In all of the excitement and furor over the final Harry Potter book, relatively little attention (or so it seems to me) has been paid to the upcoming release of the movie, The Golden Compass, based on the book of the same name (titled Northern Lights in England) by Philip Pullman. That book is the first in the trilogy, His Dark Materials, a children's book series that is award-winning, best-selling, and openly antagonistic to "organized religion"—namely, the Catholic Church. Some of the basic facts about Pullman's beliefs are presented in this Wikipedia entry:
The His Dark Materials books have been at the heart of controversy, especially with certain Christian groups. Some, including Peter Hitchens, claim that he actively pursues an anti-Christian agenda. Proponents of this view cite the critical articles he has written regarding C. S. Lewis' series The Chronicles of Narnia (which Pullman denounces as religious propaganda), and the usually negative portrayal of the "Church" in His Dark Materials.
The two series have some resemblance. Both feature children facing adult moral choices, talking animals, religious allegories, parallel worlds, and concern the ultimate fate of those worlds. The first published Narnia book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, begins with a young girl hiding in a wardrobe, as does the first His Dark Materials book, Northern Lights (published as The Golden Compass in North America).
Some, including Hitchens again, have seen the His Dark Materials series as a direct rebuttal of C. S. Lewis's series. Pullman has also criticised the way Lewis excludes the character Susan from the final 'heaven' scenes in The Last Battle, saying she is rejected for her growing worldliness. Lewis devotees argue that Pullman has read too deeply into this; Lewis made no statement about Susan's ultimate destiny, and never excluded the possibility of her rejoining her friends in heaven later, as they are dead and she is still alive.
However, Pullman has found support from other Christians, most notably Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. These groups and individuals point out that Pullman's attacks are focused on the constraints of dogmatism and the use of religion to oppress, not on Christianity itself. Dr. Williams has gone so far as to propose that His Dark Materials be taught as part of religious education in schools. Moreover, even authors of works dedicated to critical appraisals of religious themes in his writing have described Pullman as a friendly and generous debating partner.
An August 19th article in the Sydney Morning Herald looks at the concerns of some Christians about the movie, and includes some interesting remarks made by Nicole Kidman, who stars in the movie:
Kidman said some of the religious elements were removed from the movie script. "It has been watered down a little," she told Entertainment Weekly.
"I was raised Catholic, the Catholic Church is part of my essence," Kidman said.
"I wouldn't be able to do this film if I thought it were at all anti-Catholic."
In Pullman's book, he describes an organisation that snatches children to surgically remove their souls, in a reference widely considered to be a controversial description of the Catholic Church.
In the film script, the organisation is referred to only as a fictional place known as "the Magisterium".
The Golden Compass, which will be the first film in a fantasy trilogy starring Kidman, is not due for release in the US until December 7, but it is already prompting concern among parent groups.
Thomas Peters has an excellent post about Kidman's remarks and related matters on the American Papist blog. And Peters points to another good post, by Christopher Blosser, with many more helpful materials that provide necessary context and information. Meanwhile, Pullman's site has this very direct statement about religion:
Some of the articles and talks I've written are to do with the subject of religion, which I think is a very interesting one. The religious impulse – which includes the sense of awe and mystery we feel when we look at the universe, the urge to find a meaning and a purpose in our lives, our sense of moral kinship with other human beings – is part of being human, and I value it. I'd be a damn fool not to.
But organised religion is quite another thing. The trouble is that all too often in human history, churches and priesthoods have set themselves up to rule people's lives in the name of some invisible god (and they're all invisible, because they don't exist) – and done terrible damage. In the name of their god, they have burned, hanged, tortured, maimed, robbed, violated, and enslaved millions of their fellow-creatures, and done so with the happy conviction that they were doing the will of God, and they would go to Heaven for it.
That is the religion I hate, and I'm happy to be known as its enemy.
From time to time I have a new thought on the subject. When I come up with something worth writing down, I'll put it here.
Finally, Sandra Miesel and I are co-authoring a piece for Catholic World Report about Pullman, his trilogy, and the upcoming movie (I think it will appear in the December 2007 issue of CWR). As I do research, I'll likely be posting more about the topic in the weeks to come.