December 9, 2007

The Golden Compass, Donohue, and God

Filed under: Church,Culture and Media — Bob Gifford @ 9:59 pm

I’m going to go see The Golden Compass. What’s more, I’m going to buy the entire Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman (The Golden Compass is the first book). And I have Bill Donohue of the Catholic League to thank.

In Christian ethics, there are two seemingly contradictory strands of thought regarding criticizing others. First is the “judge not”, be charitable, if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all, strand. Second is the prophetic strand, wherein prophecy doesn’t mean fortune-telling, but telling truth to power. So while this is rather uncharitable, I say it prophetically: Bill Donohue is an asshole. He is a bully, an idiot and a self-promoting asshole.

So when I heard he was advocating a boycott of The Golden Compass, my first thought was “that’s the movie for me!” After all, the most wonderfully inspiring Christian movie I’ve ever seen was The Last Temptation of Christ, which was loudly criticized by many (conservative) Christian groups as anti-Christian propaganda.

After reading this article by Donna Freitas, Phillip Pullman fan and faithful Catholic, I am convinced of it. She is a professor of Religion at Boston University, and she writes:

I recently published (with Jason King) a book called “Killing the Imposter God: Philip Pullman’s Spiritual Imagination in His Dark Materials.” I wrote this book, which portrays Pullman as a theologian rather than an atheist, and a rather Christian theologian at that, because I love “His Dark Materials.” And because I am a Catholic. I don’t see any contradiction between the two.


I don’t see any contradiction between loving God (whoever S/He may be) and loving a good story, even a challenging one, like Pullman’s, that has the power to transport us from here and now to another place and time, to forget time altogether as we journey into another world with a young girl (Lyra) and boy (Will) on a fantastic adventure. God is big enough, I think, to coexist with Will and Lyra. It is the critics of Pullman’s novels who are trying to make Her small.

Criticizing the church is not the same as criticizing God. The church is a human institution, and as Martin Luther and other reformers demonstrated, it deserves a good smack upside the head from time to time. It is particularly when the church attempts to quell dissent that dissent is most needed. As I understand it, Pullman’s bad guys are a metaphor for the church, not God.

But I also understand the books in Pullman’s trilogy go after God as well. Good. Abraham Jacob wrestled with God all night long. Job humbly but persistently challenged God. I am sure God would much rather have us argue with God than treat God with indifference and apathy. Fighting with God means we’re engaged. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference.

Apparently Pullman is an agnostic, not an atheist. And from what I hear, his books are good (the movie may be another matter). I never would have heard about them if not for Bill Donohue. Thanks Bill!


  1. I guess it’s not surprising that a Catholic would be a bit fuzzy on Biblical details, but I’m a bit surprised that a theologian at BU would get Abraham and Jacob confused.

    I don’t get the “don’t be judgmental” thing. At some point, making moral choices requires we make judgments. What we can’t do is claim to be holier than thou. Presumably, Jesus loves assholes too, and they also will be forgiven. At least that’s what I’m hoping.

    Comment by larry p — December 10, 2007 @ 12:46 pm

  2. Sorry…that mistake was mine, not Freitas’…I knew that wasn’t quite right when I wrote it, but didn’t take the time to go look it up. I’ve corrected the post.

    Comment by Bob Gifford — December 10, 2007 @ 1:53 pm

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