Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Golden Compass points in wrong direction

I teach the science fiction and fantasy literature course at my college. It's that time of year when students write Final Paper proposals and one student is interested in examining religious aspects of children's fantasy. She is fascinated by Pullman's "The Golden Compass" and, while somewhat aware of the controversy around the book and the recent film adaptation, she seems to regard it as harmless fun and even inspirational for young girls, and cannot grasp why it has caused such grievous offense to Christians and Catholics in particular. And the fact that some have called for banning the book and boycotting of the film hasn't helped at all - such cries only confirm to her (and other secular folk) that Christians are narrow-minded and anti-art.

As a writer and literature professor, I have little patience for censorship of any sort and I believe the call to boycott films to be ill-considered. And I certainly will not silence the student - especially since I believe in academic freedom and that an honest appraisal of the book will expose its mean-spirited agenda.

Since many others will be drawn to the books because of the first film -- ironically released during the Christmas season -- and think it is simply more Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or Narnia fare, here's a plot summary below for all three books in the series that, I believe, speaks for itself. Read these and decide for yourself if the books aren't visciously anti-Christian and especially anti-Catholic:

Book I. We meet 12-year-old Lyra who lives in an alternative Oxford that is dominated by a group called The Magisterium. As every educated Catholic knows, 'the magisterium' is the term for the official teaching office of the Church. This fictional one has brutal monks, sadistic nuns, power-hungry priests, bishops, and cardinals, but no pope since Pope John Calvin moved the Vatican to Geneva (sounds like a swipe at Catholics to me). The Magisterium's goal is to absolutely crush all 'heresy' and opposition. There is no Christ in its teachings. Just as well, I guess. I'd like to believe that Mr. Pullman is trying to say, "this is what any institutionalized church would be without Christ, so it is important to be focused on the love and mercy of Christ, and not on bureaucratic power" -- but this isn't his point. His 'alternative world' church is what he believes the real one to be like. Back to the plot: Like all humans, Lyra has a personal "daemon", a personal spirit-self that lives outside her body in animal form that changes for children but is stable for adults (students of the occult will recognize this as akin to one's "familiar"). Humans separated from their 'daemons' lose their imagination and will. As you might guess, the religious figures in the film have snakes, lizards, and frogs for their 'daemons.' Lyra uses a magic compass to find her way to the Arctic to rescue her friend Roger and other kids who have been kidnapped by the evil Mrs. Coulter and the Magisterium, who have performed experiments on the children to find out why 'dust', or Original Sin, doesn't affect kids as much as adults. Lyra is helped by a witch-queen and a talking polar bear among others. The movie ends here but the book continues with Lyra's evil father sacrificing Roger in order to blast open a portal to parallel worlds as part of his own revolt against God, and Lyra follows him through the hole.

Book II. A young boy named Will (no accident) finds his way into the parallel world where Lyra is hiding. There are only children in this world because there are spirits that roam it eating the souls of adults. Will obtains a knife called 'the god-destroyer' that can rip through anything, even the universe itself. Back in Oxford, Lyra finds a friend in a physicist named Mary who is an ex-nun and has dumped her faith (slap forehead here). The choice of "Mary" as a name can't be an accident, either. In the meantime, the wicked Mrs Coulter learns that Lyra is, according to a prophecy, the New Eve (this term will be familiar to Catholics, who regard Mary as The New Eve, "the Mother of the Living" who have new life in Christ her Son). Mrs Coulter kidnaps Lyra. Cliffhanger end to Book II.

Book III. Assisted by two homosexual angels, Will escapes Mrs Coulter and rescues Lyra. The Magisterium tries to destroy Lyra while her father prepares to attack God-The-Authority, now seen as a senile fraud. Using Will's magic knife, Lyra enters the land of the dead, a dismal prison where the spirits of all intelligent beings are morbidly tortured. Lyra and Will release the spirits to a blissful oblivion, absorbed into the Oneness of the Cosmos (kinda pop-Buddhist-New-Agey). In the final Armageddon battle, Lyra and Will kill God ("The Authority") while her parents kill the Regent of Heaven (hmmm- wonder who he means by THAT) and themselves to boot (might as well get rid of all authority, while we're at it). Lyra joins her physicist friend Mary in another world's paradise where she - Lyra - plays the serpent to their Adam and Eve. The children discover the higher knowledge of erotic love and the universe is saved. Survivors return to their own worlds to begin building a society that is god-free.

