Saturday, November 24, 2007

Seeing the devil wherever you look

Back in the mid-1990s, I had a job at a bookstore where I got to read lots of cool publishing magazines. Emmie was only nine or ten at the time, so I was very much focused on children's and young adult literature. Emmie has always been something of a bibliophile, and at that time, she was firmly into full-length books and loved our read-aloud time every night -- usually she had a couple of books going at once, because bedtime included an hour or so with one parent, followed by another hour reading with the other. Seriously. She was insatiable when it came to books. She sat through the Chronicles of Narnia for the first time (of many) when she was just four years old and by this age had already enjoyed all of Tolkien's Middle-earth books, Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, and Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books. I was constantly on the lookout for quality young adult or accessible adult books that we could read together.

One of the publishing magazines did a big spread that summer on a book that would be coming out later that year. It was called The Golden Compass, and it had already been released in the UK as Northern Lights. I think I fell in love with the book as soon as I saw its whimsical cover. Everything I read about the story and its author made me even more excited -- Philip Pullman lists John Milton and Willam Blake as major influences and he was teaching at Westminster College in Oxford at the time.

Now, I know that getting really excited about something can be a dangerous thing. All that buildup can lead to expectations that are so high that disappointment is inevitable. It's practically a law in the music biz -- a big blockbuster debut is always followed by a album that seems like a dud by comparison. And it's not like those second efforts are really that bad -- they're just spoiled by brutally high expectations.

But I couldn't help getting excited about The Golden Compass. And I shared my excitement with Emmie, who was just as eager to read the story as I was. We pre-ordered the book and barely had it unwrapped before we started reading on the day it arrived. And lo and behold, it was not a disappointment! Our high expectations were fulfilled! Emmie loved it. I loved it. It was a well-woven, beautifully told tale. We savored every word, and as soon as we were done, Emmie started it all over again, with her father this time. I don't know how many times she's re-read the book since that time, but imagine my shock when I recently found out that according to some people (many of whom admit that they never actually read the book), I was exposing my daughter to the devil for all those years that I thought I was encouraging her to develop her imagination!

Now that the movie is coming out (which I'm ambivalent about -- there's no way the movie can possibly do justice to the book, but from the clips I've seen, it should be a visually beautiful experience), the religious wingnuts are freaking out. Here's an email I received from the American Family Association recently (I have no idea how I could have possibly landed on their mailing list, but it's been quite illuminating!):
If you are a parent or grandparent, you need to be aware of the movie The Golden Compass

Movie to be released December 7

Dear ,   [apparently the AFA hasn't mastered the art of mass mailing]

There is a new movie coming to theaters December 7. You should be forewarned about The Golden Compass. The target audience for the movie is children, and it is being promoted in some schools. The Golden Compass is based on a book trilogy that promotes atheistic views, likely to be reflected in the movie.

For more information on The Golden Compass, click here to read the column by AFA's Rebecca Grace [who claims that "[a]ccording to, leading atheist writers and intellectuals are engaged in a 'scientific' quest to ultimately destroy organized religion, particularly Christianity."] You might also want to read an article from Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship. Click here for the article [this one offers the following incoherency: "[w]hat is this 'intercision?' The answer really can't be quoted on this page. You may go to SparkNotes to find out, but be sure no young children are looking over your shoulder."]

Forward this to friends and family. Encourage them to sign up for AFA's Action Alerts to stay informed on this issue and other issues of importance. They can sign up by clicking here [Link deleted. I'm not shilling for the freakin' AFA.]

Thank you for caring enough to get involved. If you feel our efforts are worthy of support, would you consider making a small tax-deductible contribution? Click here to make a donation. [Once again, link deleted.]



Donald E. Wildmon, Founder and Chairman
American Family Association
Now, please do go read both the linked articles, and you'll get a taste of why the AFA has such a hard time with credibility. Their hysterical authors make some incredible claims, like the one quoted above about intercision. Intercision is, simply, process of cutting the a human away from his or her dæmon (if Tom Gilson had actually read the book, instead of relying on the Sparknotes, perhaps he wouldn't have had such a difficult time with the question).

