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The Golden Compass – What’s so Terrible?

Many Americans have so confused power with spirituality that they can no longer tolerate fictional explorations on some of the very topics that religious communities ought to be considering.

I have received a number of whisper-campaign communications, all based on the idea that the film The Golden Compass is evil and atheistic and horrible and we all need to boycott it and keep our children away from it and all sorts of other nonsense.

I have to admit that it was partly because of this pseudo-religious campaign that I made a special point to take my seven-year old son to the film. I wanted Ben’s thoughts on the movie. He’s a bright kid.

Ben enjoyed it. He liked “the girl” (the central character Lyra) best of all, and he really liked the daemons too. His only criticism was that the fighting scene near the end went on too long. For comparison – he wasn’t that keen on the Harry Potter series, and he found the Narnia movie disturbing because of the portrayal of the death of Aslan (the Jesus Lion).

The Golden Compass is a movie that prioritizes caring and freedom and love and the human spirit over monolithic imperial power structures that manipulate and control others in the name of religion.

I guess that’s pretty threatening to some people.

This is a fantasy work about a different world in which people’s souls walk beside them as animals. I think they made a mistake in pronouncing daemon as “demon,” but it’s a charming concept. When you are a child, your daemon changes – like your spirit/soul that is developing, changing. Once you grow up, your daemon solidifies into a shape that stays unchanged. The daemon expresses the spirit, the soul. Cosmic dust of some kind – a beautiful thing, like a visualization of the spirit of love – moves in a current through the daemon to the human being. There is a powerful image near the beginning of the film that shows the dust as it flows into an older, very joyful looking man through his daemon. It was like the aurora borealis, and I’ve seen religious paintings with that same kind of feel. The daemon mediates, like the Christ – close and personal, the expression of spirit. (I did their daemon quiz before the movie came out. My daemon is named Aeschylus. He’s been a butterfly and a spider and all sorts of other things, so I guess I’m still not settled into my spiritual form – hee hee.)

The Magisterium, a structure of authority without the spirit of love, wants to interfere with this arrangement in which everyone participates in the dust of the cosmos through the mediation of their own spirit, their own soul. Why? Because they are the “Authority” and this undermines their power. They look a lot like the most nightmarish Crusades version of the Catholic church, or like the structure of the Empire in the Star Wars movies. Draw your own connections.

I would think that many Christians (especially Protestants) would be inclined to feel that the church, if it is only an idol – a power structure that serves ultimately to be worshiped for itself – is against Christian doctrine in the first place. The “Authority” for Christians is God, not an institution that exists solely for command and control. Moreover, this Magisterium wants to control all the parallel worlds, not just the one in the story. Christopher Lee and Derek Jacobi are fantastic.

A sub-branch of the Magisterium has been kidnapping children (by attacking their daemons – whatever the daemon feels, the person does too) and bringing them to a horrible place in the north. Part lab, part camp – the installation is there to “help the children grow up.” Ultimately, it exists to cut the thread between the daemon and the child, thus cutting them off from the dust (the communion of the cosmos) so that they may be more easily controlled.

That the power figures in the Magisterium know that this is wrong is clear in every facial gesture of the main characters. Nicole Kidman is an amazing villain in this film (and it cracks me up that the name is “Mrs. Coulter” – who is her husband? We don’t know, but it’s possible that she is also Lyra’s mother). When Lyra is mistakenly put into the “machine,” Mrs. Coulter throws herself at it – in a total panic – to stop the “cut” from happening. Despite a room full of switches and tubes and chemicals, the machine is really nothing more than a cage made of the kind of metal fencing that you will find everywhere in a ghetto. The visual dissonance between the cage and the rest of the room is arresting, and suggestive.

An electrical charge slowly moves down the metal edge until the “cut” is made. The one child bereft of his daemon that we see is so traumatized that he would never be the same – and you won’t have missed that he had been the one to question a nurse-like monitor on the truthfulness of the letter that they were asked to write. It comes across as torture.

Lyra is a delightful character. Her name reminds me of the constellation that inspired the musical instrument. Interesting, too is that lyres were associated with Apollonian virtues of moderation and equilibrium – as opposed to the Dionysian pipes which represented ecstasy and celebration. Maybe that’s why her daemon is named Pan – and is often shown as a ferret… ferreting out the truth between the ideologies? For me, she was a bit like a tougher version of the girl in The Secret Garden – except that she is also a hero in her own right. She is helped by the cosmos every time that she acts with empathy and kindness, every time that she stands up to evil. It doesn’t hurt that she is self-directed and clever, either.

One thing that struck me is that the characters in the film seem taken from a wide variety of literary genres – futuristic sci-fi, a Mark Twain-like cowboy/pilot figure, a 40s film star, armored bears, children straight from a Dickens novel, pirates, beautiful flying witches, all sorts of things. I particularly liked the Gyptians – seafaring Egyptian Romani perhaps? The acting was great, and it’s clear that everyone had a good time making this movie. The characters of Sam Elliott and Eva Green will resonate with me for a long time.

The major problem I could see would be with the use of the alethiometer – the “compass” that can read the dust and which reveals truth to one who learns how to read it – some literal-minded people might see that as a form of divination, I suppose – but it’s a small point and I haven’t seen anything that even talked about that.

The larger story of the film is one in which an authentic spirituality – full of caring and curiosity and all sorts of other qualities – is threatened by absolute power. For some people, this power might be the institution of the church. That’s how it is imagined here. But it’s really about the grasping for power in itself – the kind of power that kills all possibility of human happiness, self-determination, community, and truth.

The books are written by a “secular humanist” – so what? Many religious values and questions are still very active within the hearts of people who do not believe in the God that is described to us by the institutions of our time. I don’t care what the beliefs of an author might be. Great literature has always wrestled with religious questions from a variety of perspectives. The secular humanist, the atheist, and the pious can certainly share the value judgment in which power used to manipulate people is wrong. Jesus spoke against the religious power structure of his time, after all. People are confusing goodness with loyalty to an institution if they feel that this film is morally wrong for their children to see. Authentic spirituality cannot come from ignorance or from blind obedience to the institutions of men.

The message of the film is a good one. You could even do a religious reading here – Lyra as a savior figure, the Magisterium as the control of the planet by satanic forces. Religion as corrupted by power is attacked – as it should be! A little girl protects and defends her friends. Good prevails over evil – at least for the time being.

The movie is not a masterpiece, but it’s a fun movie and we enjoyed it.

The movement against the movie is a symptom of the deep pathology of some of our “religious” communities.

Care. Love. Laugh. Think.

I redid the Daemon Chooser. Now it chooses Pereus (a tiger) for me.

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