Pullman (The Golden Compass): ‘My books are about killing God.’

This interesting post about The Golden Compass by the atheist Pullman is over at the Bonfire.

My emphases and comments.

 ‘My books are about killing God.’

Parents can’t always keep up with popular culture—and when a movie is promoted as a fun adventure, featuring children riding enchanted polar bears, all in time for the Christmas season, what’s not to like?

Unfortunately, the film’s makers have an agenda. The film is based on the works of author Phil Pullman, who has written a series of entertaining stories called "His Dark Materials." In his own words: "‘I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief,’ says Pullman. ‘Mr. Lewis [C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia] would think I was doing the devil’s work’" (from the Washington Post, Feb. 19, 2001). And, "I’ve been surprised by how little criticism I’ve got. Harry Potter’s been taking all the flak…. Meanwhile, I’ve been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God" (from the Sydney Morning Herald, Dec. 13, 2003). Now that he is getting criticism, Mr. Pullman is telling a very different story.

And for whom are Mr. Pullman’s books—and now, this movie, The Golden Compass—intended? Children.

I am aware the bishops’ film office gave this a thumbs’-up. [What were they thinking?]  But that may change; several years ago, the same office initially praised Brokeback Mountain, until someone with more sense pointed out the obvious moral problems in that movie.

Some will say, "but it’s just a story." Don’t underestimate the power of a story. Stories are powerful ways we form our moral imagination and how we shape the "lens" through which we see the world. Particularly for children.

Yes, it is frustrating when we have to say "no" to popular things. But as followers of Christ, we are not surprised our culture often works against our Faith, and we sometimes have to take a stand. Instead of the $20-50 you may spend at the theater, stay home with a good video and have pizza; you’ll have money left over, you can give to the hungry. That will be a golden lesson that will point your children in the right direction.  [Nice line.]

Fr. Martin Fox at the Bonfire hit a dinger with this post.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Anderson says:

    My sister-in-law informs me that Saint Lawrence Academy, a Catholic High School in Santa Clara, California, requires 11th graders to read the Da Vinci Code for the summer. Another example of Catholic institutions undermining the faith.

  2. danphunter1 says:

    I bet you anything that the USCCB will not withdraw its aproval of this atheistic garbage.
    I am not at all surprised that they recommend it.
    No one should be.
    The USCCB does more harm to the Church than Mr Pullman ever could.
    We must pray for our bishops.
    God bless them all.

  3. Jeff Pinyan says:

    Here is the review, by the way:

    Lavish, well-acted, and fast-paced adaptation of the first volume of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, “His Dark Materials,” charting the adventures of a spunky young girl (Dakota Blue Richards) who leaves home to become apprentice to a glamorous scholar (Nicole Kidman) who later turns duplicitous, causing the girl to escape and, inspired by her explorer-uncle (Daniel Craig), flees northward to try to rescue her young friend who have been kidnapped by a repressive agency known as the Magisterium, finding allies in a piratelike seafarer (Jim Carter), a Texas aeronaut (Sam Elliott), and a great polar bear (voice of Ian McKellen). Despite the professed atheism of its author, and the more overt church connotation of this Magisterium in the novels, director Chris Weitz’s film, taken purely on its own cinematic terms, can be viewed as an exciting adventure story with a traditional struggle between good and evil, and a generalized rejection of authoritarianism. Intense but bloodless fantasy violence, anti-clerical subtext, standard genre occult elements, character born out of wedlock, a whiskey-guzzling bear. A-II — adults and adolescents. (PG-13) 2007

  4. Athelstane says:

    Time was when “anti-clerical subtext and standard genre occult elements” would get you something more than an A-II rating from the USCCB Film Board.

    Even if this movie has been heavily watered down from the books, the reviewers must take into account the likelihood that children will seek out the books after seeing the movie. And the books are simply morally offensive to Christian belief – by Pullman’s own admission.

  5. Hypocritical Extremist says:

    We have already accomplished this. Note to His enemies: it didn’t turn out as planned.