But even more offensive than the aggressive and deliberate ignorance of these zealots, is their intolerant way of whining about the fact that there are people in the world who are supposedly intolerant of their faith. As Brent of UTI points out, a few choice word substitutions can make a big difference. For example:
There is a new movie coming to theaters December 7. You should be forewarned about The Golden Shofar. The target audience for the movie is children, and it is being promoted in some schools. The Golden Shofar is based on a book trilogy that promotes Judaism, likely to be reflected in the movie.
Or can you imagine the how these people would seize up in apoplectic fury if they saw this little this bit of turnabout?
There is a new movie coming to theaters December 7. You should be forewarned about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The target audience for the movie is children, and it is being promoted in some schools. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is based on a book series that promotes Christianity, likely to be reflected in the movie.
The crazy thing about all this is that it's all so unnecessary. If any of these people had actually bothered to read Pullman's book, they'd see that he's telling a beautiful story. To be clear, I don't think that there is any agenda there. Sure the guy admits to agnosticism, but that's a far cry from trying to destroy an entire religion, as these deranged fanatics claim. And even if there were an agenda, if this glorious Christian religion is so incredibly great and powerful, why can it not endure in the face of a children's book? Is the foundation of Christianity so unstable that it cannot stand up to the slightest inquiry? Wouldn't the occasional challenge, rather than causing it to collapse, make it even stronger? What are these people really afraid of? Quite frankly, if there is any conspiracy here at all, it's an attempt by educated people to battle ignorance, which is very much on display in the above missive from the AFA, and is sadly, apparently quite deliberate.

Please, don't be afraid of this book. Read it, enjoy it, and if it happens to challenge your world view in some way, I bet you can find a way to grow from the experience. And while I can't recommend the movie (I haven't seen it yet), I can't imagine that there is any reason to fear it. But if you see it before I do, by all means, let me know how it goes!

UPDATE: and then there're these...
Jesus loves 'His Dark Materials'
Shrill Bible-thumpers boycott 'The Golden Compass'; world's children grin devilishly
By Mark Morford, SF Gate Columnist
Friday, November 30, 2007

It has become some sort of rule, some sort of perfectly delicious law of the popular culture upon which any open-minded and attuned and humor-licked and spiritually aware and intellectually curious and sexually alive human worth her moist, wine-massaged soul can now rely with utter and perfect clarity.

It goes like this: If there is some sort of creation, a piece of art, a TV show, a column or a book or a movie or a statue or a blog or a movement, a wine bottle or sexual position or Jesus-shaped dildo that somehow deeply threatens the various ultraconservative sects of Christian-blasted America to the point where their pale, dour representatives demand boycotts and distribute angry pamphlets and try to stop people from experiencing said hunk of culture because of how negatively it portrays their seething, condemnatory God, well, you know it's time to break out the Champagne. Or buy that book. Or get very, very naked. Or all of the above. Depending.

So it is with the first movie made from Philip Pullman's astonishing "His Dark Materials" trilogy, "The Golden Compass," a complex, mystically gorgeous, spiritually dense, big-budget fantasy epic so far removed from the cute wizardry of Harry Potter and the thin, simpleminded Christian morality of say, "The Chronicles of Narnia," it might as well be a Coen brothers movie. On acid.

Oh my God yes, they are protesting. They are pamphleting. The Catholic League and Focus on the Family and evangelical/fundamentalist Christian blogs from here to Colorado Springs, they are calling on their trembling armies to boycott the film because they believe that Pullman's brilliant books — which, by the way, if I had the power, I would place in the eager and lovely hands of every youngish human on the planet right now, but especially the girls — are not only aggressively anti-Christian, they ultimately describe, as their grand finale, nothing less than the death of God. This is what they say.

And here is the terrific thing: They are absolutely right.

But let's be a bit more specific, shall we? Because as any fan of HDM knows, it ain't really about God, per se. Pullman's luminous novels have nothing to do with rejecting faith or destroying the spirit or inhibiting the exploration of what it means to be divine. They are, in fact, the exact opposite. They relish spirit and the magic of belief and love, are soaked through with divine inspiration of a kind any intelligent Christian (or honest spiritual seeker of any stripe, for that matter) should crave the way Lindsay Lohan craves cocaine. This is what makes them so incredible.

