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Read the book

December 10th, 2007

Last week, my friends and I engaged in one of the bloodiest, below-the-belt e-mail exchanges I have seen in a long time. There was name-calling, a bunch of French words, and, as in any passionate debate over the Internet, invocation of the Holocaust for moral high ground. 

We were arguing over a kids’ movie.

New Line Cinema’s “The Golden Compass” opened on Friday. Based on the first installment of British author Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, “The Golden Compass” is about a young girl’s quest to save her best friend from an offshoot of the Church known as “The General Oblation Board.” It takes place in a world different from ours, where every human has an animal dæmon, a physical manifestation of his or her soul. 

With me so far? Try and follow: The General Oblation Board is trying to study the effects of a mysterious substance known as Dust. To do so, they separate the children from their dæmons, effectively killing them.

The movie is supposedly toned down—“the Church” is renamed to “The Magesterium.”

My friends and I were arguing over whether or not the movie is offensive to Catholics and whether or not it is okay to make a movie offensive to someone’s religious sensibilities.

I won’t spoil anything, but the final two installments of the trilogy are even more blatantly anti-church.

Pullman is a self-proclaimed athiest.

“What angers Pullman most about theocracy, in the end, is that it blinds people to the true purpose of narrative. Fundamentalists don’t know how to read stories—including those in the Bible—metaphorically, as if they were (His Dark Materials character) Lord Asriel’s imaginary numbers,” writes Laura Miller in the New Yorker.

A recent Associated Press story states, “Pullman himself has said, “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief”.”

When there were just the books (which will probably be more “objectionable” to some than the watered-down Hollywood movies), there wasn’t much criticism. A Washington Post article, written by Alona Wartofsky in 2001, states:

“While many readers might find such content objectionable, attacks on “His Dark Materials” have been few. This is particularly surprising given that religious fundamentalists have criticized the relatively innocuous Harry Potter series as glorifying witchcraft. A recent article in Publishers Weekly speculated on why the trilogy hadn’t stirred similar controversy, and the explanation is: No one’s really sure.”

I suppose now, in 2007, a New Line Cinema Christmas movie is much more high profile than a series of books by a British author whose name isn’t J. K. Rowling. Hence the controversy.

On one end of the spectrum, according to the Associated Press, “…the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops rates the film “intelligent and well-crafted entertainment.”

On the other end, Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights president Bill Donohue believes the new movie is a gateway to the books—which sells atheism to children. According to Catholic League director of communications Kiera McCaffrey, Donohue has read the first book in the trilogy.

The core of the online argument with my friends was one friend, offering some very strong opinions as a practicing Catholic, hasn’t read the book. That’s my biggest problem—people coming out against something they haven’t both-ered to read. Agree or disagree with Donohue, but at least he’s done his homework.

I’m neither a Catholic nor versed in Catholic dogma beyond, well, Kevin Smith’s “Dogma,” but I believe a movie like this (or better yet, the books) can be a powerful teaching tool.

I don’t remember much from my Hebrew School days (probably because I spent most of them in the principal’s of-fice), but I do remember this lesson:

My teacher showed clips from movies like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” dealing with God or an essence of a higher spiritual power. For example, the last scene in “Raiders,” a spirit comes out of the Lost Ark of the Covenant and destroys everyone but Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood, who have their eyes closed. Lesson here? God is neither omnipresent nor omniscient. Then, we compared this example with the Jewish concept of God, as sourced in Biblical and Talmudic texts—what the Spielberg got right, what he got wrong. It might not have been the most scholarly lesson, but I still remember it.

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072

 UPDATE: The movie wasn’t so great. 

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