11 October 2007

Bombast Launched against The Golden Compass

William A. Donohue, president and sole voice of the politically conservative Catholic League, has proclaimed a crusade against the upcoming Golden Compass movie, claiming that Philip Pullman wrote the His Dark Materials series in part to "denigrate Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism."

Donohue's crusade takes the form of issuing press releases and speaking bombastically on television, which is his normal business (as detailed by Media Matters and Talk to Action). He's also selling a "booklet" (size unknown) of his opinions on Pullman's books for $5 apiece, or ten for $30. As of 2005, Donohue's salary was over $300,000, and that money has to come from somewhere.

The Golden Compass takes place in a fantasy world, with people's spirits manifest as companion animals, talking polar bears, and tree branch-riding witches. That world also contains an oppressive church, called the "Magisterium," which the book does indeed portray in a poor light. (Something about killing kids to obtain their spirits--you know how books can blow these things out of proportion.)

In a 2004 interview on the BBC show Belief, Pullman acknowledged taking some of the Magisterium's terminology from the Christianity of medieval western Europe, but said:

we're talking about another world, remember, and we're talking about a world in which the Catholic church develops in a very different way, because [John] Calvin became the Pope in the history of Lyra's world.
He also spoke of the emotions that motivated this story:
it's a deep anger...and yes, horror at the excesses of cruelty and infamy that've been carried out in the name of a supernatural power. And it's not only the Catholic church that is guilty of this, of course. The Protestants were just as guilty of burning the Catholics and their town, and of hanging the witches. And both sides are guilty of persecuting the Jews. And then you get Moslems killing Hindus, and Hindus killing Moslems, and Sikhs killing Moslems and Hindus. . . . .

I think it was a physicist [Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg], who said the truest thing about this. He said, good people have done good things, and bad people have done bad things without the help of religion, but for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
That's the kind of fair, rational thinking that gets Donohue angry enough to go on television and sell booklets at $5 apiece, ten for $30.

It seems more than presumptuous for Donohue to think that the Magisterium in Pullman's make-believe world is the same Roman Catholic Church that he's appointed himself to defend in the US. Wouldn't he be better off insisting that there's no connection or similarity between his own church and an oppressive institution based on imaginary power? But apparently he sees an insult there, or an opportunity.

For myself, I'm really looking forward to seeing Iorek Byrnison in action. There's a character who truly fights for people's rights.


Fuse #8 said...

>checks watch< Took 'em long enough. I've been anticipating serious objections to this series for years but was surprised to see everyone being smart and cool-headed about it. I guess it isn't until a book is made into a movie that the real diatribes begin.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, Donohue's argument is that the movie will bring more readers to the books, especially the later books with their clearly gnostic picture of the universe.

Of course, given the nature of our society, he gets more television time inveighing against a widely advertised movie than arguing against a book, even a bestseller.

It doesn't surprise me that people who believe strongly in a religion, especially a religion with a strong organizational structure, might dislike the books' depiction of the Magisterium.

It's a little surprising that some are unable to say, "This is a fantasy novel reflecting one man's view, and my faith remains strong." Even more surprising is how Donohue is going public with the admission that he looked into those books and perceived his own church mirrored in them.

This dispute also reminds me of how a few years back I saw a posting to a children's-writing email list outlining a Christian interpretation of The Golden Compass. Pullman's first interview about the theological underpinnings of the series (then at two books, I believe) had appeared in the New York Times just a couple of days before.

I sent the poster a link to the article, and noted once again the tendency for people who believe in a particular understanding of good and evil to read any portrait of good and evil as fitting their view. If Pullman had not been so explicit about the philosophy motivating these books, would Donohue have worked himself into such a dudgeon? Or would he have had to find another reason to put himself on television?

SamRiddleburger said...

I've been waiting for the backlash, too, but frankly I've not dreaded it.

If you're going to push your religious views on kids, you deserve to have somebody push back.

I doubt Donohue is my kind of guy, but I see where he's coming from.

I found the Dark Material's endless negativity and nihilism disturbing. I'm an atheist myself, but I was rooting for God to win at the end of Spyglass.

Further, I really dislike someone dressing up their religious beliefs as a fantasy novel and shoving their theological ideas on kids after baiting them with talking animals. That's why I dislike Narnia and that's why I dislike Dark Materials. (Well, one of the reasons anyway.)

To tell a child that they are free is one thing, but to visibly crush hope, faith, charity and God himself under your heel is pretty nasty. And then after taking away all that, to leave a little spark of potental love... and then to squash that, too (on a technicality) and end the book, that's real nasty.

J. L. Bell said...

Ah, the traditional need to leave young readers with a sense of hope!

Actually, I don't think the His Dark Materials removes God the Creator from the universe. Rather, in gnostic fashion it reveals the figure people had worshiped as God to be the first of the angels, and not the Creator at all. So theists can look above that false deity if they wish.

SamRiddleburger said...

Yes, well, the sense of hope is certainly preferable to a sense of hopelessness.

It would be interesting to compile a list of (non-French) books that end without a sense of hope.

I'll admit that even Spyglass has a little dangly bit of hope.

So, the only thing I can think to add to the list is "Fay" by Larry Brown.