  6. The problem with the bishops\’ film office apparently comes from it\’s director, Harry Forbes. Anywone know who he answers to over there so we can express our concerns?

  7. John Q Public says:

    In defense of the review, it does say “Adults and Adolescents.”

    As for the USCCB… is any one really suprised that they don’t have and issue
    with texts that are opposed to the magisterium??? What planet would you have
    to be from for that to be news?

    As for the rest of it:

    beguiled by glamorous, duplicitous scholars… = The Fathers of Vatican II…
    complaining about the “repressive” Magisterium… = Progressive Catholics
    a generalized rejection of authoritar[y] = the American Church
    anti-clerical subtext… = Most current Catholic Publications…
    standard genre occult elements = Father Richard Rohr, et al.

    Sounds like par for the course. They will probably be showing it in a
    “Worship Space” near you!!! LOL

  8. Mark Pilon says:

    The really unfortunate part about this is that the review mentioned in this blog has made it onto the CNN news site:

    ‘The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting gave the film, which is rated PG-13, a warm review. The film is not blatantly anti-Catholic but a “generalized rejection of authoritarianism,” it said.’

    See: http://edition.cnn.com/2007/SHOWBIZ/Movies/12/03/golden.compass.religion.ap/index.html


  9. Jordan Potter says:

    That’s just the capsule review. Here’s the complete text of the USCCB review, from Forbes and Mulderig:

    The Golden Compass

    By Harry Forbes and John Mulderig
    Catholic News Service

    NEW YORK (CNS) — Hollywood history is rife with examples of literary works that by dint of problematic sexual, violent or religious content have been softened to varying degrees to mollify public sensibilities.

    So it appears to be with “The Golden Compass” (New Line) which, we’ll say right at the start, is a lavish, well-acted and fast-paced adaptation of “Northern Lights,” the original title of the first volume of Philip Pullman’s much-awarded trilogy, “His Dark Materials,” published in 1995.

    The film has already caused some concern in Catholic circles because of the author’s professed atheism, and the more overt issue of the novels’ negative portrayal of his (very much fictionalized) church, a stand-in for all organized religion.

    The good news is that the first book’s explicit references to this church have been completely excised with only the term Magisterium retained. The choice is still a bit unfortunate, however, as the word refers so specifically to the church’s teaching authority. Yet the film’s only clue that the Magisterium is a religious body comes in the form of the icons which decorate one of their local headquarters.

    Most moviegoers with no foreknowledge of the books or Pullman’s personal belief system will scarcely be aware of religious connotations, and can approach the movie as a pure fantasy-adventure. This is not the blatant real-world anti-Catholicism of, say, the recent “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” or “The Da Vinci Code.” Religious elements, as such, are practically nil.

    The narrative itself charts the adventures of spunky 12-year-old Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), an orphan who leaves Oxford’s Jordan College, where she resides as a ward to become apprentice to a glamorous scholar known as Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman).

    She’s allowed to leave, equipped with the titular compass — a truth meter which Lyra is among the privileged few to know how to interpret. Once in Mrs. Coulter’s care, Lyra begins to surmise that the woman’s motives are far from pure, and she escapes.

    Inspired by her Arctic-exploring-uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) — who, to the consternation of the Magisterium, is about to make some discoveries about the mysterious substance called Dust — Lyra journeys northward. She hopes to rescue her young friend Roger (Ben Walker), who has been kidnapped by the Magisterium.

    Lyra picks up several useful allies along the way, including John Faa (Jim Carter), a piratelike seafarer of the wandering tribe called Gyptians, Texas aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), and a great polar bear named Iorek Byrnison (voice of Ian McKellen).

    Even if Pullman’s fanciful universe has a patchwork feel, with elements culled from other fantasy-adventure stories — most especially “The Chronicles of Narnia” (a work Pullman disdains) — there’s hardly a dull moment, and the effects are beautifully realized, including the anthropomorphized creatures like the polar bears whose climactic fight is superbly done.

