Spinning the Golden Compass

The Golden Compass has been criticized for its negative presentation of organized religion. Its principal critic its the American Catholic League, a conservative body that speaks for conservative and traditional elements in the Catholic Church in America. The League says that the movie, like the books, promotes atheism, but their grievance appears to me to is that Pullman presents the history and traditions of Catholicism in a negative way. The criticism is a defensive reaction to Pullman’s presentation of the belief system and power structure of the Church as repressive, exploitative, manipulative, cynical, and dishonest. The League’s campaign brings to mind its reaction to Kevin Smith’s Dogma. It is incongruous for parents to take their children to this movie on Saturday, and then make them to Church and Sunday school. If you believe the Church is benevolent, why challenge your child or pay someone to insult your belief?
The shoe was on the other foot when the Christian churches in America were promoting the movie version of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories and defending Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
The challenge for self-professed faithful Christians is whether to deny their kids the experience of consuming the latest must-see fantasy product from the movie industry in the hope of consolidating their belief in the conservative Christian version of reality. It seems to me that parents who think they are insulating their children from secular ideology and popular culture by not taking them to one particular semi-animated fantasy film based on a coming of age novel are a little confused.

That’s not to say that a child will not come away from a movie with memories, impressions and ideas. The point of art and literature is to create a convincing illusion. People know that the stories are made up, but they identify with the characters, track the story, and try to find the meaning . We trust part of what we have read, seen and heard in fiction as a description of places and events framing the lives of fictional characters. Our judgments of truth in matters of geography and history are often bad. People who have seen movies are not inclined to verify the facts or to examine their response to the movie. This which leave children and adults walking away from movies with impressions and ideas that will influence their future choices.
Adults have more power to tune out things we don’t want to think about as noted in an interesting piece by Cass Sunstein in the Chronicle of Higher Education – The Polarization of Extremes. Adults have a greater ability to rationalize and reconcile tastes, likes and beliefs. If someone likes the movie or the movie’s presentation of personal identity, autonomy and destiny, and likes the idea of being a Christian, she can easily reconcile those two tastes and attitudes. Donna Freitas, an academic theologian worked it out in God in the Dust, a piece published in the Boston Globe. Her accommodation will not please conservative Christians, but it is no more improbable than the accommodations conservative Christians make between work and life in a modern economy based on science and technology, and identity as believers in a religion invented by Iron Age peasants, refined by feudal oligarchs, hammered by capitalism, and sold by modern marketing.
Children may have a harder time in processing the large images and symbols in a movie than adults, but adults are inclined to overestimate our capabilities and intelligence.
It has been a season for atheists in the publishing industry, with Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and Hitchens holding forth on the intellectual failings of religious ideas and the social failings of people who tie up their actions to religious belief. These books haven’t added much to the arguments against the existence in God or the arguments in favor of attempting to live by the principles of Science, Reason and Humanism. In spite of the fervour and passion of some of the writers, Humanism, Evolution, Meme and selfish genes are simply not emotionally fulfilling, and therefore cannot displace religion as a social reality, as Theordore Dalrymple, writing in City Magazine – “What the New Atheists Don’t See” – John Cornwell, writing in the Times – Book reviews – and Jaron Lanier, writing in Discover Magazine – “Peace through God” – have pointed out.
The Catholic League wants to solidify religion – its religion – in dangerous age. It’s an interesting project. It seems to me that religion itself doesn’t need any help, because people are going to be religious and crazy on their own. On the other hand, the collective interests of any particular gang of apes always have to be protected.
In the end, I think that avoiding the anti-Christian message of one particular movie is like trying to avoid getting wet in an ocean of emotional and intellectual content – education, media, art, entertainment and culture.