Conservative Christians at the Movies
by Brook Wilensky-Lanford
Early on in the new movie The Golden Compass, based on the 1995 novel by British writer Philip Pullman, the heroine Lyra Belacqua is entrusted with the safekeeping of the titular compass, a truth-telling device that shows things “as they are.” This particular compass, called an alethiometer, is the last one to survive destruction by the Magisterium, a shadowy and all-powerful organization that wants to wipe out knowledge, reason, and free will. Later Lyra, stowed away on a ship on the run from the Magisterium, practices reading the alethiometer’s three-handed clockwork and mysterious symbols. When you ask a question of the alethiometer, a wise elder tells her, you must be sure not to “grasp” for answers. Hold your question in your mind, “but lightly, like it was something alive.”
An evil church and a separate standard for truth other than the Bible? No wonder both Catholics and evangelical Christians are boycotting this movie.
In the decades between the 1925 Scopes trial and the emergence of the religious right as a political force in the 1980s, argues Susan Harding in The Book of Jerry Falwell, the exiled fundamentalists lived in a tacit agreement with modern America. “We’ll retreat from culture, if you’ll stop putting evolution in textbooks.” And this was done; textbook publishers, to preserve fragile profit margins in California and Texas, voluntarily minimized mentions of evolution. And fundamentalists absented themselves from all forms of American popular culture.
Movies, along with smoking and drinking and long hair, were banned in fundamentalist communities. Television was suspect, though eventually accepted. The 1960 film Inherit the Wind, according to Harding, is a perfect example of the lack of cultural interaction between the two groups. The story, an obvious retelling of the Scopes trial which portrayed William Jennings Bryan and his followers as naïve yokels, used the Scopes trial not for its own historical importance-that battle had already been fought, and won-but as an allegory for the growing threat of McCarthyism. On the other side, the movie received, according to Harding, no response at all from fundamentalists. They simply did not exist as an opposition. And they didn’t see the movie.
Lionel Trilling’s 1949 assessment of liberalism as “not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” was manifestly accurate. His insight about the strength of the impulse to conservatism and reaction-“even stronger than most of us know”-seems positively prescient. Conservatism, he adds, is not an intellectual but an anti-intellectual movement, expressing itself “only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” And as such it is dangerous for “in the modern situation it is just when a movement despairs of having ideas that it turns to force, which it masks in ideology.” (p. ix-x)
The aggressive re-engagement of fundamentalists in American culture occurred not just in the political sphere, but also in the cultural sphere. In fact, the attitude of fundamentalists toward popular culture, especially movies, closely paralleled their re-entrance into the political scene. At first, Falwell’s Liberty Baptist College did not show movies at all. Then they began to show movies with explicit Christian messages, which also had to be made by Christians. By 1982, thanks in part to an extraordinary speech by preacher Franky Schaefer to the students at Liberty Baptist, the distinction between “Christian movies” and “movies” began to unravel. Rather than make “low-budget amateur ‘Christian’ films,” the talented Christian filmmaker should go to Hollywood, make really good and commercially successful movies. That was the better way to “influence the cause of Christ” in the world. “Because he is a Christian the underlying philosophy of what he believes runs through those films.” The task of good Christians was not to avoid the world, but to infiltrate it. (p.143-144) Soon after Falwell began to screen carefully vetted non-Christian movies at LBC. The first movie shown under the new policy was Star Wars. This was a radical change; some fundamentalist students picketed the theater. Star Wars was a fitting beginning to the new fundamentalist relationship with popular culture. Since it took place in a world “far, far away”, the movie could sustain all kinds of allegorical treatments, including a Christian interpretation. In fact, that archetypal familiarity was part of the movie’s intent. Director George Lucas claimed inspiration from Joseph Campbell’s classic work of comparative mythology The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
But that was 1982. The fundamentalists were still an island within the American cultural sea, and they had to work with what washed up on their shores. In those early days, as Harding reports, a whole new industry of fundamentalist cultural criticism began to emerge, guiding previously isolated fundamentalists as they struggled, Rip Van Winkle-like, through a puzzling modern world. Such criticism even included “manuals on how to watch secular programs and films from a Christian point of view.” (p.152) While fundamentalists waited for Christian movies, they would have to rely on their Christian eyes.
Now, the thought of the religious right embracing Star Wars seems to come from an innocent and relatively enlightened age. The visibility of the new “Moral Majority” made the cultural stage safe for movies like The Passion of the Christ. Falwell and the Southern Baptist Convention have denounced cultural products as banal as the Teletubbies. Christian conservatives’ efforts to solidify their buying and voting power have been so successful that-as Franky Schaefer predicted-they now have a major influence in the world of cultural production. And now, they seem to exercise that power particularly on works of fantasy aimed at children, such as The Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia, the Harry Potter series, and now the Golden Compass.
All of these major motion pictures are adaptations of books by British authors. As such they have already been bowdlerized at least once. As Dwight Macdonald notes in “Masscult and Midcult,” Hollywood adaptation is notorious for erasing anything unique about a work of art. “Before a proper Hollywood film can be made, the work of art has to be defeated.” (p.8) The process is also one of the major ways to transform a piece of “high culture” into a product of “midcult” or “masscult.”