An honest reader should be able to see here plainly the agenda of one who believes that religion, especially Christianity, is the problem and must be destroyed. The way Pullman does this is by turning the Christian faith inside-out and saying the rebel angels and Satan were right to oppose the tyrannical Deity, and after their defeat, did a noble thing by signing up the first humans to join their campaign of 'self-awareness' and freedom. But this is actually moving away from real freedom - the freedom to do what is right in love, not merely to do what feels good to me now. That's being a slave to one's own passion and selfish conceit.

What GK Chesterton said years ago is still true: When people stop believing in God, it isn't that they believe nothing - but they'll believe anything. Pullman will fool many people with his stylish prose and erudite Gnosticism by suggesting that God is the oppressor, the real Deity is not knowable, the serpent in Eden enlightened the first human pair with Wisdom, and matter and spirit are really the same so we should enjoy sexual pleasuring wherever we find it and at death be content to dissolve into oblivion.

Don't be suckered. Pullman, a militant atheist, believes the wrong side won the war in heaven. "I am of the Devil's party and I know it," he said in an interview, and elsewhere has said, "My books are about killing God." He is joining the trendy party begun by other atheist authors elevated to celebrities lately. But this time, the target is kids. His work is an answer to Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" and CS Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia," fantasy stories that Pullman says he loathes -- precisely because they embody a Christian worldview and Christian virtues.

Let no one be fooled into thinking this is harmless entertainment. Values and worldviews are conveyed primarily by a culture's stories. And Pullman's story is driven by a virulent agenda imposed upon impressionable children and, perhaps, their poorly-catechized parents. With all the color and action and apparant heroism in the story, children will not be able to recognize it for the spiritual pornography that it is. Let's hope the adults will.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Sign of the Cross

(For those just tuning in: I'm replying to a series of questions from a student about Catholic beliefs and practices. She'd heard that I recently became a Catholic and, reassessing her own faith journey, visited a Catholic church and sent me a long list of questions)

Is there a right and a wrong way to cross oneself? And why do people touch their forehead, eyes and mouth at one point in the service?

Yes, there is. Roman Catholics use the right hand fingertips to touch, in sequence, the forehead, chest, left shoulder, then the right, while saying "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." It is, in a way, a brief Trinitarian prayer that also affirms the centrality of the cross. It can be a challenge for left-handers like myself! Greek Orthodox Christians touch the forehead and chest, but then the right shoulder first, then the left, and then bow deeply.

The use of the body, by the way, in kneeling, crossing, standing and so on is a way to get the entire person involved in worship - just like in the Old Testament. It is this continuity with the practices of the ancient Hebrews that I find interesting.

The other touching you describe comes with the announcement of the Gospel reading. It shows particular reverence for the Gospels where we read about Jesus and hear His actual words. Notice how only the priest is permitted to read it (the lay lectors can't), and how he carries the Book of the Gospels aloft from the altar to the podium while the congregation stands and sings "Alleluia". In some parishes, the altar servers flank the podium with lit candles, another symbolic act that displays special regard for the Gospels. People respond to this precious opportunity to hear Christ Himself by touching the right thumb to the forehead (an act that asks for the Word to illuminate our minds), the lips (that we may speak the Word aright to others) and the heart (that the Word of God and the Living Word, Christ, would dwell in our hearts). These parts are not just touched with the thumb tip but the thumb makes a tiny sign of the cross on those three places and the person says, "Glory to you, O Lord." As with all practices, many do it rotely without much thought. But for converts and anyone who is aware, it's a deeply meaningful prayer.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Holy Water

Is one supposed to use the holy water before entering the chapel or after? I only saw people making a sign of the cross with it on themselves as they left the service.

