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Compass of dissent

James Dechant | Monday, December 10, 2007

This past weekend saw the theatrical debut of another children’s fantasy book adaptation: “The Golden Compass,” based on the first volume in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. The movie has garnered a healthy share of media attention recently due to obloquy by various Christian organizations. The groups point to the blatantly anti-Christian, even anti-religious, tone of the book and movie. Some of these critiques make the mistake of trying to contain art rather than letting it speak for itself, good or bad, a misstep we can all appreciate here on campus.

Their concerns certainly hold merit. Pullman has described his books as being “about killing God” with the express purpose of undermining the basis of Christian belief. The trilogy is a modern reversal of “Paradise Lost” in which the characters celebrate rather than mourn their independence from the divine, a riff on the plot of Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound.” Pullman is an outspoken, bellicose atheist who sees evil in all organized religions and regularly speaks out against ecclesial hierarchy.

The funny thing is, “The Golden Compass” and its sequels actually do a better job of making a case for humanism or atheism than they do attacking religious institutions – which would seem the easier target. The book promotes free human action and virtue without any divine referent and makes serious, ardent ideological arguments for atheism. Its attacks against the Church, however, are laughable. Pullman uses priests in the book as cookie-cutter villains who pursue and harass the protagonists, but he demonizes them so unequivocally that his puerile characterizations of their institution cannot be taken seriously.

The Church clergy who make up the film version’s evil antagonists – here referred to as the Magisterium – are even more laughable as a mass-produced pastiche. They sit in their tower plotting how to capture children and suppress the world’s freedom. Sinister music accompanies their few brief scenes and Christopher Lee, legendary cinema villain, makes a short appearance as the token plotting mastermind.

In case you’re wondering, the movie is an average flick overall. Director Christ Weitz has watered down the antireligious message considerably. The film moves quickly from one goal-oriented action scene to another without giving the characters much time to develop any of the book’s philosophical themes, played down in this version. In short, the books are better.

Given the strident vitriol of “His Dark Materials,” one can see why the Catholic League, an American anti-defamation organization, finds the movie upsetting. They say the film may bait viewers into buying the books for their children. Valid point. But their strategy for countering the book and film’s message calls for a boycott of the movie.

Unfortunately, the League does not understand that calling for this boycott only brightens the spotlight on the film. Perhaps “any news is good news” goes too far, but calling for a boycott on a film or book is like asking for a host of media attention. The Catholic League hopes the film’s box office take will disappoint because of their efforts. Instead, you can bet all the attention they give it will only spike profits, no matter their relation to projections.

The trilogy is profoundly anti-Catholic and anti-religious, even avowedly so. Nevertheless, there are elements in the books that make for a good story and a good tale – and many even make a good moral message. The plot is well paced and Pullman turns the book’s universal themes into beautiful writing, particularly towards the trilogy’s end. The Catholic League fails to recognize this redeeming content, but other groups do not.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops responded differently – and, as I see it, much more intelligently. It acknowledges the bounty of offensive material in the book but notes its dramatic reduction in this adaptation. The bishops’ Film and Broadcasting Office even gives the film a positive review and calls it “an exciting adventure story with, at its core, a traditional struggle between good and evil and a generalized rejection of authoritarianism.” They cite the heroism and self-sacrifice exhibited by the film’s altruistic characters. Moreover, they welcome the potential pedagogic value to be had in an honest inquiry of the book’s contents. “Rather than banning the movie or books, parents might instead take the opportunity to talk through any thorny philosophical issues with their teens,” they advise.

The film’s varied responses from Christians should provide a lesson on how to deal with material that any group finds threatening or irreconcilable. Trying to control the media realm should be abandoned in favor of allowing art to speak its part. The message applies to everyone from governments keen on suppressing dissenters to colleges questioning the academic validity of performance art. Notre Dame itself hopefully learned a lesson when it questioned the place of “The Vagina Monologues” here on campus.

That doesn’t mean art is free to do whatever it wants scot-free, but you cannot clamp down on it from an authoritarian position. Instead of the “don’t touch,” hands-off approach that the Catholic League advocates, we should adopt the constructive hands-on approach of the bishops. We must be willing to engage difficult questions and grapple with provocative themes. We must welcome dissent.

James Dechant will be spending his Christmas in the tropical paradise of western Kansas. Heretical and blasphemous reading material can be sent to him at jdechant@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.