No, the nefarious thing the books aim to kill is, well, religious authority. It's about the destruction of dogma. It's about power, about who wants to control and manipulate life on Earth; it is about blind, ignorant, even violent adherence to insidiously narrow codes of thought and belief and behavior, sex and desire and love.

This, of course, is the God of organized religion. This is the false deity that promotes numb groupthink and inhibits growth and abhors the feminine divine (perhaps the books' most beautiful, inspiring theme), the same paranoid, dreadful God that votes for George W. Bush because, well, he will smite the icky gays and protect us from vile pagans and Buddhists and Muslims and feminists and frumpy genius atheist British writers.

Indeed, if humanity is to flourish, to get over its addiction to war and guilt and fear, this is the false God that should — that must — die.

But let us get more specific still. Because while the books have as their evil antagonist a sinister cabal called the Magisterium (obvious parallel: Catholic Church), they also have a slew of dark characters in service of the Magisterium, various assassins and double-agents and robot drones running around trying to annihilate the children's spirit and destroy magic and lock down faith forever. Let us call these robotic drones, oh, say, the Catholic League. Or Focus on the Family. Gosh, no wonder they're a little peeved.

Ah, but it's almost too easy, is it not? Even a child can see that these people, these groups are so far from true spirit, so far from open consciousness it's a bit like comparing a lint ball to a cloud bank, a dung beetle to a flower bed. They are spiritual caricatures, the creepy clowns in organized religion's gloomy circus, all scrunched brows and gnarled hands and so much repressed sexuality it would make a porn star wince. Really, why give their silly protests any attention at all?

Well, for one thing, because these groups have proven they can be highly dangerous, utterly toxic to the culture as a whole. You already know the list: FCC crackdowns, stem cell research, ultraconservative judges, abstinence education, anti-choice laws, vicious homophobia, intelligent design, the rejection of science, all aiming toward nothing less than the creation of a fascist theocracy in America.

In fact, director Chris Weitz, who adapted "The Golden Compass" for the screen, reportedly removed any direct mentions of God or religion from the film version, fearing, along with New Line Cinema, some sort of Christian conservative backlash. Fans were, appropriately, outraged. It remains to be seen how much of those vital themes Weitz left intact, but you could argue that the Bible-thumpers have already taken their sad toll.

(But oh, I do look forward to the bloodcurdling screams that will surely come from these groups when they see the third film, which, if the creators hold at all true to the original book, and presuming the movie gets made at all, features a truly luminous pair of wonderful, immensely powerful, tragic gay angels. Oh my yes).

It might not matter. With any luck and if "The Golden Compass" turns out to be even half as wondrous as the book, it will hopefully fuel a massive surge in sales of the HDM trilogy in America, and perhaps inspire an entirely new literary awakening among young readers, deeper and darker and more luminous and complex and even (gasp) slightly sexual, far beyond the clever but innocuous magic of Harry Potter — which, by the way, had its share of religious bonk-jobs calling for its destruction, as wizardry is clearly the dominion of the devil. We all know what a huge drop in sales that protest caused.

But there is another note of good news, another terrific takeaway from this tale of fear and whining and outcry, and it takes the form of another delightful rule upon which your soul can happily rely, as well as a heartfelt lesson for trembling ultraconservative sects everywhere.

It goes like this: If your ancient, authoritarian, immutable belief system is truly threatened by a handful of popular novels, if your ostensibly all-powerful, unyielding creed is rendered meek and defenseless when faced with the story of a fiery, rebellious young girl who effortlessly rejects your stiff misogynistic religiosity in favor of adventure, love, sex, the ability to discover and define her soul on her own terms, well, it might be time for you to roll it all up and shut it all down and crawl back home, and let the divine breathe and move and dance as she sees fit. Don't you agree?
A moral "Compass"
Far from exposing children to "the demonic," as some Catholics claim, "The Golden Compass" celebrates independent thinking. As a Catholic, I hope my daughter will see it.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Dec. 4, 2007 | This Sunday morning, I will take my eldest daughter, Lucy, nearly 8, to Mass at our church down the street, as I do every week. Afterward, I will drop her off at Sunday school for First Communion preparation. Then, if she desires, I'll take her to see a movie the Catholic League is urging me to boycott, a film based on a series of books the League claims was "written to promote atheism and denigrate Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism."