Either or both. I do both. You should know, Candice, that I used to think of 'holy water' as one of the silly superstitions of Catholics. But I see it now as a sacramental act of receiving a blessing from Christ while entering a sacred space where Christ Himself is present, and taking His blessing with me when I depart. There's no magic in the water. But it has been prayed over ("blessed") and consecrated (set aside) to a sacred use. The sense of it is almost that, as you apply the water to yourself, you are applying the blessing too. The Biblical precedent for this is in the use of sacramental anointing oils and cleansing waters in the Old Testament. Catholics make great use of 'sacramentals' like this - physical objects with a holy meaning and, being more than symbolic, carry a real blessing with it. The crossing of oneself with the water is, in a way, a remembrance of the baptismal waters, too, whereby we were first cleansed and united to Christ and His Church.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


Does one have to confess their sins regularly, or before they are allowed to take communion? And why confess to a priest at all? Can't I just go directly to God in prayer?

The only requirement, as I understand it, is to participate in the "Sacrament of Reconciliation" -- and isn't that a nicer way to say it? -- once a year, in the Easter season. It is done before one's first communion as a new Catholic. It is not required before every communion (in fact, the reason there is a corporate confession in the Mass near the beginning is to sacramentally prepare everyone to receive Christ with a clean conscience). More frequent use of this sacrament - this 'contact point' with Christ - is encouraged. Some go every week, some monthly. I'm not there yet.

There are some who object to this practice completely, as you suggest, pointing to First John 1:9 and declaring that there is no need for a human priest or intermediary to hear a confession. While Catholics affirm the wonderful truth of that First John verse, they also take seriously Matthew 16:19 and John 20:22,23. These are verses I had always overlooked and avoided. But the meaning is plain. Christ entrusted to the apostles and their successors the authority to forgive sins in His name based on His all-sufficient merit. When a person meets a priest in this sacrament, he/she is meeting with Christ sacramentally. It is a scary - and powerful - and healing - encounter.

Historically speaking, early Christians were excluded from communion if they fell into sin (in keeping with First Corinthians 11:27 - you ARE looking up all the verses, right?) but upon repentance and restitution (if needed) they then proclaimed - ie, 'confessed' - to the priest that they were ready to participate once again. "Confession," in the way the ancient church used the word, was to PROFESS God's mercy.

The emphasis has changed over the years from imposing a 'penance' (like the rote reciting of a few memorized prayers - how empty) to assigning a positive action to heal any hurts caused and to improve one's plan to virtuously live the excellent life (a phrase Aristotle would have liked), and to grow toward Christlikeness. The idea isn't to somehow 'make up for' the sin - we can't - Christ paid the full price. The idea is to demonstrate a resolve to improve.

This is another good thing about the Church: there isn't this 'once saved always saved' attitude that can lead to bad behavior. Instead, there is a practical recognition that we still sin and fail and need to participate fully, cooperate fully, in the process of our full salvation. We must admit that there is a poor attitude among some Catholics that it's ok to sin as you please, since it can always be 'confessed.' These folks never read Romans 6, I guess. It's just as bad as the 'once saved always saved' business.

Maybe the sticking point is the religious word "salvation." This word appears next to the word "salvage" in a dictionary. Think of how a ship is salvaged, or a vintage car that has been left in a junkyard a long time. We have been salvaged from the depths of our ruin by the proper owner in a singular action (the cross and resurrection), but now we are in the longer process of being renewed to the beauty we were meant to have and restored to usefulness and our original purpose. This takes grinding and polishing - the grinding off of rust and mold and imperfections so we may be transformed into our intended state. That is what is going on in this sacramental practice.

"Salve" is the other word next to "salvation" in the dictionary, meaning to bring healing and wholeness. That's the other thing going on in this sacramental practice. I think it's a lovely thing.

Can you go to God directly? Yes. And we should. The Psalmist prays to God directly; King Hezekiah did; the publican did in the back row. But Christ Himself established this sacramental means by which we experience reconciliation with Him, and we who love Him - and wish to obey Him fully - take part in this practice with humble gratitude.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

On the papacy

How do you feel about the pope? I was taught from childhood that God and "Man" don't need a middleman.

