A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY and an
Open Letter to Philip Pullman
(discuss this post on Kidology.org)
“Here we go again,” was my first thought when I got my first (of many) e-mails warning me about the latest assault on Christianity in the form of a major motion picture based on a trilogy of children’s books written by a professing atheist. The Golden Compass became almost an obsession to parents and children’s leaders across the nation as blogs and church bulletins were filled with warnings against this “threat” to our children. The author, Philip Pullman, seemed pleased by the uproar and fueled the debate himself with his own anti-Christian, anti-religious, anti-God, and anti-C.S. Lewis comments. Unlike R.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, whose message may have been harmful or dangerous to an unparented child, but was not written for that purpose, Pullman practically boasted his anti-Christian agenda. And so the e-mails and blogosphere erupted in a frenzied panic to fight the message of this upcoming film. (Remember The DaVinci Code?)
I’m all for this wave of helpful communication. Well written reviews have been written both by Christian and secular reviewers. (Focus on the Family and TIME magazine) My own website, Kidology.org, hosted a lengthy forum discussion on the topic with good spirited debate about how serious the threat may be, and shared resources to put into the hands of concerned parents. I shared my own thoughts on the movie there – echoing many of the concerns that were confirmed in my mind when I read the first book and viewed the film for myself on opening night. Some will not agree with my conclusions, and that’s fine. Debate is one of the realities that makes our freedom in America such a blessing, and the dialogue of ideas within online communities one of the best applications of the Internet. Bring it on! We all benefit from sharing and then being sharpened as others challenge our thinking. But in the midst of the debate do we miss a broader opportunity?
As often happens when the world infringes our assumption that everyone ought to be Christian – Christians turn on each other and miss a golden opportunity to get a glimpse into the hearts and minds of those we are trying to reach.
I find it tragic that when the world shows us its hand, often through entertainment and literature that contradicts the Truth we hold so dear – we show ours – and all too often it isn’t the nail-scared hands of mercy the world sees. Instead, they see just how judgmental and self-righteous we can be and watch (sometimes with surprise, other times with delight) as we in-fight over something that isn’t ours to begin with. Some embrace, some damn, while the rest nitpick over every shade in-between. And then we wonder why so many lost souls have no interest in joining our ranks! In our rush to “protect the children” we miss out on our other calling – to reach a lost world for Christ.
I am often surprised at the shock and awe the Church displays when non-Christians produce something, well, um, non-Christian. All art, literature and entertainment flows out of worldview. Some admit it, others deny it, a few others are simply ignorant of it – but one cannot help but produce out of the worldview one holds. It is impossible to create without reflecting one’s view of life, humanity and even God. Those who would deny their worldview influenced their work must look at why they need to insist such – an internal struggle against their own convictions is usually at the root. From J.R. Tolkien to C.S. Lewis to George Lucas to R.K. Rowling and now Philip Pullman, authors have put their views of life and humanity on record for readers to consider as well as enjoy.
I did not have to thoughtfully and intently incorporate my worldview into my novel, The Order of the Ancient. The entire concept of my novel and motivation to write it flowed out of what I think about the world, where it is heading and the message I think needs to be communicated in this world, today. This was not a conspiracy – it was not sneaky – it is simply why authors write books. Likewise, it was not a plot to brainwash children that inspired Pullman – it was a reaction against something he found destructive (in this case the Church) and by a message he wanted to get out. And it was a message that found a receptive audience – a point often missed as we attack Pullman but give his thousands of readers a free pass as though they were mere victims and not recommending the book to others, giving it awards, or resonating with what they read enough to buy book two and three. While we may wish to protect our children from Pullman’s message, it is a message we need to hear and understand, if we are to ever reach him or the thousands of others who resonate with what they read in his books. They would not be popular or the recipient of awards if they did not echo themes that many others believe and share.
Would I let my son see this movie or read the books? No. That is not a passionate red-faced, panic-stricken, fuming paranoid “no,” just simply “no” because there are far better things for him to be reading and viewing. Of the finite number of books he can read during his childhood, I see no benefit to him reading these. If my son were older and expressed an interest, or if his school required it, then I’d probably allow it, but I would read it with him and use it as an opportunity to talk about the inner struggles of lost people. Teaching my son to think critically is as important as telling him what to believe.
Pullman’s books and theatrical release reveal much about what the author, and in turn, his readers, believe about God and the Church we believe He has established here on earth. Condemning the books does little to address the issues that inspired their writing. Ironically, for Christians to attack Pullman and threaten him with boycotts or to label him as “evil” only serves to validate the very things he has written so creatively against. As Larry Shallenberger expressed on his blog, “the church’s response validates Pullman’s critique that the church suppresses critical thought.” Our treatment of Pullman, as a person, can either help to address his negative opinions of the Church, or reaffirm them. I fear he is less likely to come to Christ by the way those who bear His Name have responded to his writing.