The run-up to New Line's lavish adaptation of Philip Pullman's "The Golden Compass" has been marked by indignant protest from Christian quarters. The film is based on the first of Pullman's wildly successful, Whitbread and Carnegie award-winning trilogy, a series that makes generous and undeniably negative use of Catholic imagery: In "His Dark Materials," the world is run by the cruel "Magisterium" -- which happens to be the word for the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. A former nun declares, "The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake." People have animal spirit companions called, provocatively, daemons. And the author kills his God figure.

No wonder some Christians, especially Catholics, feel Pullman is singling out our belief system for scorn. And the people who brought you the Inquisition don't usually take dissent lying down. The Catholic publisher Ignatius Press is currently offering a book on Pullman titled "Pied Piper of Atheism." The Catholic group Family Life Center has posted "An Urgent Warning for Parents" cautioning that after seeing the film, children "will rush out to buy and digest Pullman's God-hating and Catholic-bashing books. Philip Pullman's work is about to bring millions of children into contact with the demonic."

But the biggest outcry has come from the Catholic League. In the last few weeks, the League's call for a boycott has been reported in a slew of newspapers and television news outlets, including CBS News, Entertainment Weekly and Newsweek. Not a bad return for an organization that, as Kathy Griffin has noted, appears to be "one dude with a computer." On its Web site, the League's president and sole spokesman Bill Donohue rails that "No parent who wants to bring their children up in the faith will want any part of these books." After seeing the "watered down" film, however, unwary parents may be inspired to purchase them for their children for Christmas. That infiltration of books that peddle atheism to kids, he declares, is the film's "pernicious agenda."

My daughters go to school with kids who are Jewish and Muslim and Hindu and atheist. They know that people believe and don't believe in different things, and I'm raising them to respect that. If faith is so fragile that it can be shaken by the introduction of challenging ideas, what good is it? You want a pernicious agenda? Try taking your kid to "High School Musical: The Ice Tour," and behold the hucksterism of $30 T-shirts in action.

Pullman, for his part, has declared, "Why don't we trust readers? Why don't we trust filmgoers? Oh, it causes me to shake my head with sorrow that such nitwits could be loose in the world."

Yet there's no official Church position on Pullman, and not all Catholic outposts have been so vehement. Catholic Digest, the nation's largest magazine for Catholics, suggests parents use the film as a springboard to "encourage your children to reflect about the issues the book raises in a thoughtful and intelligent manner." A review from the venerable reporting agency Catholic News Service notes, "This is not the blatant real-world anti-Catholicism of, say, the recent 'Elizabeth: The Golden Age' or 'The Da Vinci Code' ... this film -- altered, as it is, from its source material -- rates as intelligent and well-crafted entertainment."

As far as I know, Bill Donohue has not yet seen "The Golden Compass." I have. I suspect it would piss him off. If you're offended at depictions of what the narration refers to as a "ruling power fearing any truth but their own," an entity Nicole Kidman's character describes as protecting its flock from "messy thoughts and unhappy feelings," then this is not the movie for you. While not as direct as the books -- director Chris Weitz removed references to the Church from the script, saying, "I thought it would be unnecessarily provocative and hurtful to certain individuals" -- the film's potentially subversive message of the power of truth telling and independent thought remains intact. I think the dwindling number of us who still call ourselves Catholic can handle it -- it's the folks hoping for a harsher critique of the Church who will likely be more offended.

My only objection to the film isn't philosophical, it's practical: The movie is pretty damn intense. There's child abduction, cruelty, violence and a bear-on-bear battle that drew gasps from the audience I saw it with. Lucy, who is still wrecked over the ending of "Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince," and I will have to work together to decide when she's ready for this. And my 3-year-old, who shrieked at "Enchanted," is definitely sitting this one out for a few years.

Every parent filters. I am as quick as anyone to put the kibosh on any book, movie or toy that espouses a negative or dubious philosophy. But I have far more concerns for my daughters and their values when they beg for Bratz dolls or over-identify with Disney princesses. And I'll be OK if the girls who dressed for Halloween this year as Hermione Granger and Chihiro from "Spirited Away" one day discover Pullman's brave, intelligent, resourceful heroine Lyra Belacqua.

