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The Family Room by Michelle Martin

November 25, 2007

False ‘Compass’?

The image on the book cover is of a big furry polar bear, his head being caressed by a young girl, looking for all the world like a big teddy bear.

“His Dark Materials,” Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy, is marketed as a kids’ book, in the children’s section of bookstores and libraries. But the marketing to kids is as deceptive as the picture of the bear on the cover.

The bear, Iorek Byrnison, is an armored bear—a creature of great honor and great savagery in the worlds conjured by Pullman.

The story masquerades as part epic quest, part coming-of-age tale, combining features of the “Lord of the Rings” and the “Chronicles of Narnia,” but created in service of atheism. The mission of the young heroine in the trilogy—whose name, Lyra, comes from Milton’s “Paradise Lost”—is to kill God, and, as the new Eve, take part in a new “Fall,” thus saving the multiplicity of worlds that exist in the books.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has called for Catholics and other Christians to boycott the books and the movie version of “The Golden Compass,” set to be released Dec. 7, because of Pullman’s atheist agenda. While early reports say the movie ratchets down the anti-religious imagery of the books, Catholic League President William Donohue accuses Pullman and Scholastic, the book’s publishers, of deceitfully luring parents in with the movie, in hopes that they will buy the books for their children.

I won’t be buying the books for my kids. For one thing, no matter where they are shelved, they are a little too complicated and written at too high a level for grade-schoolers.

But I think Pullman missed the mark if he intended the books as atheist polemics. There’s no doubt he has problems with organized religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular. But the God and the church depicted in his books don’t exist in the world we live in.

His church is one that has many of the same terms, but a vastly different history. It’s one with a Pope John Calvin, ostensibly bringing together the worst features of Catholicism and Puritanism. It’s obsessed with purity, to the point of being willing to sever children from their souls before they reach puberty to “protect” them from the possibility of sexual knowledge. His God is not the Creator, but merely the “first among angels,” and, by the time the books take place, old and decrepit, with a regent ruling cruelly in his place.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “God is the first origin of everything and transcendent authority; and … he is at the same time goodness and loving care for all his children” (CCC 239).

While Pullman’s God is not good, there is good in his universe, there is an absolute truth and a destiny that guides young Lyra and Will, and he never explains where that comes from.

That good — that love — seems to come more from the God we know than from the false authority the children kill.

If my kids want to read it someday, when they can follow both the plot and parables, that will be fine, as long as they remember first of all that it is a work of fiction, and that sometimes, the point that an author wants to make gets subsumed in a larger truth he did not intend.

Martin is assistant editor of the Catholic New World. Contact her at mmartin@archchicago.org.