December 01, 2007

Much ado...

A couple of weeks ago, the following shrill notice appeared in the Sunday bulletin at St Pat's:

The movie, "The Golden Compass" is based on the trilogy of books by atheist, Philip Pullman and is geared towards kids. He wants kids to denounce God and heaven and does it in a subtle way...parents may not pick up on his true intentions. In a 2003 interview, Pullman said, "My books are about killing God." Please don't take your kids to see this movie! The following link gives more information : http://snopes.com/politics/religion/compass.asp

I was irritated at the idea that this movie would be too dangerous to see, that it would be such a good argument for atheism that we'd all smack our foreheads and go, "oh!" It's as though whoever wrote the noticed believed that just because Pullman said he was trying to kill God, that he'd be able to.

At the time, I hadn't read the books. I've now finished the first and am working my way through the second. Setting aside author's intent for the moment, I'd say that the books are an icy, stinging critique of corrupt secular power, especially of corrupt secular power wielded with the weight of (supposed) moral authority. He obviously has a great deal of real-world source material to draw from here; it's hard to deny that the Roman Catholic Church has had its moments of deeply corrupt and evil activity, as have some other religious institutions. And it's clearly the case that some people see this as reason to reject the Church entirely. Back at Brown, Fr. Bodah was fond of saying "the only thing worse than a religious hypocrite is an irreligious hypocrite"ónobody has a monopoly on hypocrisy, and though hypocrisy and corruption can be found in the Church and among publicly religious people, they are hardly defining characteristics of religion. If Pullman's intent is to destroy religion and "kill God", he seems to be doing it by setting up a straw man to knock down.

Earlier this week, reviewers for the USCCB published a positive review that seems to understand this. It acknowledges the controversy but argues that the film "taken purely on its own cinematic terms" isn't even particularly questionable, much less dangerous. On the topic of the movie being some sort of bait to read the ever-so-dangerous books, the review also takes an eminently sensible stance against a ban or boycott: "parents might instead take the opportunity to talk through any thorny philosophical issues with their teens." A piece of advice that might well apply to any movie at all. Or book.

Of course, this review sent the Catholic crazies into orbit. The Catholic League is demanding that the USCCB revise the review to reflect the grave peril that the movie poses; in an interview, "the League warns that The Golden Compass is the least offensive of the three books and is bait for the books with 'sell atheism to kids in a stealth fashion.'" Stealth, eh? Isn't this exactly what every religiously-motivated fantasy author does? JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis might be said to "sell Christianity to kids in a stealth fashion", though that makes it sound needlessly shady and bad.

I'm a bit amused by their objection to the review's characterisation of the book's "very fictionalized church": "'Philip Pullman's books do not portray a "very fictionalized church," one that is "a stand-in for all organized religion." They portray the Catholic Church. That is why he uses the term "Magisterium," (for the evil empire),' said the League." So the highly corrupt, scary, evil church of the books isn't fictional? Um, try again, Catholic League. (That's not to say that it's not distantly based on the RCC. But a church where Pope John Calvin moved the See to Geneva, the papacy was later abolished, and governance is now distributed across several competing bodies including the bishops, the cardinals, and others... that's pretty fictional.)

A Jesuit blog raises many of the same concerns, complaining both that the movie's Church is too fictional and that it's not portraying the true Church, apparently. It particularly objects to the use of the word "magisterium", fretting that "some wildly imaginative children decide to look up 'magisterium' and somehow associate the great evil in 'The Golden Compass' with the Catholic Church." Evidently, one isn't allowed to write a book about a church gone bad that uses any of the words associated with any real church, because it might, in the hands of children, be interpreted as one and the same as reality. Of course, in this case that is more or less the author's intent, which is something all these panties-in-a-bunch bloggers are reiterating, but I hasten to remind everyone that the RCC is not one of the churches that asks you to check your brain at the door, and in fact doctrinally mandates that you evaluate the real world for yourself. Part of that is listening to the counterpoint; it gives you a much stronger understanding of the truth if you have heard the alternative.

I especially like the raft of comments on that page about how the bishops' conference is rife with schismatics. Those heretical hierarchs! Hee.

And then there are the even less-informed blogerati, raising the hue and cry while confessing, "I have not seen the movie, nor have I read the books." This one later justifies himself because "several good friends whom [he] trust[s] have read the book". The ranting here is more disjoint; for instance, one snarky criticism of the movie is an ad hominem regarding Ian McKellen (who voices Iorek) being a "homosexual-activist/anti-Catholic"; of course, later in the same review he lauds Lord of the Rings and uses Gandalf in particular as an emblem of good.

What is most disturbing in that review, among others, is the recurring idea that if the church's authority were undermined, we wouldn't have the same moral/ethical beliefs---i.e. that these aren't inherently the right things to believe. Now that's pernicious. This idea is implicit in statements like "'Thorny philosophical issues' are constantly the proximate cause of genuine crisis among youth, and sometimes it's best to nip them in the bud, not buy popcorn and absorb them in vivid technicolor dolby surround at a theater" and "Pullman is poised on the brink of entering into what has been so carefully assembled, and blast it to pieces"; unless you think Pullman is right in these criticisms, why are you so scared of them?

"What a strange attitude that actually is, when we no longer find Christian service worthwhile if the denarius of salvation may be obtained even without it! It seems as if we want to be rewarded, not just with our own salvation, but most especially with other people's damnation---just like the workers hired in the first hour. That is very human, but the Lord's parable is particularly meant to make us quite aware of how profoundly un-Christian it is at the same time." --Joseph Ratzinger, 1964

Posted by blahedo at 4:35pm on 1 Dec 2007
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