    Richards makes an appealingly no-nonsense heroine, and Kidman makes a glamorous and chilling villain. Christopher Lee, Tom Courtenay and Derek Jacobi round out a distinguished cast, with excellent voice work from McKellen and others (e.g. Kathy Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ian McShane and Freddie Highmore).

    Whatever author Pullman’s putative motives in writing the story, writer-director Chris Weitz’s film, taken purely on its own cinematic terms, can be viewed as an exciting adventure story with, at its core, a traditional struggle between good and evil, and a generalized rejection of authoritarianism.

    To the extent, moreover, that Lyra and her allies are taking a stand on behalf of free will in opposition to the coercive force of the Magisterium, they are of course acting entirely in harmony with Catholic teaching. The heroism and self-sacrifice that they demonstrate provide appropriate moral lessons for viewers.

    There is, admittedly, a spirit of rebellion and stark individualism pervading the story. Lyra is continually drawn to characters who reject authority in favor of doing as they please. Equally, only by defying the powers that be, can a scientist like Lord Asriel achieve progress. Pullman is perhaps drawing parallels to the Catholic Church’s restrictive stance towards the early alchemists and, later, Galileo.

    The script also makes use of some of the occult concepts found in the books, such as the diabolically named “daemons” — animal companions to each person, identified as their human counterpart’s visible soul.

    Is Pullman trying to undermine anyone’s belief in God? Leaving the books aside, and focusing on what has ended up on-screen, the script can reasonably be interpreted in the broadest sense as an appeal against the abuse of political power.

    Will seeing this film inspire teens to read the books, which many have found problematic? Rather than banning the movie or books, parents might instead take the opportunity to talk through any thorny philosophical issues with their teens.

    The religious themes of the later books may be more prominent in the follow-up films which Weitz has vowed will be less watered down. For now, this film — altered, as it is, from its source material — rates as intelligent and well-crafted entertainment.

    The film contains intense but bloodless fantasy violence, anti-clerical subtext, standard genre occult elements, a character born out of wedlock and a whiskey-guzzling bear. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

    – – –

    Forbes is director and Mulderig is on the staff of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

  10. bryan says:

    interestingly enough, a good friend of mine, a Lutheran (I don’t hold that against her…) mentioned that yesterday’s sermon at her church dealt with the danger of this particular movie, and how it is easy to deceive people by disguising an evil intent in the guise of a fantasy story.

    The Lutherans (at least Misouri Synod…) got it right. What are our bishops thinking? God have mercy on them for their almost constant descent into irrelvance.

  11. Jenny says:

    Does anyone know how to contact this division of the USCCB? I looked all over the website and couldn’t find anything.

  12. mary margaret says:

    Fr Martin Fox is one of my favorite priest bloggers (I love you, too, Fr Z!). This was a superb explanation of why the movies/books can be hazardous to children, using the author\’s own words, and avoiding any hyperbole. Glad you linked to it here.

  13. Ben D. says:

    First Things has re-published, online, an insightful review of the novels by Alan Jacobs. The review originally appeared in The Weekly Standard after the third novel was released seven years ago.

  14. Ben D. says:

    Oops, poorly-placed modifier. The review is by Alan Jacobs; the novels, of course, are by Pullman.

  15. Ryan says:

    Though check out the analysis of Kim Fabricus, posted on faith-theology.blogspot.com:

    Christians and The Golden Compass

    by Kim Fabricius

    While Richard Dawkins and his crack troops are busy shooting fundamentalist fish in a barrel, the Catholic League in the US, up in arms over the celluloid version of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (the first instalment of the trilogy, His Dark Materials), is now taking steady aim at its own foot by calling for a mass boycott on this “atheism for kids.”

    Hey, objects this kid, where are the Presbyterians and the Anglicans? In the novel the head of the wicked Magisterium is Pope John Calvin, while Pullman has called St Lewis’ The Narnia Chronicles “one of the most ugly and poisonous things I have ever read.” Let’s at least be ecumenical in our vilification of the film. I should be careful: the ultra-evangelical Christian Voice in the UK, infamous for its attacks on Jerry Springer: The Opera, doesn’t do irony.