The conservative Christian response to these adaptations has varied widely, and according to the perceived original intent of the book and author. Susan Harding notes in the introduction to her ethnography that from the Bible-believing point of view, there was no such thing as a neutral participant-observer. Everyone who spent time among them was either “saved” or “unsaved.” Likewise, everything in popular culture must be assessed as either “Christian” or “not.” There were gradations, however. Tolkien’s Christianity was less dogmatic, more narrative, making it possible but not necessary to project a Christian worldview onto the films. C.S. Lewis’s legacy as a Christian apologist was harder to escape, so the movie’s marketers embraced it, specifically targeting the film to religious groups. J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame did not claim to be Christian at all, so from a fundamentalist perspective the movies became “unsaved.” They loudly voiced their opposition to the Potter books’ positive depiction of witchcraft. They even had some success banning the books from libraries on the basis that they encouraged children to join the occult.
The Golden Compass, first published in England in 1995, presented an unusual challenge. As the first book in Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy called His Dark Materials, which also included The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass, (2000), it had been extremely well received and widely read, making “best books” lists all over the country. In Britain, it was the first children’s book awarded the prestigious Whitbread Prize.
In the meantime, in 2000, after the last book of the trilogy was released, Philip Pullman “came out” as an atheist. He claimed, cheerfully, that the books were about “killing God.” He participated in a British children’s DVD entitled “Why Atheism?” He explained that he’d wanted to write a children’s fantasy specifically opposed to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, without the troubling Christian overtones. Atheism is a strange belief system, existing only as an opposite to “theism,” belief in god. Atheism engages in a screaming match with religion over the existence of God, while agnosticism covers its ears, and secular humanism is outside walking the dog
Thus as soon as atheism came into the conversation about The Golden Compass, American religious conservatives were obliged to make it into a battle, and a boycott was organized. The most vocal anti-Pullman voice is William Donohue of the Catholic League, who calls the book a “poisonous pill” that “sells the virtues of atheism.” He went so far as to publish and distribute to all member churches a tract titled “The Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked.” Donohue is not only against the film; he’s against the books, which he urges Catholic school librarians to remove from their shelves.
Jerry Falwell’s son Jonathan threw his support behind the boycott, simply on the grounds of Pullman’s declared atheism. Citing Donohue, Fox News, and Dinesh D’Souza in his column on the conservative website WorldNet Daily, Falwell writes, “I will not waste my time or money on The Golden Compass. I hope pastors across the nation will [avoid the film], not in a knee-jerk way, but in a reasoned manner that points to the Bible.” The fundamentalist cultural response had been activated; headlines read “The Golden Compass Points South…Way, Way South.” But because conservative Christians and Catholics did not see the movie, they did not get to see that the book’s anti-Church sentiments had already been dramatically toned down in the movie. The atheists are disappointed. Unlike the conservative Christians, they saw the movie. And they say it is not nearly as atheist as it should be. The emissaries of the Magisterium seem less Catholic and more, well, Nazi. The Magisterial Representative has a Hitler-like combover, and the made-up language barked by enemy soldiers holding Lyra and her friends at gunpoint sounds like a cross between German and Russian. The film’s director Chris Weitz (who also directed American Pie) heartily agrees with critics who say the movie takes some of the Catholic-ness out of the villains. He told the London Daily Telegraph: “In the books, the Magisterium is a version of the Catholic Church gone wildly astray from its roots. If that’s what you want in the film, you’ll be disappointed.” Since movie promotion began, Pullman himself has stopped talking about atheism. He insists the books were always trying to be “just a good story.”
And a good story, especially a fantasy, should be open to multiple interpretations. Pullman knew that the successful fantasy novel, like the novel in general, should contain what Lionel Trilling called “the yes and no” of its time and culture. In religious terms, it should contain both “heaven” and “hell”, both “faith” and “skepticism”, both “atheism” and “religion.” The books meet this standard. Feminist Catholic author Donna Freitas wrote a book called Killing the Imposter God: Philip Pullman’s Spiritual Imagination in His Dark Materials, in which she considers Pullman’s anti-theology as theology, and finds it richly imagined and, despite the author’s confessed atheism, convincingly Christian. In a November 25th Boston Globe op-ed piece about the boycott, she writes, “Since when are believers supposed to choose between their faith and their imagination?” (Donohue called Freitas “pathetic and embarrassing.”) Even the conservative Weekly Standard, in a 2001 article by English professor Allan Jacob, afforded Pullman’s trilogy a respectful review, calling the author “brilliant, a masterful maker of secondary worlds-a writer whose talent puts him in the league of Tolkien, LeGuin, and Alexander.” Where Pullman lapses into “anti-theistic polemic” he only weakens his own storytelling, Jacob argued.
Opening-weekend revenue for The Golden Compass was disappointing in the U.S. and reviews were mixed. In its efforts to remove the ideology and make the movie palatable to conservative Christians, the filmmakers, ironically, removed its soul.
Brook Wilensky-Lanford can be reached at email@example.com
(Buy the book: pick up The Goldan Compass here, the first in Pullman’s His Dark Materials series)