Would R.K. Rowling ever accept Jesus as her Savior after the way Christians have treated her? Her spiritual journey is evident in the Harry Potter books, but we don’t seem to allow non-Christians to be on a journey toward Christ – they have to be either one of us, or one of “them.” But every believer, especially if saved in adulthood, is a former “them” who finally came to Christ. We ought to be thankful for those who show where they are on the journey – and lovingly correct and guide them closer to the Truth. It sure is easier to witness to a non-Christian who knows where he is spiritually, than one who does not believe, but also doesn’t care or know what he believes. We live in a lost world. Condeming a lost world is a waste of energy, it stands condemned already. Rather, like the Apostle Paul on Mars Hill, we would be much better off to boldly but with grace address the beliefs of the world and redirect people’s thoughts and minds toward the Truth. Too often we push the lost away from Christ rather than listen to them and engage them in a way that might draw them closer. I have yet to meet a Christian who was argued into the Family of God. That is why Jesus said we were to be known by our love, not by our condemnations or smart arguments or Scripture quoting. What has Pullman heard from Jesus’ followers the last several months?
If I had the opportunity to meet Philip Pullman, or if out of all the Christian articles floating the Internet about the Golden Compass, mine might reach Philip, I would love to say something like:
I have read your first book and went to the movie on opening night. Your story is engaging and highly creative and it’s hard to miss the message you are trying convey. Even without the statements you are credited with in various interviews about the books/movie and your thoughts about the Church and Christianity in general, your story speaks clearly for itself. While, as a Christian, I do not share your worldview, I do share many of the criticisms of the Church that come out in your narrative.
The Church often is controlling, judgmental, narrow-minded, and abrasive. The love which Jesus said we are to be known by is too often buried under our passionate zeal to protect ourselves and fight against what we deem a threat to our belief system. I fear as a result of writing these books and producing this film you have only experienced more of the ugly side of Jesus’ followers than His love. I say that to our shame and for what it’s worth, I apologize. That is not how Jesus would have treated you – and we have perhaps missed our opportunity to show you how Jesus truly desires us to be. But therein lies the problem. The Church is made up of people – and none of us are perfect. I’ve often quipped, ‘If you find the perfect church, don’t join it – you’ll ruin it!”
I want you to know that your criticisms of the Church are often valid – it too often ceases to be God’s institution and too quickly becomes an institution that reflects more of man’s nature than God’s. That is why there was a Reformation hundreds of years ago, and why since then there have continued to be countless splits and reformations forming countless denominations and even lately “non-denominational denominations.” As you have clearly discovered, the church is flawed and broken – but please understand – it is not because God is flawed, but because we are. Religion, as you have reportedly stated, is dangerous and destructive. Religion by itself only organizes and institutionalizes the real core issue, man is broken and needs redemption. It is not any religion that redeems mankind, it is only a genuine relationship with God that can repair the brokenness that exists in each and every one of us.
Thank you for drawing attention to the weaknesses of the Church. It is my prayer for you that in time you will be able to see past the humanness of the church and see the God who is perfect; the God who is the opposite of everything you have so eloquently spoken against. Ironically, our world is in the mess it is in precisely because God isn’t controlling. He has given us genuine free will – and waits patiently for those who will exercise that free will to seek Him. In the world of your books God is not truly removed – the need for Him is only multiplied for each parallel universe that could exist. And just as the Magestarium sought to shut down free thinkers and critical thought, I fear our real world church has done the same to you. And for that, I am sorry.
I wish you well on your spiritual journey and hope that those of us who claim to have found the Truth aren’t the very ones who cause you to stumble on your way to God. Please forgive us, and seek God. The Church needs more pioneers like you who show us just how ugly we look when we fail to reflect the grace and patience of the one who saw past our flaws to redeem us.
Pullman may never read my letter, but I hope that in our day-to-day encounters with the lost we might find ourselves less likely to fight and more likely to love, listen and gently engage in a dialogue about Truth. God gave the ability to think critically to all mankind, not just believers. Let’s not rob non-Christians of the ability to think critically with us – it is part of their journey, and an invitation to us to listen and consider as well. Not only will we have a better chance at reaching the lost, but if what we call Truth, truly is – then our faith will only be made stronger in the process. Otherwise, we deserve the label of the Magestarium, blind defenders of a system rather than Truth.
I look forward to the next time our lost world comes out with a book or movie that shows us what their real questions are – because God’s Word has the answers they seek.
But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. – 1 Peter 3:15
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. – Colossians 4:5-6