I want my children to understand that human beings and institutions are fallible. That sometimes those who claim moral authority can traffic in corruption and abuse. I want them to be angry at every wrong perpetuated in the name of God. To question authority. To be feisty troublemakers for positive change. I've told my daughters that no one knows for certain that there's a God or a heaven. I always thought that was the beauty of faith -- that it rests on our willingness to believe in the things we can't prove, to consider, when we look up at the stars or contemplate the elegance of a DNA sequence, the possibility of a higher architecture. I hope that my daughters will find contentment and community in their religion. But I would rather they grow up to be kind, generous unbelievers than sanctimonious, blindly dogmatic Christians.

At the end of "The Golden Compass," the witch Serafina foretells of a coming war, one that will affect everyone. The stakes, she says, are nothing less than our free will. Coincidentally, not long ago Lucy came home from Sunday school, bursting to tell me the story of Adam and Eve. "The snake made the woman eat an apple," she said cheerfully, "and that's why it hurts when we have babies."

"Yeah, maybe," I replied, with all the restraint in my arsenal. "But maybe the story is about something else." Maybe, I told her, it's about the point in our evolution when we got our souls. When we started using reason as well as instinct. Because you know what makes us human? Our ability to make our own choices. I told her that I don't believe in a God who kicked us out of paradise to punish us. I believe in one who put us in a world of wonders, to challenge us to figure it out.


Spike said...

Hi, Dear Daughter here. I'd just like to comment that if the AFA's opinion that reading the Golden Compass when I was little (and several times thereafter) had great potential to turn me into a godless heathen, then wouldn't reading The Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien's works have had just as great a potential to make a brilliant Christian out of me? I'm a little insulted on the behalf of all the children the AFA seems to think will base their entire world view on a single book they encounter for a minimum of one reading, or a movie they may see only once. If I had allowed every book I've read and movie I've seen to entirely form my world view I would have some serious split personalities. Instead I think getting a wide spectrum of ideas helped me make informed, well-thought-out decisions about what I believe and why. And one of the things I believe is that Pullman wrote a gutsy, fun, intelligent children's series that will lead them to greater literary pursuits later on because of the strength of its influences. I love me some Milton and Blake now, just like Tolkien and CS Lewis led me to explore Norse and Greek Mythology. I went to church and everything as a kid, and I still didn't catch the Christian messages until I was older. Adults need to remember the things kids really focus on, and let their agendas wait until later, or better yet, throw them out all together.

fletch said...

I'll try to catch the movie. I just did a brief write-up on Dolly Parton performing a Zeppelin song. The wingnuts went crazy, proclaiming her not a Christian and doing the works of Satan. Dolly Parton of all people, just because of one song. These people are very scary and dangerous.

Keera said...

Wait a minute. Are you trying to tell me that Christian kids nowadays have never read any Brothers Grimm or H. C. Andersen stories? Because if their parents are up in arms over one fairytale, I would assume they are up in arms over all them. God, after all, isn't mentioned in "Hansel and Gretel".

Chris in Oxford said...

Oh, for god's sake - these AFA freaks have been doing this for years. These books are wonderful and I'm looking forward to the movie - not because of their secret atheist agenda, but just because they are great fantasy stories. Shouldn't these people be queer bashing or something?

alice said...


alice said...

From a little further along in the article:

"That's not to say I disparage the religious impulse. I think the impulse is a critical part of the wonder and awe that human beings feel. What I am against is organised religion of the sort which persecutes people who don't believe. I'm against religious intolerance."

smijer said...

Yeah - I saw that too, but I wasn't playing devil's advocate for our side ;)

'Course, people are circulating the quote I posted & the people reading it aren't going to care too much what else was said in the interview once they read that.

alice said...

While advocating, would the devil then concede that killing God in the book is not the same thing as doing it in real life -- or even wanting to do so?

Wait, no -- don't answer that. That's a level of thought that is a bit deft for these ham-fisted zealots.

Gah. Nevermind!

Keera said...

Guess what I just learned today? "The Golden Compass" was filmed here in Bergen! Now I really have to see it!

alice said...

How exciting! That should make it interesting for you -- trying to find something familiar!

It turns out it's quite the popular location.