Feb 6, 2008

Undermining Freedom to Save Freedom? A Review of The Golden Compass

The following brief review of the film The Golden Compass was recently published in Areopagus Journal (Sept-Oct 2007).

It was one of the best movies I have seen in a while. And it was one of the worst movies I have seen in a while. Let me explain. When it comes to purely aesthetic qualities (acting, cinematography, special effects, plot development, etc), The Golden Compass should (and most likely will) win some awards. Based on the first novel in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, the movie tells the story of a girl named Lyra who, according to the Wikipedia article, is “an orphan living in a fantastical parallel universe in which the dogmatic dictatorship of the Magisterium threatens to dominate the world. When Lyra’s friend is kidnapped, she travels to the far North in an attempt to rescue him and rejoin her uncle” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Golden_Compass_(film)).

Those who have read Pullman’s novels or have followed the press on the film know that Pullman’s stories are militantly atheistic. Intentionally offering a contrast to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, His Dark Materials portrays God as a bumbling tyrant served by the malevolent Magisterium (an unsubtle stand-in for the Catholic Church and perhaps all organized Christian groups). The heroes of the story are the “free inquirers”—those dedicated to science and reason, rather than religious dogmatism.

Though the film’s atheism and antagonism toward religion is more subdued than that in the novels, it is present nonetheless. Right at the beginning of the story, one scientist, Lord Asriel (Lyra’s uncle), seeks funding to explore the possibility of the existence of a substance called “Dust” which supposedly permeates and composes all things. The Magisterium opposes the investigation of Dust and calls those who believe in it “heretics.” The Dust seems to be a metaphor for materialism, the view that reality is entirely composed of matter—which entails that spiritual, non-physical things do not exist. So, right at the beginning we have a clash of fundamental worldviews: the theistic worldview in which God exists as the Creator and Sustainer of all things, and atheistic materialism. Like the novels, the movie leaves no doubt as to which side reason belongs. The Magisterium is portrayed as stiflers of free inquiry, dogmatic fideists who simply desire to maintain their cultural authority and influence. The scientific materialists, of course, are the defenders of rationality and tolerance.

So, it was a good movie in one sense. As an adventure story it was riveting and suspenseful—downright fun, in fact. The characters were likable and believable. But, whatever aesthetic qualities the movie has, they are overshadowed by the false worldview being subtly foisted on the unsuspecting children (and adults) who view it, not to mention the egregious stereotype and straw man constructed for religion.

For this reviewer, the most absurdly ironic thing about this movie (and perhaps the books too), is the idea that atheistic materialism is put forth as the savior of free will. In the film’s last scene, the witch Serafina warns the aeronaut Lee Scoresby of a great war that is coming, a war in defense of “nothing less than free will.” This is not simply a remark about the tyrannical ambitions of the Magisterium. It is an allusion to the idea that God, if he exists, would make human freedom impossible. What is ironic about this is that the alleged defense of free will is being made in the name of atheistic materialism, a view diametrically opposed to any notion of free will. If all I am is a collection of atoms whose every motion is dictated by the command of blind physical laws, then how can I be free in any relevant sense? What’s more, how can there be any real meaning and purpose to life if all there is or ever has been is the physical universe? Serafina is right. The battle between theism and atheism is a battle over no less than free will—and meaning and human dignity, too. But, the threat to those things is not theism, but atheism.


Anonymous said...

Glad to see some attention to this. I approached the apprehension of my church with skepticism because we can be overly dogmatic at times. After doing some research on the movie myself, I found their fears to be substantiated. I agree 100% with your assessment but have one question. If you approach this movie with an understanding of what you expound on in this blog, can or better should an adult Christian watch (and thus support) this movie?


Dr. Steve Cowan said...

Mack has asked a good question and the answer to it is not simple or black and white. Nevertheless, when all is said and done, I do not believe that there is any strong ethical or religious reason to avoid seeing the movie per se and it may be beneficial for Christians to see it, at least to get a feel for where many radical atheists are coming from. I think if we are going to be salt and light in the culture we need to interact with unbelievers' ideas, including their ideas as they appear in art. Furthermore, as I said in my review, there are some positive aesthetic features of the film that are genuinely worthwhile, and we should be willing to acknowledge that.

On the other hand, there is something to be said for not putting a lot of money into the coffers of Pullman. So waiting until the movie comes out on TV or some other cheaper venue, might be morally appropriate.

Toph Morris said...

I suppose it all depends on how you view free will. Given your definition of atheistic materialism, it occurs to me that both sides will tend to bend their definition to meet their own view. I'm not disagreeing with your definition, but I can think of more than a few atheiests who would argue that the same problem is inherent in Calvinistic and Armenian theology (I suppose this is why I tend to cling to open theism on this one). What no one seems to want to admit is that at all times, at some level - microscopic or universal - we are always subjugated to some larger authority.

On another note, what you say here about The Golden Compass being a good fantasy/adventure movie just serves to confirm something I've believed for awhile: that once you get away from Tolkein and Lewis (and really, many might argue just Tolkien), the most original thinkers and story-tellers seem to be stringent atheists and agnostics. Could be that I've just missed a lot because I'm not a big reader, but except for some minor works such as Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time series, it's like we don't know how to come up with a new idea to save our lives. Meanwhile, the shows and films which really influence me and the way I think about issues, such as J. Michael Straczynski's Babylon 5 series or just about anything Joss Whedon puts his name on, are some of the most original, engrossing, well thought-out works out there. I just learned a long time ago that in order to get out of the little box we all tend to think in on our own, you almost have to listen to someone who disagrees with you completely about your most deeply felt beliefs.

Dr. Steve Cowan said...

Toph Morris makes some good observations regarding Christian art (especially fiction). There are some good Christians artists and writers beyond Tolkien and Lewis (take a look at the films of Brian Godawa, for example), but by and large the evengelical community has either abandoned the arts or tried to force them to serve explicitly religious purposes. And so we get Billy Graham movies, Thomas Kinkaid paintings, and Janette Oake novels--cheesy, uncreative, moralistic messages.

This ought to drive us to raise up a new generation of Christian artists in the line of Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Bach, and Tolkien--artists who want to do serious art and do it well, all for the glory of God in the celebration of his creation and the exploration of the full panoply of he drama of redemption--not just to do evangelism or teach morality. So, in this regard, I agree with you totally.

On the free will stuff and its relation to the Golden Compass, I would demur just a little bit. Your comment, which attempts to lump Calvinist theology in the same boat as materialism vis-a-vis posing a threat to human freedom, seems to presuppose that all forms of determinism are alike in their affect on freedom. Now, perhaps they are. But, it is at least arguable that they are not. It seems abundantly clear that if the human mind is just a collocation of atoms subject to physical laws and past events, then it's hard to imagine any kind of human freedom relevant to moral responsibility. But, it does not seem so obvious to me that other forms of determinism would have the same consequence. We would need some kind of argument to show this.

All of this is really beside the point, though. The fact is that most materialists themselves are hard determinists who deny any form of free will-so for Pullman to argue in his novels that he is out to defend free will is just a bit ironic, to say the least.