Saturday, December 8, 2007

Church and Art, Part I: Golden Moral Compass

I haven't blogged in a while (again. some more.), but this is something that's been simmering for a while with me, so I'm going to try and write it out. This may end up being one of a series, since I think I connect a lot of peripheral issues back into the one that I want to talk about in this post.

I want to start by talking about The Golden Compass. I don't only mean the movie, here, I mean the books also, so I will differentiate between the two by referring to the book as GC and the movie as GC-M. Also, I will write about plot details for both, so persons wishing to remain unspoiled for either the film or the Dark Materials (DM) series should probably stop here.

In the past few months, there has been a lot written online in both the Christian and non-Christian communities about the fact that Pullman, author of the Dark Materials series, is openly athiest. The Catholic League called for a boycott. Conservative bloggers warned others not to expose the children. There has been a lot of fingerpointing about atheists (usually with Pullman as the archetype) demeaning Christian beliefs, a lot of defensive paranoia, and a lot of preaching false information to try and scare people out of seeing the film (example: claims that the books promote female genital mutilation). All this for a kids' movie that came out yesterday.

For me, the interesting question in all this hullabaloo isn't how Christians should respond to GC-M, or the DM books. The interesting question is why Christians respond in this particular way. Because the GC-M bruhaha isn't the first of its kind: films like The DaVinci Code and The Last Temptation of the Christ also created this kind of furor. Books like the Harry Potter series and art exhibits like Chris Ofili's Holy Virgin Mary (the one with the elephant dung) or Cosmo Cavallaro's My Sweet Lord (a lifesize, anatomically-correct sculpture of Jesus made out of chocolate) created similar tempests in a teapot. It seems that the instinctive response, when confronted with a work of art that questions, challenges, or explores themes of faith in unorthodox ways is panic.

Note how I added 'explores in unorthodox ways' as the final item of that list. Pullman's books, while undeniably unflattering to organized religion (Roman Catholicism in particular), aren't actually anti-Christian. The religion and god of the books bears little resemblance to the religion or God of any of the common Christian denominations. Pullman's "Authority" is a created being, part of the metaphysical furniture of the world. The Authority is an old man, sitting in the sky and pathetically desperate to control his creations. That... doesn't look like any description of the Christian god I've ever seen. This makes him something that the Bible warns against: a false god, and indeed, one worthy of killing.

Likewise, the Magisterium of Pullman's world bears only passing resemblance to any actual church. The Magisterium is a controlling, authoritarian organization, completely without the concept of a Jesus-figure. Without the idea of a Redeemer, Pullman's Magisterium is a church without hope. The world has a source of Original Sin (Pullman calls it Dust) , but doesn't have a source of salvation from that curse. The Magisterium, therefore, devotes itself to finding a human way to erase original sin. None of this resembles the actual teachings of any Christian church.

So GC cannot be anti-Christian, because it's not crusading against any ideals that resemble Christian ones. This hasn't stopped the stunning Christian response, however. Buzzwords in the panic about GC-M (which downplays all religion found in the books, Christian or no) included "anti-God" and "anti-Christian". It strikes me as a little, well, heretical, really. If Christians assign to God the characteristics of the Authority, and persist in the assertion that books which show characters killing a false god in fact show them killing God, then we've given up the entire point of our religion.

If Christians take offense at the demise of Pullman's pagan deity, then they're claiming that every "god" is sacred.If this god that is not our God deserves defense, then no God deserves to be killed. Christians need to stop reacting with such militant protectionism, and start using their heads when it comes to their religion.

There is another troubling aspect of the Christian reaction, however. Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that Pullman's books and the movies both portray the actual Christian faith and God in a poor light (I argued above that this is not so, but let's suppose). Even if that's true, the calls for boycott are both sad and inappropriate. In fact, if Pullman is raising legitimate criticism, then Christians should respond by considering what he's saying, and addressing why it's wrong. To me, a refusal to hear any dissent indicates weak Christianity. If you're so afraid for your faith that watching a movie could convince you to become atheist, then perhaps you should examine whether you actually have faith to begin with. Every Christian has doubts about God, but I'm firmly convinced that burying them under a cloak of protectionism is not the path to resolving them and becoming stronger in the faith.

Christians who refuse to confront dissent and instead resort to knee-jerk persecution rhetoric in fact become... well, what we're seeing now. So yes, maybe Pullman will end up making Christians look foolish with this movie. Not because the film advocates killing God, or some such nonsense, but because it exposes Christians for how weak they are: unable to recognize their own God when called to do so.

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