Lyra's Sad, Sad World.
There has been much controversy surrounding the release of New Line Cinema's Golden Compass, the movie based on atheist author Philip Pullman's first novel of the fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials. But upon seeing the film, I am more saddened than angry.
What a sad universe these movie characters live in.
What most disturbs me about The Golden Compass is that it has a rather childish look at authority, government, and institutions.
The author projects himself into the young heroine Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), who seems to do the opposite of what anyone asks of her - just because she has the free will to do so. What is dangerous about this is that the book and film seem to suggest that free will means having the ability and the right to refuse the advice, counsel, or instruction of anyone else, and that any teaching from authority figures is usually wrong and abusive.
Throughout the film, Lyra disobeys and ignores everyone from the evil Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) to the friendly polor bear Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen). Then the storyline seems to reward Lyra for each of her choices of disobedience and mistrust.
The plot also paints the world into two extremes: either you submit like a slave to any authority figure, or you run free, disobeying everything and charting your own course. The one extreme is represented by a malacious theocracy called the "Magisterium" while the other is represented by the plucky (and rather annoying) twelve-year old Lyra.
While the movie does not come out and blame the Catholic Church for all the evils in this world, it does have an undercurrent message that most authority figures are to be mistrusted. It also has an overly simplistic understanding of moral teaching.
When churches, governments, or institutional religion talk about ethics and morals, they are offering guidence and wisdom, not a fascist conscription, as the movie seems to suggest.
Yes, the film does warn against the abuse of authority, which is always good to remind ourselves. And while I would love to say that the movie suggests we should follow our consciences, it actually does not (Lyra's "conscience," represented in the form of her daemon or animal, warns the girl on numerous occasions to go the other way, which she quickly refuses).
There are other hypocritical and contradictory moments in the film: while Pullman has complained in interviews that killing in the name of religion is wrong, he seems to have no problem killing off a number of innocents in this movie (hence the PG-13 rating). On that particular point, the film has a number of battle sequences in which the daemons of the fallen create a spectacular fireworks display, dazzling the audiences with a great light display; but then you realize that every sparkle represents a life being taken - which is quite disturbing.
Even though the movie has stripped much of the religious references of the books, it is still sad to think how limited Pullman's world has become. Does he really think churches are designed to take away its believers' identities? Does he really think that listening to the wisdom of the church means that we have no soul? Does he really think that the church seeks out children to abuse them? How sad if he does.
I pray that those who see this movie have a deeper faith than that. I pray that this movie does not push others away from a loving, benevolent God or a welcoming community of faith.
Finally, and ironically, despite the author's best efforts to keep Him out, God does show up in this movie after all.
Perhaps not fully in Lyra, and surely not in the exaggerated "Magisterium" or the icey government operative Mrs. Coulter.
Rather, a glimpse of God can be seen in the kindly and nomadic Texan aeronaut Mr. Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot) whose role in the story is to protect Lyra and the other children from harm. Despite how negative Lyra can be, he still takes an oath to protect her and her friends. Scoresby serves as the only character in this movie to scoff at war, a brave, nonviolent position amongst the battle-hungry polar bears, the vengence-minded Gyptians, the war-mongering witches, and the disobedient Lyra.
Even though our world is much nicer than Lyra's world, sometimes we feel like Lee Scoresby, all alone in our gospel values among violence, anger, vengence, and fear. Sadly, the plot of this particular story (and the forthcoming sequels) will prove Mr. Scoresby wrong, but the plot of our story - authored by a wonderful creator God - will prove that Christ-like people are always on the side of true (never haughty) righteousness.
If we could pray for fictional characters, I would pray for Lee Scoresby, that might find a home with us, in our universe, and with our God whom he seems to channel so very well.
As we approach Christmas this year, let us thank God for creating such a wonderful world, where ethics are beautiful guideposts on the road of life, not stumbling blocks as they are for Philip Pullman and his Golden Compass.