Our compass is not golden

This editorial titled “Our compass is not golden” appeared in the the Dec. 6 issue of The Catholic Standard, archdiocesan newspaper of Washington. It was written by Mark Zimmermann, editor.

Usually, a compass can lead you on the right path. Not so with the popular trilogy of children’s books that begins with “The Golden Compass.” Critics like the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights warn parents that “The Golden Compass” and its companion novels are works by Philip Pullman, a well-known atheist, that deride Christianity and Catholicism.

One week after Pope Benedict XVI issued an encyclical saying that people need God to have hope, a movie version of “The Golden Compass” opened. Parents and children starving for family-friendly fare will presumably flock to theaters in the weeks leading up to Christmas to see a film based on a book series that in a not-so-subtle way seeks to lead children and adults away from following organized religion or believing in God. So in the holy season of Advent, when people of faith prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, movie theaters and bookstore displays will celebrate “The Golden Compass,” whose author once told a reporter, “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.”

And perhaps in the cruelest of ironies, many adults will give children “The Golden Compass” novel as a Christmas gift. As a Christmas gift!

Pullman’s trilogy of fantasy novels for children, called “His Dark Materials,” includes “The Golden Compass,” “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass.” The British author is a skilled storyteller whose works have garnered many awards. But in a booklet called “The Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked,” the Catholic League warns, “All of the books teach children the virtues of atheism and the evils of Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism, and in each successive volume the hostility becomes more palpable.”

One review of “The Golden Compass” film praised it as enjoyable entertainment with crackerjack special effects, and noted that the movie seems to be a sanitized version of the book, with nearly all of the novel’s anti-religious elements removed. But the evil characters in the movie, as in the trilogy of books, are called the “Magisterium” and have religious icons displayed in their offices.

The Catholic League notes, “In real life, the magisterium is the teaching body of the Catholic Church, i.e., the pope and the bishops in communion with him. So there is no doubting Pullman’s desire to paint the Catholic Church as evil.”

In his novels, Pullman’s Magisterium includes a church with a pope and cardinals, so we have to agree with the Catholic League’s contention that the novels and the film are not aimed at opposing authoritarian institutions like Stalinist Russia. Clearly, Pullman’s target and enemy is the Catholic Church. “Everyone involved with the movie has a vested interest in not disclosing Pullman’s real agenda -- using a fantasy to sell atheism to kids,” the Catholic League booklet notes.

For some years now, I’ve browsed through the children’s section of my neighborhood bookstore, looking for books for my son and daughter, and a few times I’ve nearly bought “The Golden Compass,” which has a cover with a charming illustration of a girl riding on the back of a polar bear. Now, I’m glad I didn’t impulsively buy that book, because in the case of “The Golden Compass,” you definitely can’t judge a book by its cover.

I’m always searching for good books for my kids. One year, I read “The Hobbit” and then “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy to my son as bedtime stories. The days stretched to weeks and months, as we enjoyed each other’s company and J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic story of friendship, courage, sacrifice and adventure. I proudly told my boy that Tolkien was Catholic, and had a son who became a priest, and I noted how themes like forgiveness and redemption in those novels are central parts of our faith.

Later, my wife had the pleasure of reading C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” to our son. I understand that Philip Pullman hates “The Chronicles of Narnia” and its openly Christian themes, and that he wrote his own trilogy as a kind of anti-‘‘Chronicles of Narnia.”

So this Christmas season, I would encourage parents to heed the old Latin phrase, “Caveat emptor” -- “Let the buyer beware.” When you line up at the neighborhood movie theater to see “The Golden Compass,” even with its fine acting and dazzling special effects, or if you buy your child a copy of that book for Christmas, be aware of what you’re buying, and beware of what you’re buying.

The darkness of our secular world can be as black and cold as a winter’s night. Two thousand years ago, people followed the star of Bethlehem and found Jesus. Today, that light of Christmas still shines amid the darkness of a time when even children’s books and family movies are designed to undermine that which we hold most dear. Our compass is not golden, but our compass, our faith, can lead us to Christ’s light, if we stay on the right path.