Monday, June 11, 2007

Lessons from the Golden Compass

I just finished reading Philip Pullman's Dark Materials Trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass). I had previously read the Golden Compass back in the 8th grade, and I liked it... but I wasn't much of a fantasy/sci-fi fan at the time. When I started the 2nd book, I just couldn't handle it because it was too out-there for me. It wasn't until my last few years of high school that I discovered my interest in these sorts of novels. A friend of mine introduced me to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I loved it. Then I went out and got the Chronicles of Narnia and read those too (the first book, of which, I had started to read back in 5th grade and didn't like at all... too weird for me... I think I must have been a really boring kid or something, I probably still am). Again, I loved them. Now that I've finished Pullman's books, I can see the similarities between them all. Oxford must be a very inspiring place because it's the home of some wonderful authors. And the great thing about reading all of these books at an older age is that I was able to appreciate the literature in all of it's philosophical (and often theological) glory. Lewis and Tolkien give us stories that evoke the age old struggle of good versus evil, and they make God's role in our world come alive in a whole new way. Pullman, interestingly, takes this same struggle from a whole new perspective. Though Pullman is an atheist, and his story clearly shows this, his books are just as important for Christian readers as those of Lewis and Tolkien. I'm fairly certain that his trilogy wouldn't be allowed in the libraries of many Christian schools, but I'm also fairly certain that shying away from his message would be a mistake.

(I'm trying to write this so as not to spoil it for those who haven't read it yet, but there are somethings I have to include in order to explain why his books were important... so you've been warned.)

Pullman's books focus on the question of consciousness. In the books, consciousness is vital to the survival of the world as we know it, and it's not just about being aware of the world, but it's about being thoughtful, creative, inquisitive, logical, etc. The great tragedy is not physical death, but the death of the mind. Indifference and mindlessness are the great enemies. Loss of one's consciousness is pretty much equivalent to the loss of one's soul (which for some characters in his books, is personified in the form of a daemon --there's actually a really neat connection about how growing up is the time when you settle on your personality, and that's a good thing, unlike in many other books where growing up --loosing innocence-- is bad). The church, interestingly, is afraid of consciousness (real/original/creative thought), and they pretty much associate it with sin. At first, I was kind of offended that the church was the enemy in this sense, but then I realised that Pullman was making a valid point. How often has the church in its history tried to silence dissent? Creativity? Discovery? Not always, of course, but certainly too much. Religious folks of all stripes ought to embrace and utilize their minds! Our reason, our creativity, our imagination, everything -- they are all wonderful gifts from God. Do you think He blessed us with these amazing abilities for us to be afraid of them? Of course not. In fact, I strongly believe that He gave us these specific abilities to be able to find him on our own. He gave us the tools, he gave us the choice, and He left it up to us (with some nudging along the way). Like Milton said, "Sufficient to have stood, free to fall..."

But gifts of the intellect do come at a price. An indifferent individual may not be able to do much good, but they certainly don't do much harm. They just don't do anything, really. On the other hand, someone who is intelligent, clever, and imaginative is in a different boat. She can do enormous good, but she can also do enormous harm. The bigger they are, the harder they fall (couldn't help myself, sorry). After all, what separates Lincoln from Hitler? It's not determination. It's not leadership ability or intelligence (if that was a bad comparison, replace it with a better one). The difference is in the motive; it's in the heart. God gifted both of these individuals, but they had to choose how to use their gifts. So the Church is afraid of what happens when we use our minds for evil, I understand that. But stifling thought prevents the enormous good that can be achieved by cultivating our gifts. So, Christians take heed. Pullman's worry should be ours as well...

Lesson two: the kingdom. What do you usually hear (well-meaning) Christians say about the kingdom of God?? If I can just make it through this life, I'll have a hell'va time when I get to heaven. If I can just hang on, I'll find peace when I die. I'll be rewarded, as soon as I leave this world. What kind of life does this sort of attitude lead to? If you are merely surviving this life, you aren't doing much to improve your (or more importantly, other people's) lot in the present. In other words, you kind of lack a big motivation to make the world a better place. But the Lord's kingdom isn't some far off paradise. It's here. It's now. One of the big lessons I pulled away from Pullman was his insistence that we must start living in the kingdom (republic, for him, more on that below) today. As a matter of fact, I recently heard a sermon about this at church. It was about how the kingdom of God is alive and well in our hearts and in this world, and it is our job to bring this kingdom to everyone else. In God's kingdom, love reigns supreme, and so we should daily live to love, to bring God's kingdom to the world. Don't believe me? Jesus said it too: "Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, 'The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within (or among) you'" (Luke 17:20-21). I really believe this is the most important lesson for any Christian who reads Pullman. We must start living in the kingdom now! Decide for yourself what this will mean for you in a practical, day-to-day sense. It means different things for everyone. Everyone has a different role in the kingdom, and everyone has a duty to get started right away. Don't know what that means for you? Ask. Seek. Knock. You'll find the answer, as long as you're listening.

