The Grand Rapids Press
To see or not: ‘Golden Compass’ sparks debate
Saturday, December 15, 2007
by Matt Vande Bunte
On the eve of last weekend’s nationwide opening of “The Golden Compass,” all signs pointed Cheryl Cochran away from the theaters. A Christian who is part of Bella Vista Church near Rockford, she talked about the movie, based on a series of children’s books authored by an outspoken atheist, as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Yet, rumors of the film’s ungodly content are what attracted Cochran to see it along with her two grandchildren. She wanted to make sure the movie’s computer animation and special effects did not woo the youths into the undertow of the storyline’s supposedly anti-church subtext.
She even wrote a letter to The Press urging other parents to watch the movie with their children, then dissect the subject matter afterwards over ice cream.
“It’s really trying to influence them in an anti-God way, all nice and fluffy and messing with their mind at the same time,” Cochran said then. “They’re always out to capture kids’ minds and pull them in a direction you don’t want them to go in.”
Fast forward a few days, after Cochran and her husband took their grandkids to see the movie. During dinner at IHOP to rehash what they saw, there no longer was talk about wolves and sheep.
Instead, the armored polar bears featured in some of the film’s most intense scenes dominated discussion for Cochran’s 14-year-old grandson.
“All he wanted to talk about was ‘Boy, those bears were really neat,’ ” Cochran said. “It was just the typical good versus evil story. I just really didn’t see the issue with it. I found the whole thing confusing as to where they were going with it.”
The New Line Cinema release that has the Catholic League calling for a boycott and drew a disapproving review from the Grand Rapids-based Dove Foundation generated $26.1 million at the domestic box office last weekend, less than half what Disney’s “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” pulled in during its opening weekend in 2005.
Industry analysts wondered if caution from Christian critics would keep viewers away from “The Golden Compass,” or pique their curiosity to check it out. Controversy aside, the movie’s just not very good, Cochran said. And the purported anti-Christian sentiment of the film is subtle at best.
Still, “The Golden Compass,” with its roots in the award-winning “His Dark Materials” trilogy written by atheist Philip Pullman, has sparked a debate within Christendom on how to handle pop culture that clashes with Christian worldviews.
The Catholic League urged avoidance of the movie, calling it bait for unsuspecting parents to buy Pullman’s Christianity-bashing books as Christmas presents. E-mails, including Web links to articles about Pullman, have circulated among Christians to raise awareness of a sinister link between the movie and the books, in which one character calls Christianity “a very powerful and convincing mistake.”
On the other hand, a review by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called the movie “an exciting adventure story with, at its core, a traditional struggle between good and evil, and a generalized rejection of authoritarianism.” However, the review was later retracted and removed from the USCCB Web site, with no explanation from the bishops.
Although the Diocese of Grand Rapids took no official position on the movie, local Catholic filmmaker Alan Hartwick said he is staying away from “The Golden Compass” based on the advice of Catholic leaders.
“I’m going to take the simple route and not see it because my pastor and others in the Catholic world have said the content is kind of anti-church,” he said.
Andre Daley, lead pastor of Mosaic Life, an Eastown church that often explores the intersection of faith and culture, touched on “The Golden Compass” in a sermon last Sunday. He had not read the books nor seen the movie yet, but based on what he had read about the film, saw it as “a perfect example of what’s going on in our world right now” between Christianity and culture at large.
“I know there are many in the Christian community up in arms about it being anti-God and being an atheist response to the ‘Chronicles of Narnia,’ ” Daley said. “We need to learn to see these things as an opportunity to have conversations rather than just react defensively. That is exactly what Jesus did when the religious leaders challenged his perspective on faith.”
Daley said Christian backlash reinforces the culture’s view of the church as narrow-minded. In fact, an oft-cited danger of the movie is its depiction of a tyrannical governing authority called the Magisterium, which is described by one character as “fearing any truth but their own.”
The Magisterium, which in reality is the term for the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, in the movie is portrayed in opposition to tolerance and free inquiry. “We help children grow up,” explains one character involved in the Magisterium’s dastardly plot that shapes the core dramatic element of the movie.
Daley, who regularly preaches a series of sermons on popular movies and music, said cultural criticism of religion often is “not so much anti-God as it is anti-church.” So “The Golden Compass” may pose an opportunity for dialogue about why culture is anti-religious, and how the church has played a role in creating that hostility, he said.
“When we respond in that ‘These are bad people and need to be stopped’ way, it reinforces this idea that’s out there that we’re narrow-minded and we’re not willing to engage in conversation,” Daley said.
“I guess the way I look at it is this: Jesus said not even the gates of hell will prevail against his church and kingdom. I’m not really concerned that a single movie is going to bring down the Christian faith.”
But perhaps three movies, or three books, could stagger the church. Loose ends at the conclusion of “The Golden Compass” foreshadow a sequel, and beg the curious viewer to check out the books.
Pullman’s trilogy recently jumped from 39th to 16th on USA Today’s list of 150 best-sellers.
Dick Rolfe, chief executive officer of The Dove Foundation, a nonprofit that evaluates the family-friendliness of feature films, said uproar over “The Golden Compass” has more to do with the books behind the story than with the movie itself.
In fact, Rolfe said New Line Cinema “has gone to some length to remove demonic and anti-church references” in hopes of making the movie more profitable, a la “the Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Chronicles of Narnia” series.
“New Line was not in the business of trying to offend Christians or people of faith. They saw this as their opportunity to capture that segment of the market,” Rolfe said.
“Now, they’re trying to clean up (the book) and make it more palatable. There’s a great awakening in Hollywood that there is this audience out there called the American family.”
Still, Dove refused to give “The Golden Compass” its seal of approval, “for reasons of violence primarily,” Rolfe said. The review cites “many overtly graphic scenes” of violence, and also lists references to witches, witches’ prophecies and “daemons” as cause for withholding the seal.
“When a movie-goer plunks down $8 at the box office, they are casting a vote in favor of that film, sending a message to Hollywood to make more of the same,” Rolfe said.
The movie’s daemons, which are external souls that accompany the human characters in computer-animated animal form, are the only cause of concern for Ryan Kimmel, a church youth leader who saw “The Golden Compass” this week. It could give younger viewers an unhealthy first impression of evil demons, he said.
“The way they’re presented in the movie they’re very cute and cuddly and everybody would want one,” said Kimmel, middle school ministry director at Corinth Reformed Church in Gaines Township.
Some youth group members at Corinth have spread caution about the movie via Facebook.com, an online social networking site littered with Web pages titled “Do NOT support ‘The Golden Compass’ ” and “1 Million Strong against ‘The Golden Compass.’ ” Kimmel is thrilled some students are taking a stand on their convictions. But that can be polarizing.
Indeed, Facebook also includes a “Support the Golden Compass and do away with Hypocrisy” page. If Christians reject the movie sight unseen, “what’s to stop the rest of the world from saying that about the faith of the Bible?” Kimmel said.
He urges people who do see “The Golden Compass,” or read the books on which the movie is based, to watch it with their parents and talk about it afterward. That’s what Cheryl Cochran did, and it gave her a different perspective.
“(Children) are just not sophisticated enough to pick up any of the negative symbolism,” she said. “If you don’t know this story is written by an atheist, I don’t think you’d ever get that out of it.”