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.