Of course there were a few things in Pullman's books that I didn't agree with. The main principle I really disagreed with was the Republic of Heaven. I'll try not to give to much away, but in essence the books show how every conscious being (spirit or physical) is equal. That entails that humans are in no way inferior to God (nor could they be, really, given who God really is in the books... but that's for you to find out when you read it). And I see the appeal of this line of thought. Of course, why should we be lower than Him? Don't we deserve to be on his level? Well, that's kind of how humans have gotten off track with God from the start. Sin isn't about sex and lies (contrary to what you'll often hear Christians getting worked up about today). It's about thinking of yourself first, before God, before anyone, and asserting your own interests. Pride? Isn't that really just a will that wants to be it's own God? In my heart, equality with God is not something I desire (well, I guess I probably do sometimes). That, after all, is our whole problem. We want to be God. We are gods, in our own minds. We want to be superior, to be above him, to be the rulers of our lives. Well, if God really did create us, then our lives are gifts. We are entitled to nothing, but we are blessed with everything. We ought to take the attitude of Jesus when he came down to dwell with us: "Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant" (Philippians 2: 5-7).

Another thing I was disappointed with was that the second two books don't really live up to the first one. The first one was by far my favorite, the second was okay, and the third I really only read to see what would happen. His setup is superb, but the follow through is wanting. It's hard to explain why, but I got the feeling that his wrap up lacked the subtlety and sophistication of the story he began. The ending wasn't quite as thrilling as the "prophecies" foretold, so I guess that must be it. It just seemed too easy, and I just didn't buy it. But perhaps, that just shows that I couldn't accept the whole last half of the epic tale on a faith level, who knows. Even if the last half wasn't so "out-there" I think I would have still been disappointed with the ending. That didn't happen for me when I read Tolkien, but it did somewhat with Lewis. Tolkien got better as the story progressed, and I think I enjoyed Lewis's middle novels better than the first and last ones. But if you disagree, feel free to tell me so.

So go read the books (at least the first one). And do it quickly, because Hollywood is about to bastardize yet another wonderful children's series by again during it into a major blockbuster. Quick tangent: I have a hard time when these sorts of books get made into movies. They are of the variety they are precisely because they are fuel for the imagination. But when movies come out, children go and see the movie first, and then half the fun of reading the books is gone. It's like taking a dagger to the imaginations of a whole generation. Of course, it's sometimes neat to watch the movie after the fact, but I'd give up that pleasure (and sometimes its not, because often they ruin it anyway) if that meant children would be able to read the book and fully exercise their imaginative juices. If you are curious, though, now that I've mentioned it, you can check out more info here. Some big stars will be in it. But don't look at the site if you haven't read the books yet.

**I just found this out about the upcoming film:

Fans of the Philip Pullman novel His Dark Materials have expressed outrage over news that director-screenwriter Chris Weitz (American Pie) has removed references to God and the Catholic church in the movie. Weitz told a website set up by fans of the novel,, that New Line Cinema, the company producing the film, has "expressed worry about the possibility of perceived anti-religiosity." He said that the studio had told him that if the references remained, the project would become "unviable financially." He remarked that he had discussed the matter with Pullman, who had told him that the role of the Authority (God) in his book, could be transformed into "any arbitrary establishment that curtails the freedom of the individual." The religious villains in the film, he said, "may appear in more subtle guises." He added: "you will probably not hear of the 'Church.'" One fan posted a message on the website calling the changes a "blatant cop-out to the Bible Belt of America."

Hollywood studio New Line have banned proposed references to God and the church from new film His Dark Materials. Philip Pullman's screenplay portrays the church as an institution which is experimenting on its congregation in a effort to remove original sin. But the strong religious material terrified New Line bosses, and director Chris Weitz agrees changes were necessary for the scripts big screen incarnation. He says, "They have expressed worry about the possibility of perceived anti-religiosity. "All my best efforts will be directed towards keeping the film as liberating and iconoclastic an experience as I can. But there may be some modification of terms. "I have no desire to change the nature or intentions of the villains of the piece, but they may appear in more subtle guises."

I don't know how I feel about that. But I suppose the message of the books is universal enough that any institution that suppresses original thought could be the 'enemy.' I wouldn't be surprised if the more die-hard Pullman fans get really mad.

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