of Christianity have viewed sexuality as something bad. It might even be true that some stripes of Christianity have equated original sin with sexuality (though I have gone to church all my life, and the first time I ever heard of such a thing was when I was talking with a group of Moonies). But if this is true, it is not because they got this from the Bible.

The events that Pullman refers to occur in Genesis 3, when the serpent tricks Eve into eating fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which God had told Adam and Eve not to eat. Eve gave the fruit to Adam and “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths” (Gen 3:7).

But the fruit can’t represent sexuality, as Pullman thinks, because sexuality came about before these events occurred: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth'” (1:28). And also, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (2:24-25). If these two verses don’t refer to pre-sin sexuality, then I would like to know what they DO refer to.

From reading Genesis, it is hard to believe that sexuality and sin could ever be equated. Yet, sometimes in the history of Christianity, it has been. So I thank God for people like Philip Pullman who criticize ridiculous ideas like this, because they’re not Christian (or Jewish, for that matter). I only wish Pullman knew that.

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6 thoughts on “The Golden Compass and Misunderstanding Christianity

  1. Sam Keyes December 8, 2007 / 6:30 pm

    Right. Even Augustine, noted evil-person-who-ruined-the-Church-because-he-was-scared-of-sex (*sigh*), and “inventor” (again, *sigh*) of “original sin,” did not equate sex with sin, but rather the distortion that made sex something capable of working against rather than with our whole being. (I.e., the fact that sexual urges are usually involuntary.)

    Pullman invented a nice tyrannical deity to kill so that he could put us under the new tyranny of Matter. Great. That’s really the funny thing. Read the way that the Angels in The Amber Spyglass talk about the Authority and Metatron, then substitute “Science” for “Authority,” and you’ve got a perfect version of Reason’s sudden claim that it was God. Could there be some sort of underlying metanarrative here? Ontology of violence, peut-être? But Pullman doesn’t believe in irony. No. Certainly no irony here.

  2. Dawnomite! December 9, 2007 / 1:12 pm

    sheesh, i understand only bits of this article (and sam’s comment). but i enjoyed reading it anyway. i thought you’d enjoy another former esi’ers take on it at her blog, annieinfrance.blogspot.com (“fare forward, voyagers” link on my blog). dave saw the movie and wasn’t impressed (from a film lover’s standpoint, i mean).

  3. elliot December 9, 2007 / 5:30 pm

    Oh Dawn, I’m so disappointed. But not with you. With me. I might have been in school too long. I used to be able to communicate to other people who hadn’t set foot in seminary. I guess I need to re-learn that skill.

    I did read Annie’s post (where did she teach, and when? I don’t recall ever meeting any Annie, and you and I were in ESI at the same time, I thought. . .). And she’s probably right: there are probably some Christians who have criticized the movies, sight unseen, for being atheistic. And yes, those people might not know what they’re talking about.

    But those people who were quoted in the articles I read were not against the movie because it was hostile toward Christianity. They were against the movie because it could turn unsuspecting people on to the books, which are not so vague as the movie.

  4. Dawnomite! December 10, 2007 / 11:38 am

    I understand what you mean completely (re: that last paragraph).

    Annie was in HU the year before I came on board, which was 00-01. She was a teammate of Dave’s, but I don’t remember which school she taught in. Isn’t it funny how you can be a part of ESI and then never be known by the future teachers (even in the very following year)? Only the REALLY long termers are remembered or heard about (ie Skynelle, Tim Farmer, and I suppose Neal, Danielle, & Tracey probably fit that mold too, since they were 4+ years). Yet we are all so connected by the students we teach. I wish there was some kind of ESI yearbook or message board for everyone to connect. (I guess that’s what facebook’s for… nevermind). I would have enjoyed giving a heads-up about what spiritual progress I made with certain students to the new teachers with whom they were about to engage. God starts that work in one teacher then continues it through all the future teachers. It just seems like we should all communicate about that “journey” more, since we all had a part in it.

    I’m rambling. And not even about the GC! But I said everything I need to about that over at Annie’s.

  5. llawhsoj December 10, 2007 / 12:21 pm

    To chime in, I just finished the series and overall I liked it. It got a little preachy at times, normally when Pullman couldn’t come up with a way to express his theology aside from dialog (something you need someone to ask the obvious questions, I guess) and I don’t know how I feel about the movie. I don’t find his message and/or alternative theology convincing and he certainly doesn’t get Christianity right or sexuality (as you point out). And two be honest after reading through his series, his bit about sexuality at the end felt misplaced and just weird. They have just fought against evil angels and accidentally killed (almost released) an old, oppressive, and powerless angel that is God to death… and then they wander around paradise for 70 pages and save the universe through some awkward and passionate kissing…
    Ultimately, I think it becomes clear that the God and religion that Pullman attacks is not Christianity, though it bears a resemblance to it (just like his parallel universes) but lacks any notion of love, Jesus (which is kind of important), or caring. Rather it feels simply like an oppressive abusive system, dressed in monk’s robes for shock value. Or that’s how it felt to me….

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