Religious overtones subtle in Golden Compass

Is “The Golden Compass” movie anti-religious or anti-Christian? Unless you have read the book or already know about the controversy, probably not so that you would notice.

There’s been an argument that the film is the leading edge of a stealth pro-atheism campaign based on the “His Dark Materials” trilogy by British author Philip Pullman. “Compass” is the first book in the trilogy and the first movie adaptation in what could become a series of films.

The world of “Compass” is filled with religious, philosophical and fantastical elements. In “Compass,” every human being is accompanied by an animal-shaped familiar who is mentally tied to the person but is also partly independent. The film opens with a voice-over telling us that these “daemons” are people’s souls.

A standard dictionary defines the soul as “the immortal or spiritual part of the person … credited with the functions of thinking and willing.” The books make it clear that, although they are important, daemons are not that.

The villains of the movie are members of the Magisterium, a Latin word used by the Catholic Church to define its teaching authority. Although the book refers to an alternate history of Catholicism, with John Calvin as its final pope, the movie never mentions the word “church.”

The film’s bad guys come across more as the Evil Empire in “Star Wars” than any real-world religious organization. A bit part by Christopher Lee (former Sith villain) almost made me expect Yoda to

If you listen very closely between the battle scenes, you’ll hear talk about “Authority” (you can hear the capital “A” in how the word is said), “free will,” the fight between “freethinkers and heretics” and the conflict between the Magisterium and “tolerance and free inquiry.”

But the recent release of “Beowulf” has more explicit discussion of religion and Christianity than “The Golden Compass” movie.

What about the argument that this film is like a drug pusher offering a first free hit to tempt youths into addiction?

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, may be the best-known critic of the books. His Web site warns: “The second book of the trilogy, ‘The Subtle Knife,’ is more overt in its hatred of Christianity than the first book, and the third entry, ‘The Amber Spyglass,’ is even more blatant.”

He has a point about the anti-religious progression of the books, but each book also gets more confusing.

Beyond that, does the series oppose Christianity or religion any more than George Orwell’s book “1984” is against all governments? Is the first “Terminator” movie, featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the implacable murdering robot, inherently anti-science? Like those works, this one is set in a world that is clearly not ours, so an attack on an institution there is not necessarily a broadside against the real McCoy.

The review of the movie distributed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops seems to take that stand:

“To the extent, moreover, that Lyra and her allies are taking a stand on behalf of free will in opposition to the coercive force of the Magisterium, they are of course acting entirely in harmony with Catholic teaching. The heroism and self-sacrifice that they demonstrate provide appropriate moral lessons for viewers.”

“The Da Vinci Code,” by contrast, was an explicit attack on the central tenets of Christianity and Catholicism, with author Dan Brown implying that important plot elements were based on careful scholarship. (They were not.)

Compare Pullman’s books with his best-known fictional peer: “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which is like a grand classical symphony, with every note carefully linked to every other note. “His Dark Materials” is more like hip-hop: spiky, violent and angry. Unlike the carefully woven world created by Tolkien, Pullman’s universe is filled with elements that seem set together without clear connection, more sampled than integrated.

But if you step back far enough, here’s what you’ll find in Pullman’s creation: A transcendent, universal, omniscient intelligence is somehow concerned with the way people live their lives. It takes an active role in human history and seems to want to encourage particular values: loyalty, courage and love. There is something immortal about people that survives physical death and reintegrates with the larger universe. The origin of the universe, and of that cosmic intelligence, is either inexplicable or not explained.

And if you want to believe this all fits together, you’ll have to take some of it on faith.

That isn’t Christianity, but it sure sounds like a religion.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday December 16, 2007.
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