I just finished reading (or rather, listening to) Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, the third book in His Dark Materials, the series that starts with The Golden Compass, which recently appeared in theaters. Critical response to that film was mixed (which was the reason I didn’t get around to seeing it), but it mainly made the news because of the story’s controversial nature. Basically, it portrays churches as corrupt, controlling, power-hungry organizations, and it advocates atheism.
The atheistic agenda doesn’t really become apparent until the third book, and it was between my reading (listening to) the second and third books that the film came out and I learned what I was in for in the final installment. But I figured my faith was up to the challenge, and I was curious how the story ended anyway.
One of the characters in The Amber Spyglass calls Christianity “a very powerful and convincing mistake”, in a way that sounds like it’s one of the primary messages that Pullman is trying to communicate to his readers. But the only piece of doctrine he actually attacks in trying to prove this claim is the idea of the vow of chastity (the character is a former nun), which is hardly a fundamental part of Christianity, since many Christian churches don’t subscribe to it. So it’s not really a worthy target for such a broad claim.
The series also seems to promote the idea that religion is evil because evil things are done in its name, mainly because the Catholic church is portrayed (at least in an alternate universe) as an inherently corrupt organiation. But that just doesn’t follow. People also do evil things in the name of love, but I’d hardly call that a corrupt institution. What’s really going on is when people do evil things, they need an excuse, a rationalization, because they don’t want to face the evil in their actions. The most appealing solution is to hide behind something good, like God or the church, so it can take the blame instead. So this fallacy that churches are evil because of the failings of their followers falls apart pretty soundly. I would say instead that if you find a good thing that hasn’t been used to justify evil deeds, you might do well to question how good it really is. Those of us that believe in Satan would say the more good there is in something, the more he wants to attack it.
(Spoiler warning for this paragraph) The third book is also supposed to have a kind of reenactment of the Adam and Eve story, but I just found that to be a disappointment. It was supposed to be the moment Lyra fulfilled her prophesied destiny, but it turned out to be nothing more than her first kiss, and unlike Eve with the forbidden fruit, there was no disobedience involved at all. The “Satan” figure in this instance “tempted” Lyra by telling the story of her own first kiss, but kissing hadn’t been forbidden by anyone. So this part I simply found disappointing and anticlimactic rather than objectionable.
It’s interesting to me to compare the His Dark Materials series to The Life of Brian, since the release of that film was also met by protests from religious groups. There is a key difference, though (aside from being a comedy): Brian didn’t make fun of religion, but rather fanaticism - and not even religious fanaticism exclusively. The whole “People’s Front of Judea versus the Judean People’s Front” situation gives equal opportunity to political fanaticism. The Sermon on the Mount scene is one part where Jesus appears in the background, and yet no jokes are made at his expense. Instead you have a bout of name-calling erupting in the fringes of the crowd, which is a classic example of people getting hung up on their own trivialities when the most important thing in the world is right there staring them in the face - and in this case, pretty much literally.