The His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman – The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass – are on my To Reread This Summer List, and thinking about them always reminds me of something that really annoys me about conservative Christians.
When the movie The Golden Compass came out, a TON of Catholics I know boycotted it. Not because, you know, it wasn’t that good (which it sort of wasn’t, which I hate to say because I like the book a lot, but I’m just kind of over Nicole Kidman) but because apparently it was EVIL. There was a huge movement within the Catholic youth ministry community, and for awhile I felt like all I was hearing about in everyone’s newsletters and Facebook pages was about how destructive this movie, and the trilogy of books it’s based on, is to youth, and our youth should be protected from this dangerous movie/series of fantasy novels. Why? Because the author is an atheist, and the books apparently depicted Catholicism as an evil empire and in the third one somebody kills God.
So, being me, I read the books. Here are the three main conclusions I came to:
#1) Philip Pullman is a skilled writer of fantasy/science fiction. The books are interesting, suspenseful, well-plotted, and quite enjoyable. (They’re not my favorite of his, as I enjoy the Sally Lockhart detective series better, but still – good books.)
#2) It is quite clear from the books that Phillip Pullman is an anti-Catholic atheist.
#3) Since Phillip Pullman is not a magical being whose WORKS OF FICTION have the power to convert me, I was still exactly as Catholic after reading them as I was before.
Here’s my rant. I’m all for parents making informed choices to protect their kids from books/TV/movies/etc. that are not developmentally appropriate. This is not censorship. Letting your six-year-old watch The Shining is not freedom of speech, it is terrible parenting. Which you will realize as soon as you try EVER AGAIN to put that child to sleep. We can all agree that you have to be careful what your young children read and watch to avoid scarring them for life. Right, Aunt Kathleen, who took me and Catherine to see Dolph Lundgren in He-Man: Masters of the Universe where at the ripe old ages of 5 and 6 we got to enjoy the sight of a guy driving an electric drill into another guy’s ear? Right. But I guess to me I distinguish between, like, slasher films or movies with “adult content” vs. movies with challenging and complex ideas. I would have no problem letting my kids read the His Dark Materials trilogy if they were capable of processing a book at that level (sophistication-wise, these books are like the later Harry Potter books or the last few books in the Narnia series). Also, may I add that a large number of people loudly boycotting the movie and books were people concerned about their effect on high schoolers. HIGH. SCHOOLERS. Okay. I WORK with high schoolers. Atheism is like WAY down on the list of Things I Worry About My High Schoolers Being Exposed To. And, actually, I think it’s healthier for kids to read books with big ideas that challenge their belief systems, than to like creationist-home-school them like the poor kids in Jesus Camp. Are we still the church that persecuted Galileo, or have we somewhat inched into the 21st century where we value intelligent thought, science, vigorous debate, and intellect?
Evangelism is a word that scares Catholics. But it means a wide range of things. I have a ton of friends who are atheists, or agnostics, and they know I’m a deeply committed Catholic, and we happily discuss and argue about our beliefs. My deepest darkest secret is this: I truly believe that, if you strip off all the labels – gay/straight, pro-life/pro-choice, Christian/Jewish/Muslim/atheist, etc. – 99% of everyone on the planet believes mostly the same about mostly everything. I wish there was another word besides “evangelist” that meant “evangelist”, because like most of the word I hear “evangelist” and mentally put “tele-” in front of it and then it’s not something I want to be associated with in any way whatsoever. But, as much as the word gives me hives, the truth is – evangelist is what I am. Not the scary shouting “repent and be saved!” kind, but in the simplest and most basic form of the word, a person who takes my faith out into the world in the hopes that somehow I can share it with others. Here is my most-successful-ever example: my very good friend Evan comes from a family which is pretty uniformly made up of lifelong atheists. These people are the most wonderful, loving, generous, hospitable, warm and kind human beings on the planet and I adore them. They don’t share my faith but they respect it, because they love me and they know it’s important to me. We talk about it a lot, actually – Evan’s dad John likes to cheerfully argue with me or ask me deliberately, mischievously difficult questions. Never once, in my entire relationship with this family, have I felt it my duty to convert them – just as I don’t feel it’s my duty to convert my Jewish friends, or even my Protestant friends. I like being surrounded by people who disagree with me – I think it keeps me sharp. But I remember once sitting down to dinner with Evan and his family, and his dad was talking about a man he knew who was Christian – “But he’s not the good kind of Christian like your family, he’s the other kind.” I looked at Evan, and Evan looked at me, and we both silently went, “Whoa.” It is possible that, when I die, if I make it to Heaven, and God asks me what was my proudest moment as a Christian, that I will say, “Living my life in such a way that I finally got Evan’s lifelong atheist dad to admit that there is a ‘good kind’ of Christian.” I am not kidding. This is evangelization. This is our job – not just converting people, but healing old wounds and shattering stereotypes and helping people to see that there’s a difference between the Christians they’ve known and don’t like, and Christ.
Yes, novelist Phillip Pullman has a beef with the Catholic Church. But if I met him, I would not say to him, “Mr. Pullman, your books are poisonous to Catholic youth and you should be ashamed of yourself.” I would want to know this: how did we fail you? What experience did you have with Catholicism, or Christianity, or Jesus, that so badly disillusioned you? If you feel so strongly that the Catholic Church is a destructive force of evil, then somewhere, somehow, one (or many) of us weren’t doing our job. We weren’t living like Christ called us to live. We were unkind, or judgmental, or selfish, or greedy. We didn’t welcome you. That’s on us, and at least one of us should tell you that we’re sorry and all of us aren’t like that.
And then we go and boycott your books. GREAT.
Now, as far as I’m concerned, free speech-wise, anyone in this country can peacably boycott anything they want to. It’s one of our rights as Americans, and I would never tell someone they couldn’t excercise that right. My problem is that it’s all so silly. If your faith in God is so tentative that it can be destroyed by a CHILDREN’S NOVEL, or if you think that kids can’t understand the difference between fact and fiction if intelligent parents explain it to them, or if you think that Phillip Pullman’s novels are the worst these high schoolers are exposed to every day, and your knee-jerk solution to this is keeping people from reading them, then quite frankly I want to smack you upside the head. Do you people know NOTHING about human nature? How is it not better to say, “Hey, high schooler, you want to read these books? Cool, let’s both read them and then discuss the author’s ideas and what we might agree or disagree with.” Come on, you guys! Let’s CALM THE HECK DOWN and stop seeing every dissenting idea as a threat, give teenagers some credit for decent judgment, and be the kind of Christians who can balance deep, committed faith with a respect for intelligent, rational thought.
To conclude: I don’t think churches should be in the business of banning books (or even boycotting them) or movies, or music, or TV shows. I think they should be in the business of shaping minds and hearts for God and for others. I’m a Catholic youth minister. It’s not my job to say “Don’t read this book, it’s bad for you.” It’s my job to say, “God is somewhere in every single book ever written. Read them all and try to find Him.”