Golden Strawman

I’ll admit right now that I haven’t read The Golden Compass, nor seen the movie (which comes out tomorrow). So I’m not going to review the book or the movie. I’m just going to talk about in what sense the books are anti-Christian and whether they should be condemned because of it.

Now, there have been great works of literature that were anti-Christian, and I don’t know if we can condemn the Golden Compass and its sequels solely on the basis of their philosophical claims. And I’m going to ignore, for now, that the books and movie are directed towards children and the significance of that fact. Even without using those to condemn the works, though, it seems to me that the books and movie are both extremely deceptive in their presentation of their anti-Christian claims, and thus they are little more than the worst kind of propaganda.

To start – the author, Philip Pullman. has said that he is “trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.” That’s not an ambiguous statement – he’s attacking, or at least trying to attack, the Christian religion.

But in a sense, the books don’t attack Christianity; they attack the general idea of tyranny. (Incidentally, I suspect I wouldn’t like The Golden Compass if I read it because I don’t like works that preach about evils that don’t exist…) Essentially, Pullman claims that “every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling.”

I’m not going to bother going into why – if someone finds this an interesting topic, I’ll make another post on it later – but this doesn’t really make any sense if you know anything about Christianity. Christians would agree with the idea that it’s evil to “control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling”. In fact, some Christian groups (the USCCB among them) have come out and said that the movie and book aren’t anti-Christian, they’re just anti-tyrannical and pro-freedom, both things that Christians are also in favor of.

The problem is that, even though the books don’t actually argue against Christianity, they claim to do so. They explicitly state that the bad guys are Christians, the evil organization is the Church, etc. (In the movie the evil organization is the Magisterium, which supposedly makes it less anti-religious, but it doesn’t actually do so if you know what Magisterium means.) Even though it’s just attacking a straw-man and actually promoting some Christian values, by presenting its attack as one on Christianity it makes itself anti-Christian – indeed, it becomes the worst kind of anti-Christian propaganda.

Essentially, anyone who reads the books or watches the movie without knowing what Christianity actually teaches will be convinced that Christianity is a great evil in the world – because who wouldn’t be convinced that an organization whose goal is to “control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling” is evil?


10 Responses to Golden Strawman

  1. Bill says:

    I think that as followers of Christ we should engage the culture and be thoughtful in our criticism and not just reactionary. I keep hearing all this talk about banning the movie…and I agree with you I think that is a big mistake. I am going to see the movie and we are taking our Middle School kids, those who want to come, and talk afterwards about the worldview issues. Let’s have an intellectual and thoughtful discuss about the ideas and not just being afraid of them.

    I posted some thoughts about the Golden Compass on my blog here:

    Also, ChristianityToday posted a helpful piece by Jeffery Overstreet that give a balanced view and addresses questions and concerns Christians have about the books and movie.

  2. Urs says:

    Fun Fact: I go to a Catholic School and The Golden Compass was “highly recommended reading” summer before last.

    Now, I read the entire trilogy and what I can say is this: The book very obviously attacks the Church. However, the book does not attack Christianity although it does. The book attacks a Church that tries to control everything, that tries to rob the world of all good in it. The church in the book is not what the Catholic Church actually is (nowadays), and the message it (the book church) preaches is not that of Christianity. Would an organization like that in The Golden Compass actually exist – even if it did act in the name of God – Christians would have every right to rebel against it. For example, the church in the book conducts an experiment on abducted children to separate them from their souls (which exist in the form of an animal outside of the body). No true Christian organization of any kind would do such a thing.

    So, despite the fact that the author purposefully attacks the Church and Christianity, the world he created features an organization that resembles the Church in name only.

    But, at the very end of the last book, there is an interesting twist to the story: God is not actually the supreme power in the universe. An “angel” metatdron or something like that (I don’t remember the name) usurped God long ago. In truth, this is impossible, making it all the more obvious that the universe the book weaves only resembles ours upon first glance.

    But anyway, your last paragraph is completely correct. However, because I do know what Christianity really is, the book is just an interesting, if far-fetched “what if” scenario that a Christian could also have written. The only people who would really be convinced by it are those who hate Christianity anyway, or those who have never heard/understood the Christian message. And if those really are the people Pullman wants to convince, that’s just pitiful. In the meantime, I can just enjoy the books.

  3. tedmgreijer says:

    When Pullman says that he is trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief, does that not mean, essentially, that he is attempting to undermine it as an ideology? An ideology that could be compared to a form of tyranny, in the sense that it commands certain values, and certain laws of morality. Christianity is a value-positing eye in a society where it makes perfect sense to argue that no fundamental values at all can exist. It seems to me, that Pullman is attacking religion as an ancient institution that dictates the way we must live our lives today. Supposing that God does not exist, that renders religion an ideology that suppresses human creativity. Under the rule of religious institutions, man is not entitled to the making up of new values, of new norms, and new ways of being. Christianity condemns life on earth to be a life of suffering, given that human beings after death will either be rewarded with a place in heaven, or punished with a place in hell – this leaves room only for a person to follow the word of Christianity, and hence making the idea of free will a joke. Pullman’s idea appears to me to not call Christianity or having faith a form of evil, but rather, he directs a philosophical challenge against it.

  4. paisleyandplaid says:

    I ordered th book today and plan to read it quickly so that I can enter this debate. Interesting comments.