    Of course Pullman does have the church in his sights. Indeed he is on record as saying that “My books are about killing God.” I just hope that The Golden Compass faithfully executes the deicide that the author so imaginatively conceived and elegantly crafted in the novel.

    For the death of this God would actually do the church a great service. He is the god Pullman’s mentor and fellow iconoclast William Blake, whose 250th birthday we celebrated last Wednesday, called Old Nobodaddy, who bears as little relation to the God Jesus called Abba as the straw deity that the New Atheists so tediously torch. This god, who is finally defeated in the third book of the trilogy, is a bearded old fart “of terrifying decrepitude, of a face sunken in wrinkles, of trembling hands and a mumbling mouth and rheumy eyes.” He is the object more of ridicule than indignation (one thinks of the satire on idolatry in Isaiah 44).

    The real target of Pullman’s animus is not this impotent wretch but his grand inquisitors who deploy religion in the (dis)service of control and repression, the ecclesiastical authority so savagely pilloried by Blake in “The Garden of Love”:

    And I saw it was filled with graves,
    And tomb-stones where flowers should be;
    And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
    And binding with briars my joys & desires.

    As Rowan Williams, a great fan of Pullman, has written: “What the story makes you see is that if you believe in a mortal God, who can win and lose his power, your religion will be saturated with anxiety – and so with violence. In a sense, you could say that a mortal God needs to be killed.”

    But the narrative does more than smash empty idols, expose institutional hypocrisy, and condemn vice – “cruelty, intolerance, zealotry, fanaticism … well, who could quarrel with that?” asks Pullman – it inculcates what are decidedly Christian values. Pullman’s coming-of-age story is articulated in terms of growth in wisdom. Here is the winsome heroine, Lyra, reflecting at the very end of the trilogy on selflessness and truthfulness, the virtues it takes to create anything good, beautiful, and enduring: “We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and brave and patient, and we’ve got to study and think, and work hard, all of us, in our different worlds, and then we’ll build.” If such values are indicative of a “pernicious atheist agenda,” bring on the AOB.

    Okay, Pullman’s onslaught is unrelenting, his didacticism can get the better of his art, and for a writer so knowledgeable about a literary tradition steeped in Christian faith – not only Blake and, of course, Milton (“his dark materials” comes from Paradise Lost), but also, among others, Edmund Spenser, George Herbert, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Emily Dickinson – he can be theologically quite obtuse, if not without flashes of insight.

    But that’s not the point. The point, for the church, is the embarrassing mini Magisterium of Christian Pharisees and Philistines who prove the point Pullman is making. And the ultimate irony: there is nothing like a good boycott to market a product. Popcorn, anyone?

  16. Mary Conces says:

    Thank you, Father Z, for the reasonable and well-documented discussion of this latest assault on our children’s–and all our–sensibilities. Now I have ammunition to pass on to other parents without having to contribute to the coffers of the author. (Even taking the books out of the library would probably cast some sort of a vote for their popularity somewhere.)
    BTW, In the latest “Touchstone” magazine there is an illuminating article–“Narnia’s Secret” by Michael Ward, in which he discusses a literary device called the “kappa element” and convincingly demonstrates how and why Lewis used it–benignly, of course. I think a malign “hidden agenda” is part of much of the popular culture aimed at children today–“The Golden Compass” included.

    Keep up the good work. You are regularly in my prayers.

    Mary Conces

  17. o.h. says:

    Bishop Gregory Aymond of Austin has required that the Pullman books be removed from all Catholic school libraries in the diocese: http://www.austindiocese.org/newsletter_issue_view.php?id=133

    To the above comment praising Pullman for his literary knowledge: This claim is refuted by his embarrassing introduction to the Oxford edtion of Paradise Lost, in which Pullman demonstrates an utter ignorance of the previous decades of Milton scholarship.

