Monday, December 03, 2007

Steering by the Golden Compass

Or: Without a War on Christmas, We Must Need a New Controversy.

The funny part of this is: it's precisely what "post-modern" literary theory would have predicted.

Okay, okay, "po-mo" is a misnomer, but I've been away from the field too long to have a blanket term readily at hand. But well back in my graduate school days we learned to support our reading of any authorial output (known as the "text" for technical jargon reasons), in spite of the author's stated intentions (word had it W.H. Auden once wrote a poem simply to refute the interpretation of a critic as to what Auden could, and couldn't, have meant in his poetry. None of us took the hint. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world? Hah!). Once the text left the author's hands, we decreed, so also went his control over what it said.

Of course, one only has to look at the letters of Paul, or the Gospels, or even the Torah, to see this at work in everyday life.

So now comes Philip Pullman's Golden Compass: The Movie. Funny, too, how books still don't arouse much attention (unless they get on Oprah), but movies are a direct assault on our sensibilities, our culture, and our ability to believe. There are identity and boundary issues there (someone doesn't think like I do! How can I sustain my beliefs in such a world? "Never share my hearth, never think my thoughts, however does such things!"), and how that percieved threat is caught up with moving pictures and sound, but not with books (books that almost anyone cand find on the shelves of almost any store, or even in grocery stores, regularly include scenes which would draw an "NC-17" rating if put directly on film). But what's fascinating here are the various interpretations of Pullman's trilogy. We've got the author himself: "I'm trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief." And yet the U.S. Catholic bishops have apparently taken the bait (what!? They aren't reflexively defensive about their belief systems! Heretics! Fools!):

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting gave the film, which is rated PG-13, a warm review. The film is not blatantly anti-Catholic but a "generalized rejection of authoritarianism," it said.

While noting the story's "spirit of rebellion and stark individualism," the office said Lyra and her allies' stand for free will in opposition to the coercive force of the Magisterium is "entirely in harmony with Catholic teaching."

And then there's the last twist; Donna Freitas, a seminary professor who declares the trilogy "a theological masterpiece:"

Pullman's intent aside, she views the trilogy as a treatise on Christian belief.

To Freitas, the series' mysterious "Dust" _ portrayed in the books as connected to original sin _ represents the Holy Spirit. Pullman is not attacking religion but those who use power to corrupt, she said.

Freitas, who co-authored a book on Pullman and religion, says that "ultimately, the arch of the trilogy is about revealing God."
I've seen Freitas book in a publisher's catalog, but now I'm almost intrigued enough to read it (a sign of my jackdaw mind. Ooh! Another shiny thing!) True, one could argue that the movie has sucked all the critique out of the book, and so the Bishops are seeing what the movie makers wanted them to see. And Freitas' interpretation may be so off the mark as to be poor literary criticixm, indeed. Not having seen the movie or read Freitas' book, I can't say. But what's truly illuminating, not to say amusing, here, is that theologians, those people with the vested interest in a subject most people no longer feel is even relevant to their lives (gone are the days when we professed the "mother of all the sciences". Alas!) are the ones least defensive, or simplistic, about their field of endeavor. Is this because they consider it essentially useless? Hardly. Is it because they recognize they no longer have the claim to power and authority being the fountainhead of all human knowledge once gave them? Perhaps. More likely, though, it's a pointed rebuttal to the critics who continue to lambast Christian theology and religion without the least understanding of what they are critiquing. The question of faith is a very live question among theologians, and it has been for a very long time. If I'm no fan of Pullman's attempts to address those questions it's not because he critiques my faith, but because he presents such a poor caricature of religion in the first place. "Never share my hearth, never think my thoughts, whoever does such things"? Nah. Just don't tell me your cartoon version is what I believe, and then tell me I'm stupid for believing what I don't believe in the first place.

Because, frankly, you have no more control over the narrative than the author does. Which, hmm, raises an interesting question about free will....

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