Friday, December 07, 2007
The Golden Compass
Do you ever wonder what a person’s soul looks like? Can you imagine a world where each person’s spirit is visible and lives beside her in the form of an animal? In that world, depending on your personality and character, your soul appears as a hawk, say, or a cat or moth. When you’re young, your spirit changes from one animal to another as you grapple with the challenges of daily life. When you settle into adulthood, your spirit becomes the one creature it will remain, maybe something strong and beautiful, like a snow leopard, there by your side for the rest of your days. You can converse with your spirit; you call it by its first name; it might be your dearest friend.
That’s the poetic premise of The Golden Compass, a novel where the spiritual side of humanity is visible everywhere, every day. Yet Philip Pullman’s fantasy novel is also incredibly realistic. He portrays the wild pleasures of childhood and the strength of loyalty right alongside human weakness, our plotting and power struggles, and the layers of social class that divide a modern society. A movie version of The Golden Compass arrives in our local theaters today, dragging along the weight of controversy.
At a sneak preview on Saturday, a reporter from a local paper asked movie-goers whether the film was offensive to Christians. This is the controversy. For the novel is the start of a trilogy about a dominating religious group, and in the third book their false deity is killed. You’d have trouble predicting any of that from the lively new movie, but already the protests are underway. People, including some who haven’t read the books or seen the movie, are up in arms.
If you focus on the differences between you and other Americans, then you’ll have no trouble understanding their complaints. By the end of the third book, the harsh, power-hungry church has been portrayed in a terrible light and its theology has been undermined. If you’d like Americans all to have the same religion, this is a story you may not want to hear. If you think the religion in the book resembles yours, you could be upset.
But if you focus on the connections between you and other Americans, you might see the movie and the books another way. They offer a challenging, realistic, spiritual world where character and values matter. As we’ve heard in many a pulpit sermon over the years, people sometimes fall victim to false gods. Sometimes even a church itself does so. We all know this fact from human history. When there is a false god, individuals need to resist. In that sense Pullman’s story is very real. He describes struggles we should all recognize.
That’s how fantasy fiction works. Elements of the story aren’t real, they aren’t true in that way. This morning you didn’t walk out to get the morning paper accompanied by an animal who is your soul. But people do reveal their character, their spirit, in the expressions on their faces and in the way they treat others. We can glimpse the soul of our neighbor as surely as if it lived outside his body. Pullman is wise about that, even though the story he tells isn’t true. If you think America is about finding a common ground with other Americans, you can find ways to start a conversation about a brave and hopeful spirituality and the temptations of human institutions, thanks to Philip Pullman. Those who want to concentrate on our differences can do that too.
Sadly, they’re forgetting how literature works. There never was a Jay Gatsby or a Huck Finn, but their spirits and their struggles are real. Believing in them for a few hours can make us wiser.