If I told you your soul was a pig, would you be offended?
You wouldn’t be in Philip Pullman’s world of “The Golden Compass.” That’s because in this parallel universe people don’t walk around with their souls inside their bodies, like here. Instead they walk alongside them in the form of animals which change shape as children grow up, and then become fixed in adulthood.
Oh and they’re not called souls, they’re called “daemons.” It’s just one of a few intriguing concepts in the first big screen adaptation of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.
While it might have the necessary elements of a fantasy film–the strange icy landscapes, the epic fight between good and evil–don’t expect another “Chronicles of Narnia.” That’s because the theological and philosophical heart of “The Golden Compass” is as simple as it is controversial: Question religious authority.
Lyra Belacqua (played by talented 13-year-old actress Dakota Blue Richards) is a young girl who isn’t content to follow the crowd. She’s curious about the world and wants truthful answers to her questions, especially about Dust, a magical particle that opens a gateway to parallel worlds. She’s a feisty inquisitive type, who early in the film saves the life of none other than James Bond (Daniel Craig playing her Uncle Azriel).
Soon after that, she’s given a Golden Compass that tells the objective truth about any situation. With it she sets out for the northern ice worlds to save kidnapped kids from the authorities who want to separate children from their daemons.
It’s a fairly entertaining adventure, but maybe I am suffering from fantasy film fatigue. I’ve got a little bit bored having to learn the lingo and landscape of yet another new mythos. I’d just started to understand what muggles and hobbits are, and now I have to add on Gobblers and Ice Bears?
The special effects are mostly impressive and the score has its moments yet it’s the ideas that shine here–ideas that have got some Christians hot under the collar.
A quick Internet search finds various Christian Web sites describing Pullman as a militant atheist who seeks to get children to reject God. Yet while he is comfortable seeing our world as existing without a creator God, he admits that “there may well be a God somewhere, hiding away.”
His concern, at least to me, seems not to be so much with Jesus as it is about a Church which tries to push a purely Christian agenda, and to cut off alternative views from being heard. Evangelicals demanding that his books and films be banned or boycotted can’t help but leave Pullman saying “I rest my case.”
This first film is not as controversial as some might expect, however, and shouldn’t cause churchgoers too much concern. The books and planned movie sequels in this trilogy promise to be more blatant with the anti-Church agenda.
Yet I’m reluctant to see this as such a terrible thing. Is it so bad to teach children to think about what they are taught? Is it a crime to let them be a little like Lyra Belacqua and search for the objective truth in the world? Shouldn’t young (and old for that matter) have the opportunity to consider various world views in their search for truth?
A decision to follow Jesus after such consideration can’t help but be more robust and meaningful than one in response to spoon-fed Christian allegory without any exposure to alternative views.
Is our faith in God so weak that we think the Christian faith won’t hold up against anti-Christian ideas? Or dare we trust that if Lyra’s compass really did exist, with its ability to cut through all the different versions of reality and find the one true answer, it wouldn’t rumble in her inquiring hand and point to a name Pullman never expected it to find: Jesus?
Peter Laws is the minister of London Colney Baptist Church. This review appeared previously in The Baptist Times