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The Golden Compass: Pointing Kids to Atheism?

A really dangerous series of books has become popular. The first book is so innocuous that many people give it to their children. The tale begins with a couple of innocent kids exploring the simple goodness of the world around them. Soon they find out that humans are not alone in the universe, and that there are other realms we cannot see. They discover that their world is full of warring factions, evil spirits, armies of good and bad angels, conniving witches, greedy kings and corrupt religious establishments. The series reaches a furious climax with the characters committing the most heinous act you can imagine: They kill God.

Perhaps you received an e-mail titled “Do not see The Golden Compass!” According to the apocalyptic warning, the movie and the books are a trap designed to tear children away from the bosom of Christ. But the above passage is not a review of “The Golden Compass.” It is a summary of the Bible.

Yet it is not the Bible that has people up in arms. The Catholic League is boycotting “The Golden Compass” for fear that it may encourage children to read the author’s books.

League president Bill Donohue wrote: “Atheism for kids. That is what Philip Pullman sells. It is his hope that ‘The Golden Compass,’ which stars Nicole Kidman and opens December 7, will entice parents to buy his trilogy as a Christmas gift.”

Donohue’s statement almost sounds like a plug for Pullman’s work–complete with celebrity name-dropping and opening date. In an age of X-box and continuous television programming, a movie that makes children want to read is a godsend. A movie that inspires parents to buy books rather than lead-tainted toys for Christmas would normally be greeted with eagerness.

But are the books really atheism for kids? In a 2002 interview with Huw Spanner of Thirdway, Philip Pullman said, “I’m not making an argument, or preaching a sermon or setting out a political tract: I’m telling a story.”

What a rich, vibrant story he tells! I’ve read the award-winning trilogy with my family. When I say “with my family” you should picture mild bickering over who lost whose place, mad chases around the house, and excited dinner conversations that invariably end with, “Don’t tell me! I’m not there yet.”

The movie is based on the first book, The Golden Compass, but the dire warning is directed at the third book, The Amber Spyglass. According to the e-mail circulating through millions of inboxes, it is in the third book that the characters kill God.

For the sake of argument, suppose they really do kill God. Any movie with God as a character cannot be atheistic. Atheists, by definition, do not believe that God exists. Thus The Tale of Peter Rabbit is more atheistic than The Golden Compass.

Should Christians be offended by the killing of God? Our entire religion is based on it. Remember Jesus? The Bible plainly and repeatedly asserts that God came to earth in human form and we killed him. All Christians, by definition, believe that people killed God.

Actually, the characters in this book do not kill God. The Authority is in fact an angel, not the immortal Creator. He is very old and ready to die, but is being used by the Church for its own purposes. When two children release him, his angelic body dissolves back into the universe.

Paul talks about The Authority in Romans. He calls it the law. According to Paul, the law was good for teaching us right from wrong, but it became a yoke of slavery because of our inability to comply. The law brings death. Christ came to bring us life, freeing us from the law of sin and death. Jesus greatly disrupted the religious establishment of that day, which was based on the law.

Pullman’s trilogy is theologically provocative, but none of the three books attack true Christianity. In fact, his tale reflects the biblical story of humankind. Will and Lyra explicitly represent Adam and Eve–not only in the fall from grace, but also in redemption. The Apostle Paul calls Jesus “the second Adam.” Adam is the original transgressor, but Adam is also the bringer of salvation.

There are other parallels as well. In the third book, Lyra and Will descend into the underworld to free those souls who have been trapped by death. In order to do so, they must be willing to be torn away from their very spirits, undergoing a sort of death. This is similar to the torment Jesus experienced on the cross when he was separated from the divine to descend into hell and destroy death for our sake.

Pullman may not profess a literal belief in the Bible, but we find biblical themes running throughout his literature. This is not surprising, considering that he was raised by his grandfather who was an Anglican rector. Pullman names Milton’s “Paradise Lost” as one of the works that inspired the trilogy.

These books are not a consistent parallel to the Bible by any means. Neither are The Chronicles of Narnia, which Christians everywhere praise, study, and use as the basis of English curriculum.

Likewise, The Lord of the Rings has been embraced by the same people who battled to censor the magical Harry Potter series. Although The Lord of the Rings contains a similar mix of myth and magic, its defenders claim it holds a Christian message. Author J.R.R. Tolkien adamantly opposed such an interpretation during his lifetime. He said, “I dislike allegory whenever I smell it.”

Why do Christians defend some fantasy books as harmless magical tales while others are condemned as occultist books? Michael D. O’Brien, Catholic author and fantasy critic, makes this distinction: The Lord of the Rings is acceptable for Christians because the magic exists within a distinct hierarchy. Harry Potter’s magic is anti-Christian because anyone can obtain it through education and exercise. In other words, the Catholic Church does not really mind your child reading about witches or warlocks. That’s a clever ruse to oppose any books that don’t tow the line regarding ecclesiastical hierarchy. Given this distinction, it is clear why Pullman is drawing Catholic ire.

The Golden Compass portrays a very corrupt church that wields unchecked political power. In an interview, Pullman gave the Taliban as a real-life example of such a church. The term “Catholic” is not used in the book or movie, so any church that identifies with the depiction is essentially condemning itself.

The Vatican claims Roman Catholicism is the only true church, so its visceral reaction is to spin any criticism of itself as an attack against God. It’s difficult to imagine that a mere storybook could mar a reputation which already includes hundreds of years of church-sanctioned slaughter, inquisition, witch-hunts, slavery, pedophilia and misogyny.

The e-mails urge me to pass on the message, so I believe I will: Don’t see this movie! At least not until you’ve read the book. You certainly should not see it this weekend, because you might get ahead of me in line.

Jeannie Babb Taylor is a wife, a mother, entrepreneur and writer in Ringgold, Ga. This column is adapted from her blog, “On the Other Hand.”