  5. The books have the Metatron in them? Interesting…

    It doesn’t make the idea of free will a joke to say that actions have consequences – saying that you’ll be punished for certain actions doesn’t make you any less capable of doing them. And clearly people _do_ have a choice to not follow the word of Christianity – many do so, Pullman included. So how exactly are Christianity and free will mutually exclusive? I think I lost the thread of your argument somewhere…

  6. tedmgreijer says:

    A follow up on my last comment:

    The existence of God entails a form of determinism, in the sense that we are put on earth according to his will. Given that God is the father of human kind, we are bound to follow his word; because either, we will perish in hell (i.e. we will pe punished, immensely), or we will be awarded the greatest of all awards.
    Here, supposing that a person wants to do an abortion, she will not be allowed to do so, simply because that would be breaking one of the fundamental laws of the church and hence, of God. In a somewhat similar vein, a homosexual person will probably never receive salvation, because once again, being with a person of the same gender means breaking one of the laws of God.
    God has, in other terms, determined what values human beings are to live in accord with. The individual is clearly undermined in this sense, because her own will is irrelevant – a person’s choice has already been made for him/her.

    On the other hand, we suppose the non-existence of God, i.e. no fundamental values, i.e. man is the creator of values. An atheist is allowed to determine his own existence, fully; he is only conditioned by himself. There is no other punisher, than the one man himself has created – in our case this is the law of society; in the main part of the western world, a society that is based on libertarian principles.

    Pullman, I imagine, argues that truth is relative. For a long time, Christianity was considered the essential truth; from the 19th century and onwards, scientific knowledge has somewhat replaced religion as the conditioner of truth. Which means, what will be the truth of tomorrow?

  7. Interestingly, Pullman said the following in an interview:

    “[People who read the books] will find a story that attacks such things as cruelty, oppression, intolerance, unkindness, narrow-mindedness, and celebrates love, kindness, open-mindedness, tolerance, curiosity, human intelligence. It’s very hard to disagree with those. But people will.”

    I think Pullman is being intentionally thick-headed here. Surely he can see how you can be against cruelty, oppression, intolerance, and the rest, and then object to the books because they irrationally accuse your faith of possessing those attributes?

    His excuse, I suppose, is that his story takes place in an alternate world unlike our own, so attacking religion there is not the same as attacking it here – but that really is just that, an excuse, and I think a fairly lame one at that.

  8. tedmgreijer says:

    If you disallow homosexuality, and call it a sin for which one is liable to suffer for; if you disallow a person’s right to with his/her body as he/she desires (i.e. masturbation, abortion, preventives etc), and call certain actions a sin for which one will be punished; if you dictate manner of speech, behaviour – if you, at all even, determine that certain values are definite, that they are in their nature inherently this or that, and that people must obey these words, or perish – then you are quite likely to be



    and narrow-minded.

    Hardly is he irrational in having opinions against Christianity, just as another person would justly challenge the ways of a dictator, of a one party state, of any kind of authority that asserts to be in possession of inarguable truth/or legislate/decide for people that had no say in a matter.

  9. I’m not going to go into why Christianity is not “oppressive, intolerant, unkind, and narrow-minded” here (I might do so later) – my point is simply that Pullman is being dishonest, and I think intentionally so, when he feigns ignorance as to why Christians would be offended by his books. He pretends that his books don’t attack Christianity, but they clearly do (which you acknowledge). I don’t think that attack is justified, but that’s not the point – the point is Pullman shouldn’t say that he isn’t making such an attack and that Christians should embrace his book as supporting those values Christians support.

    Basically, Pullman wants to have it both ways – he wants to write a book arguing against Christianity and then convince Christian parents to have their children read them by saying he isn’t actually arguing against Christianity.

  10. Thrawn says:

    Turin, there is a difference between attacking Christianity and attacking the church ;)

    but just a quick point that irked me about critics of the movie. A great number had not read the books, and many of them who had based their critiques off of their knowledge of the entire trilogy, not just the first book.

    In the books, it is called The Magesterium *in Lyra’s world.* Although THE CHURCH is referenced, it is when talking about Will’s world (introduced in a later book) But that isn’t my actual point….

    Pullman may or may not be attacking Christianity itself (he claims to be trying to destroy God himself in an interview, but I see that as not being a totally serious statement), but he is attacking the hierarchy of the Church. Basically he goes into a fictional world were very real problems (like their ability to influence politics, their very narrow-minded policy based on their ideas, even if they are not in accordance with the actual teachings. He takes this and blows it up, in an attempt to warn people against blindly believing in some group, rather than looking to the actual ideas behind the formation of the group.

    Which is a valid point. As a Roman Catholic, I am very faithful to the teachings of christ and messages in the bible. That doesn’t mean I believe that the Pope is infallible, or that what the Vatican decides becomes morally right. Although personally I am against abortion, I think that it is not up to a group of people to decide that it ISN’T up to the mother to choose. And I dislike even further this stance being taken up by political parties.

    I support gay rights, even though the Vatican (and again, political parties that somehow are influenced by a religious orgainization) opposed it. There isn’t even anything directly in the bible against it. They take passages that could mean ‘x,’ but a mojority of them prove nothing….

    Anyways, the list goes on and on….I began rambling again.

    Shoving this entire argument aside, there is something even more insane about trying to ‘condemn’ a book. No offense, but it’s a book. A work of ficiton. I doubt that many people will be swayed by it. Just like people talking about Harry Potter, and it being ‘condemned’ for being about witchcraft.

    Trying to stop people from watching it is stupid. As a movie goes it was much better than many out there, has an interesting plot, good characters, and remains true to the books (which were actually well written) while not being for a cult of people dedicated to the book.

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