Thursday, November 29, 2007

Golden Compass: Responding to First Things, Catholic Digest

As I was in the final stages of editing my story on The Golden Compass which appears in the previous post, I received a preview copy of the December Catholic Digest, where the editor has a positive take on the movie, based on a scholarly essay in First Things. While I've never been a big fan of the Catholic Digest, I am a subscriber to First Things. I thought the First Things essay, which focused on Pullman's cosmology, was well written; but a few sentences where Moloney took things too far by saying Pullman's cosmology was so unconvincing that it wouldn't be necessary to keep children away, caused it to be misused by Catholic Digest. Since our recent survey showed 34% of Catholic Times subscribers also receive the Catholic Digest, I decided responding to their article was necessary. Thus the following short editorial was added at the last minute:

Is Pullman’s trilogy benign, after all?

In the December issue of the Catholic Digest, managing editor Julie Rattey had a rather positive take on The Golden Compass. She based her opinion in part on an influential essay that appeared in First Things, where that journal’s associate editor Daniel Moloney argued that, despite Pullman’s best efforts to the contrary, he “inadvertently develops … a powerful Christian scene.”
“As is, I can fairly characterize His Dark Materials in this fashion: Imagine if at the beginning of the world Satan’s rebellion had been successful, that he had reigned for 2,000 years, and that a messiah was necessary to conquer lust and the spirit of domination with innocence, humility, and generous love at great personal cost. Such a story is not subversive of Christianity, it is almost Christian, even if only implicitly and imperfectly. But implicit and imperfect Christianity is often our lot in life, and Pullman has unintentionally created a marvelous depiction of many of the human ideals Christians hold dear.”
Moloney is right when he points out that Pullman has failed to produce a compelling alternative cosmology to that of Christianity. But when he says, “If his alternative were more compelling, I would recommend parents keep their children away,” implying that His Dark Materials is acceptable for children, he goes astray.
Unlike properly formed adult readers, children can and will become confused by Pullman’s less-than-compelling alternative. Pullman’s books are dangerous exactly because they contain so many of the Christian ideals that we’ve worked so hard to teach our children. The problem with Pullman’s books isn’t that they contain Christian ideals, it’s that the wrong people have them.
Pullman explicitly and purposefully takes the Church of the past and present and ties it inextricably to the evil Church of his fantasy world. Ann Lankford, director of the diocesan Office of Catechesis and Evangelization, put it best when she summarized: “He’s making evil good and good evil.”
The genre of fantasy fiction is powerful because its reality doesn’t require rational assent to be believed. Instead, Christian works like The Narnia Chronicles and The Lord of the Rings create a certain ethos in our unconscious that influences us to believe in the reality of good and evil, and to be always a hero on the side of good.
Compelling or not, Pullman intentionally takes Lewis’ Narnia series and subverts its Christian cosmology. With their developing minds and incomplete faith formation, children are susceptible even to an unconvincing alternative cosmology such as Pullman’s. This alternative to everything we believe and hold dear, therefore, is not as harmless as Moloney suggests.
Moloney might be right about properly formed adult readers, but he’s dead wrong when it comes to our children.

– Franz Klein

1 comment:

Bert D'Orazio said...

In a way He is in keeping with modern culture in making evil good and good evil ..... Chesterton in Orthodoxy says the modern world has distorted charity as a virtue into making things acceptable as a act of love ... the idea of tough love in that sense would be a bad thing because on the surface it appears unloving ... I wish chesterton and Pullman could have a modern day dialogue