Blog Template Theology of the Body: My take on the Golden Compass

Saturday, December 08, 2007

My take on the Golden Compass

On Thursday, MM asked if anyone was going to see the Golden Compass and since my wife and I saw it tonight, I thought I'd offer a brief review. But first, let me explain why I had no problem going to see it.

As a number of commenters mentioned, there is something useful in exposing yourself to culturally relevant phenomena, as it allows you have fruitful discussions with others who have seen it -- especially as a jumping off point for discussions about God. Some who have pastoral responsibilities may feel like they need to see the movie so they can speak about it intelligently with their congregation.

As for me, I don't think I have anything to fear from Mr. Pullman's second-rate ideas. In the last few years, as part of my theological education, I've read most of the really good stuff written by atheists. I've been exposed to David Hume, Ludwig Feuerbach, Antony Flew (in his atheist days), Sigmund Freud, A.J. Ayer, and probably a few others that I've forgotten. These men are all first-rate thinkers and bring real challenges to religious faith, and if, by the grace of God, my faith can withstand the assaults of their ideas, I certainly don't fear Pullman's ideas.

We don't often admit it, but heretics and atheists have often provided a useful service to the church, since they have forced the church to be clear about what it believes and why. Heretics rarely think they are heretics (Arius was a bishop, after all), and instead think that they are actually proclaiming the true faith; atheists often force us to confront false ideas about God that we often sloppily adopt (I still think Feuerbach was right about a lot of things, just not the most important one). Ayer's book forced Christian philosophers to engage in very difficult work for five decades to overcome the force of his arguments and we have seen the fruit of the work in the production of thinkers like Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, and William Alston -- and Christians are better off for the work they have done.

The problem is that atheistic thought has fallen on hard times and nary a new idea has come forth in half a century. That's not to say that plenty of books about atheism haven't come out -- there seems to be a glut of them right now, but the fact is that most of them are either recycling old ideas or their new ones aren't very good. Most of it seems more pathological than intellectual, more emotional than philosophical. As thinkers, most of the public atheists today can't hold an intellectual candle to their predecessors.

So when I hear church leaders urge people not to go to these movies, it makes it sound as if we have something to fear, when we don't. Instead I'd like to hear a church leader stand up and say, "Look, we have nothing to fear from a little entertainment with an anti-church stance. Go see it and we can talk about why this is a caricature of faith and church -- and if we think it makes any good points, we can talk about that too." Telling people not to go pretty much proves the point of the movie.

The reality is that are many movies out there that provide worse messages. How about a movie that glorifies adultery, or prostitution, or serial killing? The simple fact is that the vast majority of what Hollywood produces is functionally atheistic and opposed to Christian beliefs. As far as I'm concerned Pullman at least has the decency to be honest about it.

Now, as for the movie itself, it was just fine. My wife and mother-in-law liked it, with my mother-in-law describing it as "magic". It has a good vs. evil plot, decent special effects, not too many plot lulls and so on. As science fiction/fantasy it wasn't too bad. Not up to the level of Narnia or a good Harry Potter movie or any of the Lord of the Rings movies, but decent fare. I thought the best character in the story is the polar bear, while most everyone else is a cliche.

In fact, for me the most tedious parts of the movie, and this is why I think Pullman as a critic of the church is second-rate, were the anti-Catholic parts. It just seemed so...preachy. I found myself rolling my eyes in disdain at the gross caricatures of religious belief -- the church wants to take away your free will, it thinks it knows what is best for you, the church thinks sin is bad for you, the church abuses children, etc.. There's nothing controversial or novel here, mostly just bad ideas recycled under the guise of fantasy.

Like I said above, the best character in the movie is a kickass polar bear -- he's really the one you find yourself cheering for. He's loyal, strong, brave, and has a chance to redeem himself for his past failures.

So, as two hours of entertainment, I'd say go see it if this is your kind of thing -- if you liked Potter, Narnia and LOTR, you'll enjoy this. You've got nothing to fear.

Finally, just a note on two ironies. First, there is something slightly amusing about releasing an anti-church movie during the season celebrating the birth of Christ. I think Christ wins this one hands down. Second, there is also an irony that the first thirty minutes of the film take place at a university that is supposed to be free of the influence of the church and the filming location is Oxford university -- Christ Church to be exact. I find it hilarious that a film that proposes that the church is opposed to learning and free will is filmed at one of the premier educational institutions in the world, but one that was founded for religious purposes. The very location refutes the point of the movie.

Well, I've gone on for too long, but I'd love to hear what other people think once they've seen the movie.

Update: It's not doing too well at the box office.