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Does “The Golden Compass” Point to Hell?

A religious scholar talks about the storm surrounding the film

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Donna Freitas, a visiting assistant professor of religion, will moderate a roundtable discussion on Philip Pullman and his trilogy tonight. Photo by Vernon Doucette

The Golden Compass, the new film based on the first novel of Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials, won’t open in theaters until Friday, but the fantasy story is already fraught with controversy, drawing proposed bans from the Catholic League and the evangelical group Focus on the Family.

The debate, and how it escalated to its current pitch, is the subject of a panel discussion this evening at 5 p.m. at the Regal Cinemas Fenway 13 movie theater. The panel includes Scott Westerfield, author of the series Uglies and Midnighters; Jason King, chairman of the department of religious education at St. Vincent College and coauthor of Killing the Imposter God: Philip Pullman’s Spiritual Imagination in His Dark Materials; and Cristine Hutchison-Jones, program coordinator of the College of Arts and Sciences religion department and a graduate student in religious and theological studies. It will be moderated by Donna Freitas, a CAS visiting assistant professor of religion and coauthor of Killing the Imposter God. The event, which precedes a screening of The Golden Compass, is sponsored by BU’s Luce Program in Scripture and Literary Arts.

BU Today talked to Freitas about her study of the Pullman trilogy and the controversy surrounding The Golden Compass.

BU Today: Why is The Golden Compass so controversial?
Freitas:
Bill Donohue [president of the Catholic League] says the books will eradicate faith in kids. Donohue says that Pullman, in effect, kills God and challenges Church authority. So the Catholic League launched a campaign in October telling all Catholics to boycott the film and gave out a pamphlet attacking the stories. Focus on the Family has also told parents not to take their kids to the film.

I don’t think it’s just The Golden Compass that’s controversial. I think it’s Pullman, who says openly that he’s an atheist. I think people are cherry-picking Pullman and his comments. They’re picking on a few choice words — taking things out of context.

What is Pullman doing in his books that upsets leaders of the Catholic Church?

When I first read the book, I thought, ‘He’s reframing the nature of God — this is liberation theology.’ Catholic theologians first came up with liberation theology in the 1960s, arguing that Jesus is a political revolutionary who loves all that God has created, and wants that creation to flourish on earth and in heaven. Liberation theology also shows that believers should disregard all doctrine that leads to oppression, which the current leaders in the Catholic Church find threatening — putting common welfare above the dictates of Church authorities.

What effect is the censorship having?
I’m concerned that people are taking away from readers the chance to open themselves up to the story. I feel like people are being given an agenda to read it with.

I’m not only worried that the Catholic League is giving it so much attention, but I’m distressed by the effect they’re having — and the wide range of people they’re reaching. But these are books that have been on the shelves for a decade now in Catholic schools, and are only now being pulled. It’s so disappointing. These are the types of stories that turn kids into readers. Pullman has such an imagination with the themes that cut across the characters’ lives. I thought it was a fantastic story — a read that you can’t put down.

Are the books really arguing against God or questioning organized religion’s interpretation of God?
Anyone who reads the story knows that the God that is killed is the false ‘Authority.’ It’s not God. Any kid can tell you that. In fact, if you tell kids who have read it that God dies, they’ll look at you funny and correct you.

Pullman doesn’t even call the character ‘God’ — he calls him the ‘Authority.’ If anything, Pullman is critiquing corrupt power. People are reading Pullman too literally. One thing that’s scary for religious folks is that the imposter, or false God, is this image of the old man in the sky. In a sense you see the traditional image of the divine dying. But that corrupt imposter God has to die for his characters to open them up to truth.

What is the role of women in Pullman’s story?
The main character, Lyra, is the new Eve. I love that his heroine is this feisty girl, very fearless and good. Pullman turns Eve into a hero. Even though there are plenty of feminists who have reframed Eve, people are used to seeing Eve as a villain. I also think he’s reframing Lyra as the new Moses, with her own Exodus. In the third book, The Amber Spyglass, people are trapped in a land of the living dead, like hell. With liberation theology the thought is that in many ways Exodus should precede Genesis because without liberation from slavery, the Jews could never tell their story. Moses had to lead them out of slavery in order for them to go on as a people. Before Lyra can be Eve, I see her as the new Moses with a courageous Exodus, freeing all the ghosts from hell. It’s my favorite moment in the trilogy. The trilogy is very feminist. Pullman doesn’t use the traditional father image of God. He calls her “Wisdom,” as a she. It’s not the way people imagine God.

How are Pullman’s stories similar to traditional religious texts?
One of the things I do in my work is look for the ways that stories — whether fiction or nonfiction — can illuminate ‘big questions’ in religion and philosophy. I love a good story. I love the way stories transport us between the human and divine. All stories to me act in this capacity. I’ve wondered if being captivated in a story is a form of grace. I’m not so much worried about the genre of the story as whether it relates to the big questions. For me, Pullman’s stories are one of those magnificent works. It has significance on a lot of different levels — good literature that is meaty,and deals with really big themes.

The roundtable discussion begins at 5 p.m. at Regal Cinemas Fenway 13, 201 Brookline Ave., Boston. Tickets are available through Cristine Hutchison-Jones on a first-come, first-served basis at her office in the CAS department of religion, Room 305B, 145 Bay State Rd.

Kimberly Cornuelle can be reached at kcornuel@bu.edu.