Are Christian reactions to The Golden Compass hysterical or justified?

At first glance, conservative Christians appear justified in their concerns about the release of The Golden Compass, a movie based on the first novel of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, The Northern Lights.

An outspoken atheist, Pullman has been quoted in The Washington Post saying, “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.”

Pullman’s grandfather was an Anglican priest, but Phillip stopped believing in God as a teenager.

“My books are about killing God,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2003.

Conservative British columnist Peter Hitchens in The Mail on Sunday described him as “The most dangerous author in Britain,” adding that Pullman is “the one the atheists would have been praying for, if atheists prayed.”

Jesus doesn’t get a mention in the trilogy, but Pullman has hinted that he might appear in a forthcoming sequel with the ominous sounding title “The Book of Dust”.

So if you happen to be a conservative Christian, is it time to start protesting outside movie theatres? Should Christians start burning Pullman’s books? Or is the Christian lobby, so dominant in the US, hypocritically denouncing a movie simply because it dares to question its beliefs?

Bill Donohue, President of The Catholic League in the US, is the movie’s most outspoken critic, claiming The Golden Compass is an attempt to indoctrinate children into anti-Christian beliefs. He’s written a 23 page pamphlet, “The Golden Compass: Unmasked”, and distributed it to churches and other Christian groups. According to Donohue, Pullman is “selling atheism to kids”. Similarly, Adam Hotz from the evangelical-activist group Focus on the Family claims the movie will “plant seeds” to “ultimately encourage some fans to reject God”.

Christian reactions to the movie seem simultaneously ludicrous and hypocritical. What about the fantasy movie The Chronicles of Narnia? Wasn’t that an attempt to indoctrinate children into Christian beliefs? Narnia blatantly promotes Christian values and to many was also racist and misogynistic. Could Narnia have offended Muslims or Buddhists? What about the impact on liberals and feminists?

Equally, The Passion of Christ was seen by many Jews as deliberately Anti-Semitic, but was promoted heavily by the same voices now condemning The Golden Compass.

The only sin The Golden Compass appears to have committed is that of not sharing the same set of beliefs as the Christian faith. Besides, The Golden Compass is a fantasy, unlike The Passion of Christ, which purportedly presents an historical event.

Ironically, to avoid just this type of controversy, the movie’s producers watered down the book’s direct religious references.

Set in a fantastical parallel world, the movie begins with a young orphan, Lyra, discovering that she is at the centre of a deadly conspiracy and that the lives of many children depend on her. Lyra is in possession of The Golden Compass, a powerful tool that the Magisterium, an evil church-like body that dominates and controls this parallel world, wants to recover at all costs. She embarks on an epic journey to the far north to save her best friend.

With a massive US$180 million budget from Newline, The Golden Compass stars two of the biggest names in Hollywood, Nicole Kidman and the new James Bond, Daniel Craig. Kidman plays the movie’s villain, the enchanting but evil socialite Mrs Coulter, while Daniel Craig plays the heroic Lord Asriel, Lyra’s tough, mysterious uncle.

Apparently Kidman, a Catholic, was Phillip Pullman’s first choice ten years before the movie went into production. At first unwilling to commit, Kidman signed on only after receiving a letter from Pullman and an undertaking from producers that the anti-Catholic tone of the book would be watered down.

Chris Weitz, best known for writing and directing About a Boy, is Writer and Director here too.

With eye-popping visuals of futuristic airships, talking armoured ice bears, shape-shifting creatures, witches, stunning city scapes, along with obligatory rough looking pirates, The Golden Compass appears to have all the right ingredients for box office success.

So far the controversy has failed to dampen the movie’s box office appeal. While the box office results haven’t been spectacular, they haven’t been disastrous either. In its first two weeks, The Golden Compass amassed US$41 million in North America, and is approaching the US$100 mark in 44 other territories globally. It was number one at the North America box office in the first week of its release.

While many conservative Christians appear deeply worried about the movie’s impact, not all Christians are concerned. Boston University religion professor Donna Freitas called the online discussions on Christian websites “fearful to the point of hysteria”, arguing that questioning traditional images of God should be welcomed. The Archbishop of Canterbury went so far as to suggest that the trilogy His Dark Materials should be added to religious education curriculum’s in schools.

Obvious or subtle, an anti-religious slant (Christian or otherwise), metaphysical speculations about the nature of God, or direct questioning of established beliefs shouldn’t stop anyone going to see The Golden Compass. This type of speculation is what makes science fiction and fantasy so intriguing. Creating hypothetical, polarised worlds is a great way to explore the everyday from different perspectives, question belief systems, and challenge-preconceived notions.

The conservative Christian lobby, like the Magisterium in The Golden Compass, appears compelled to try and dominate and control the thoughts and beliefs of others.

The Golden Compass was released in the US on 7 December.