  18. Fr. Z:

    Thanks for spreading the word, and for the plug!

    FYI, that is something I am putting in the bulletin this coming weekend (that is, unless something more urgent elbows it out; it happens).

  19. Brian C. says:

    Bishop Gregory Aymond of Austin has required that the Pullman books be removed from all Catholic school libraries in the diocese:

    Now *that* is truly a breath of fresh air to hear, if I may mix my metaphors… :)

    In Christ,

  20. pel says:

    Bishop Aymond on the books: “The upcoming movie version of “The Golden Compass” has led to questions about the trilogy of books by Philip Pullman. Catholic schools and religious education programs should not encourage children to read any of these books and they should not be held in their libraries. “The Golden Compass” attempts to devalue religion, especially Christianity. Our children deserve better education than what is in these books and movie.”

    I’m in Austin, and I’m so glad our bishop did this. I was about to have a heart-to-heart with the pastor of my children’s local parish school for having the books in their library.

  21. Jack Joseph says:

    “To the extent, moreover, that Lyra and her allies are taking a stand on behalf of free will in opposition to the coercive force of the Magisterium, they are of course acting entirely in harmony with Catholic teaching.”

    Therefore, those who, acting on their own free will, defy the Magisterium on its teachings regarding abortion and artificial birth control are acting in harmony with Catholic teaching? Thank you, USCCB.

  22. Paul says:

    Hello Fr. Zuhlsdorf,

    It’s interesting to note that one of the key characters of the Golden Compass is a “daemon” called Pantalaimon, who is ostensibly named after the Orthodox saint, St. Panteleimon. But throughout the book(s) he is also referred to as “Pan”, which seems to have more resonance with the pagan god Pan, who has a symbolic correlation with the Satanic/Masonic idol Baphomet (actually, I wonder if Pullman is a follower of the Craft?).

    All this, packaged for kids. Unbelievable.

    Beannacht Dé ort,


  23. bill says:

    I think that as followers of Christ we should engage the culture and be thoughtful in our criticism and not just reactionary. I keep hearing all this talk about banning the movie..I am going to see the movie and we are taking our Middle School kids(those who want to come), and talk afterwards about the worldview issues. Let’s have an intellectual and thoughtful discuss about the ideas and not just being afraid of them.

    I posted some thoughts about the Golden Compass on my blog here:


    Also, ChristianityToday posted a helpful piece by Jeffery Overstreet that give a balanced view and addresses questions and concerns Christians have about the books and movie.


  24. Paul says:

    Overstreet stated: “I’m not saying we shouldn’t point out where he is wrong. His story is deeply flawed, and his religious bigotry is shameful. We should not ignore that. But we also should not ignore the excellence of his artistry.”

    This can be applied to Mozart and The Magic Flute. We can enjoy its sounds without being taken in by its overtly Masonic themes; but Pullman is different. We’re dealing with the written word here, and its influence over children.

    That Overstreet is putting Pullman on any par with Professor Tolkien is absurd, if you ask me.


  25. Matt Q says:

    This film is another ridiculous yet sad commentary on the fact there is definitely a religious war being raged, and once again it is the Catholics who are the victims.

    This piece of rubbish is blatantly anti-Catholic in particular as well anti-Christian in general. The evil entity in the film is called the “Magisterium.” What other body-intellect or institution uses that term? It’s also disconcerting Nicole Kidman would be in this film, she whom is constantly going on about she loves her Catholic Faith. This is also supposedly one of the reasons why she ( she alleges ) separated from Tom Cruise.

  26. Greg Smisek says:

    USCCB review: Rather than banning the movie or books, parents might instead take the opportunity to talk through any thorny philosophical issues with their teens.

    Right. Let’s go out and get a Playbody magazine so we can teach Junior about God’s beautiful plan for sexuality, marriage, and family.

    Now if Junior somehow stumbles onto a Playbody (due to the machinations of the world, the flesh, and the evil one), a teaching moment ensues, but who in their right mind would subject their child to such a scandal with the pretense of teaching truth?

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