It's true, Candice, that we don't need a 'middleman,' as Christ is our only Mediator (First Timothy 2:5). Remember how, at the moment He gave His life as our Passover, the veil that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple was ripped in half, symbolizing the opening of heaven to us and access to God for us all through Him. Catholics affirm this vigorously.

However, Jesus Himself gave authority to Peter to be the visible, human 'head' of his Church (Christ Himself is 'the Head' of His mystical Body, of course). There's just no getting around Matthew 16:18. Protestants parse and translate this in ways to avoid the plain reading, as I did for years. But it portrays the clear conferring of authority on Peter, the leader of the Church in Rome (though Peter began in Antioch, where the Gospel of Matthew was written - which affirms Peter's authority even more).

Matthew is the most "Jewish" of the gospels, where the "kingdom of God" Jesus proclaims is presented as the fulfillment and complete continuance of the Old Testament Covenant and kingdom. So there's a very interesting and important connection to the idea of 'giving the keys to the kingdom' in Isaiah 22, where these 'keys to the kingdom' are given by the Davidic king to the overseer of the Household of God. That is what is going on in Matthew 16. The Davidic king, Jesus, is giving Peter the ultimate human authority and stewardship over His Church, the visible aspect of His kingdom on Earth. And the unbroken line of apostolic succession from Peter to Benedict 16 is a testament to the authority vested in this position and the authority that resides in the Church. Have there been bad popes? Yes. But consider how there are outlaws and scoundrels in Jesus' own lineage - see the list in Matthew 1.

I happen to like this Holy Father, a gentle pastor at heart who is a fine scholar writing killer theology. The choice of "Benedict" as a name was purposeful, pointing to a saintly model of scholarship and a balanced approach to life. His first major letter, "God Is Love," blew everyone away, even his critics who meanly called him "God's Rottweiler." The media were kinder to John Paul the Great, who impressed everyone (the media focused on his political role in opposing communist rule in Europe). Maybe the fact that he was a pretty good poet and playwright made me pay more attention to him. His heroic suffering at the end of his life was - well, Christlike.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Celibate and Married Priests

How do you feel about priests not being allowed to marry?

I'm in favor of the celibate priesthood. Coming from a Protestant background where all the ministers were married, and some were female, this is a new thing for me.

It would not be liberating at all to have priests marry, but it would have the opposite effect. For very good reasons, Paul urges that men in the pastorate remain as he was, single, in order to be fully and undistractedly available for the work of the church (First Corinthians 7:32ff). There is always a push-me-pull-you going on between the concerns of the ministry and the needs of a family. The pressures lead to a horrible rate of divorce among Protestant ministers. The Catholics have this right, for practical reasons.

Some suggest that allowing priests to marry might solve the problem of the priest shortage. But wherever priests are allowed to marry (among Episcopalians or Orthodox) this has not been the result.

The theological reason is the stronger one: the priest stands in the place of Christ, who was single (no matter what the silly Da Vinci Code claims), whose bride is The Church, to whom the priest gives his entire self for life. In this sacramental way, marriage reflects the relationship Christ has with the Church, and the priest is the visible reminder of this.

Some Catholic-Rite groups allow marriage -- the Maronites in Lebanon/Palestine, for example. The policy of allowing Anglican and Orthodox priests who are married and become Roman Catholic to remain in the priesthood and also remain married is also a good idea.

Has the practice changed over time? Yes, especially when we see in First Timothy 3:2-5 how church bishops (Greek "presbyters") are urged, if they must be married at all, to 'be the huband of one wife' (verse 3)and be careful not to neglect family matters, given the demands of church service. At an early point, however, the Church in the west realized that caring for one's family as well as the family of God ripped men and their families apart (as verse 5 forewarned), and the sensible thing was to insist on a focused, celibate - yes, sacrificed - life in imitation of Christ.

The related question of women in the priesthood deserves a longer reply than I should give in this small space, so we'll save that for another day.

Grace and peace.