Sunday, December 09, 2007

The "Golden Compass" Conspiracy?

The film "The Golden Compass" is the first of three films that are to tie in with Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy. Philip Pullman is a noted atheist - he is to children's literature what Richard Dawkins is to science writing. Various groups are up in arms, and are muttering about conspiracies.

The conspiracy theory goes like this. The film is being run over Christmas to encourage people to buy children the Pullman books, which is a means of using the holiday season for getting atheistic propaganda into the hands of children.

I am sceptical. Many family films are launched in the run-up to holidays. This is - unsurprisingly - so that families can go and see them. Not many studios would be silly enough to launch a film targeted at families at the start of the school term - it's a way of guaranteeing box office figures that are patchy at best. It's not a conspiracy - just an irony (that an anti-Christian message should be promoted at Christmas).

Pullman's major grievance seems to be with established monotheistic religion:
You’re not really giving us any clues to the source of the extreme antipathy to the Church in your books.

Well, all right, it comes from history. It comes from the record of the Inquisition, persecuting heretics and torturing Jews and all that sort of stuff; and it comes from the other side, too, from the Protestants burning the Catholics. It comes from the insensate pursuit of innocent and crazy old women, and from the Puritans in America burning and hanging the witches – and it comes not only from the Christian church but also from the Taliban.

Every single religion that has a monotheistic god ends up by persecuting other people and killing them because they don’t accept him. Wherever you look in history, you find that. It’s still going on.
Here is how he describes his upbringing:
The conventional middle-class [values] of the time. My grandfather was a clergyman and so every Sunday I went to Sunday school and church. I was confirmed, I was a member of the choir, all that sort of stuff.

We still had the Authorised Version of the Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer and Hymns Ancient and Modern – all those old forms of worship that had given comfort and joy to generations were still there for me to enjoy. Nowadays it’s all been swept away, and if ever I go into a church and look at the dreadful, barren language that disfigures the forms of service they have now, I am very thankful that I grew up at a time when it was possible for me to go to Matins and sing the Psalms in the old versions.
I guess it's quite likely that if you have that traditional an idea of what the church is, and that level of certainty that this is the proper structure, you are unlikely to realise that in actual fact, Christianity isn't simply another "monotheistic religion", which requires its adherents to follow a set pattern of behaviour. Although I go to church every Sunday, my experience of Christianity is almost completely different from what Pullman describes, and my religious forebears (the anabaptists) are more noted for radical pacifism than burning anybody.

From my point of view, I think there's much to be said for challenging established religions, especially where the leadership of those religions is happy to hide itself away and live off the labour of the followers. This is also the exact opposite of the Christian gospel - where God was so concerned to do something for the people that he loved that he came to earth to live and die for people who were unable to help themselves. That is the model Christians are called to follow - not the institutional charade that most people think of as as Christianity. It's interesting that the most vocal criticism of Pullman's books should be coming from organisations like the Catholic League - if the hat fits ....

Incidentally, here is a link to the interview from which the quotes from Pullman were selected - between him and Third Way, a thought-provoking Christian magazine.