Just in case you've missed out on the news, a movie called The Golden Compass opens this weekend. It is based on book one of the trilogy titled His Dark Materials, by Phillip Pullman. And just in case you didn't get the reference (I didn't) the phrase "his dark materials" comes from a line in the old poem/story Paradise Lost by John Milton, the story of a battle raging between heaven/hell and God/Satan. Pullman's story has a similar scope, hence the reference.
Now for the good stuff:
I've received several forwarded emails over the past few weeks from Christians very concerned about the movie. The emails have included the following statements about Pullman and his stories:
1) Pullman is a proud atheist with an agenda to subvert spirituality with the books and movies
2) In the stories, the main characters (two kids) kill God
3) The result of God's assasination is that everyone can do as they please
4) The movie is milder than the book, all part of a ploy to get kids to eventually read the books and turn into atheists
I have read all three books of the trilogy. In a minute I'll tell you what I think about them, but for now here's my take on the accusations in the email chain:
1) Regarding Pullman's agenda, I don't know for sure. Both sides of this argument throw so many "quotes" of Pullman's around that it's tough to decipher what he really believes and what agenda he has, if he even has one. Instead of focusing on the man, the rest of this post will be about the actual books.
2) The kids don't kill God. In book three (The Amber Spyglass) there is an epic battle involving all types of physical and spiritual (yes, spiritual) creatures. There is one old and decrepit spirit called "The Authority" who happens to be the one worshiped in the main protagonist's world (there are multiple parallel universes in the stories). He is attacked by evil flying creatures and eventually is so weakened that the wind causes him to dissipate and vanish. But not at the hands of the kids -- they actually tried to help. And the spirit is very clearly stated to not be the creator of the universes, although he is called "ancient of days" once.
It must also be said that this is a tiny little section of the book. You can choose to believe whether that was done to be sneaky, or done because it just isn't an important part of the story. But "The Authority" takes up less than two of the trilogy's 900 pages.
3) I'm pretty sure everybody does as they please already. Most religions believe free will exists, even if they exercise it differently.
4) I personally have no problem with my kids reading the trilogy when they get older. It opens up all kinds of fascinating theological discussions. But that's me. Other parents get to choose how they want to approach it.
I won't pretend that anybody's perspective is the definitive and final one, even mine. Books and their interpretation are subjective. I once heard a quote that "we don't see things as they are, we see things as we are." Can't remember who said it, though (please tell me in the comments section, if you know).
So I can't tell you what the books really mean, or whether they should be read and considered, or boycotted and burned. But I can tell you what they meant to me, and what my interpretation reveals about who I am. And that is a useful exercise.
My short (and non-spoiler) book review
I liked the trilogy a lot -- you already knew that. So I'll just give an overview of what I liked:
-- The protagonists turn out to be selfless and brave. They are true heroes.
-- The villains (led by the protagonist girl's parents) are painted in a very negative light. And they meet a beautiful and fitting end that shows there is no soul who is 100% evil. One villain even paraphrases the teachings of Jesus as she prepares for death, and contemplates the mystery of how love penetrated even her own dark heart.
-- The characters (physical and spiritual) and settings (across multiple universes) are varied and exciting. Old stuffy boarding houses, snowy mountain ranges, wild alien worlds and even the heavens themselves... the stories weave through all of them.
-- There are talking, intelligent bears in the books. And they wear armor, make swords and fight. There are multiple scenes with talking warrior bears. Enough said.
What I learned about myself
Again, my perspective of the books is subjective, and it reveals as much about me as it does about the books. For instance:
-- I don't easily get defensive about my faith. The book's fatal end for "The Authority" was such a transparent and petty jab at religion, and such a small part of the book's plot, that it rolled off me with no impact. I looked at the book as a whole and saw a sweeping story that included dozens of spiritual characters, so to me the books weren't atheistic at all. But even if they were intended to be atheistic, that doesn't bother or offend me.
-- I'm an atheist/agnostic sympathizer. While I believe in a higher power, I readily admit that I cannot prove one exists. That's why it's called faith. And my nature just isn't overly critical of people who don't believe in something invisible. I get where they're coming from, and am always interested in hearing their story about how they find purpose in life, if they do.
-- I love freedom. My interpretation of the books was not that they vilified religion in general, but that they vilified tyranny. Tyranny can be displayed by lots of power sources -- political, financial, corporate, social and yes, religious. When religious leaders teach that people should love and serve each other, then I don't think Pullman has an issue with it. When religious leaders use their influence to gain wealth, judge others and squash the diversity of life by insisiting on a homogenous population, I think Pullman gets ticked. As do I.
So in the end, I saw the trilogy as a sweeping fantasy with lots of insights into moral issues (good vs. evil, freedom vs. tyranny) and the structure of existence (parallel universes). In my opinion, if someone was going to write a book about atheism, they wouldn't include dozens of angels and demons as characters.
But again, that tells you more about me than it does about the books.