It seems fitting that Hollywood has chosen to observe Christmas in the year Christopher Hitchens’ atheist manifesto became a best-seller by releasing The Golden Compass, a movie based on the first volume of a fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials by another angry British atheist, Philip Pullman. Lest there be any doubt what Pullman’s objective is, he told the Washington Post in 2001 that “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief” and the Sydney Morning Herald in 2003 that “My books are about killing God.”
Pullman, in fact, is the perfect representative of today’s post-Christian Britain: contemptuous of the literary tradition in which he writes, filled with hatred for the basis of his civilization, and advocating the displacement of traditional morality by unbridled sexual license and an assortment of PC platitudes. Pullman has dismissed The Lord of the Rings, the greatest of all fantasy novels and one of the monumental creations of the 20th century, as “fundamentally an infantile work” and a “trivial book.” He has described C. S. Lewis’ beloved Chronicles of Narnia as “morally loathsome,” and even lobbied against making the Narnia books into a movie, telling the BBC in October 2005 that Lewis’ tales were “a peevish blend of racist, misogynistic and reactionary prejudice.” And Pullman, like so many of the angry new atheists, has a deep hatred for the institution that did more to create the West than any other, the Catholic Church. He named the villainous organization against which his heroes battle “the Magisterium” —the name used for the teaching authority of the Catholic Church—and dismisses Tolkien precisely because he was a Catholic. As Pullman told MTV on November 1, 2007, The Lord of the Rings is “trivial” because “for Tolkien, the Catholic, the Church had the answers, the Church was the source of all truth, so Lord of the Rings does not touch those deep questions.” There was a time Hollywood observed Christmas by giving us It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street; now we get atheist propaganda disguised as children’s literature instead.
So far, so bad. What made this modern Christmas story even worse was the initially supine attitude of an organization which ought to warn Catholics of the dangers posed to the souls of their children by such as Pullman, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Even though The Golden Compass has generally been panned by secular movie reviewers—and one wag has dubbed it “the Chronicles of Yawnia” – the USCCB’s own movie reviewer, Harry Forbes, inexplicably gave the film a gushing review. In his review, Forbes burbled that the film is “Lavish, well-acted, and fast-paced,” “the effects are beautifully realized,” and “there’s hardly a dull moment,” and pronounced the whole film “intelligent and well crafted entertainment.” In fact, Forbes even claimed that “to the extent, moreover, that Lyra and her allies are taking a stand on behalf of free will in opposition to the coercive force of the Magisterium, they are of course acting entirely in harmony with Catholic teaching. The heroism and self-sacrifice that they demonstrate provide appropriate moral lessons for viewers.” Predictably, New Line Cinemas put together ads proclaiming that the Catholic bishops had found the film to be “in harmony with Catholic teaching,” in order to help expose more children to Pullman’s proselytizing atheism. The moral lesson applicable to Pullman is actually the one Jesus provided in Chapter 18 of St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
The USCCB’s review was, at best, bizarrely naïve. Forbes dismissed “Pullman’s putative motives” and suggested the answer to the question, “Is Pullman trying to undermine anyone’s belief in God?” was unimportant, without ever discussing Pullman’s express intent “to undermine the basis of Christian belief.” At the very least, before recommending this movie to Catholic parents and their children, Forbes should have told them what Pullman was up to. But Forbes doesn’t believe in discouraging children from reading atheist agitprop: “Rather than banning the movies or books, parents might instead take the opportunity to talk through any thorny philosophical issues with their teens.” Somehow, one doubts that either the USCCB or Hollywood studios would have taken such a benign view of Pullman if his villainous organization were named “The Synagogue,” his villains wore rabbinical rather than clerical garb, and he had been quoted as saying “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Jewish belief” and “my books are about killing Yahweh.” Opponents of bigotry would have been outraged—and rightly so. Had the film’s opening been accompanied by a psychopath’s shooting spree at synagogues (see the Dec. 9 massacre at two Colorado church facilities), the media would have been convulsed with discussion of a putative connection between these two events.
Of course, if The Golden Compass is a commercial success, sales of the books will soar, and the two succeeding books in the trilogy will become films. Forbes even recognized this: “The religious themes of the later books may be more prominent in the follow-up films which [director Chris] Weitz has vowed will be less watered down.” In fact, Weitz has said that “though I saw it as my duty to build the franchise of His Dark Materials on as solid a grounding as I could, it would all be in vain if the second and third films did not have the intellectual depth and iconoclasm of the second and third books…. The religious themes in the second and third books can’t be minimized without destroying the spirit of these books.” Will the USCCB’s film reviewers give their imprimatur to those films as well? Judging from Forbes’ review, it’s impossible to see how the USCCB’s blessing could be withheld on the basis of Pullman’s aggressive atheism alone. After all, parents can always “take the opportunity to talk through any thorny philosophical issues with their teens.”
The USCCB’s review captures in microcosm the dominant malady of the West: an unwillingness to defend one’s own against even open and obvious enemies. The poor immigrants and their offspring who scrimped and saved to build the myriad churches, schools, convents, and universities that dot Catholic America would have been shocked by bishops who, through the bureaucrats they employ, effectively recommended that parents expose their children to cinematic atheism. After all, those bishops began the daunting task of creating a Catholic school system because they feared that the cultural Protestantism then found in American public schools would undermine the faith of Catholic children they regarded as their highest duty to safeguard.
Rather than hoping to appease a hostile culture, the American Catholic bishops used to try to shape that culture. And they even sometimes succeeded, by exercising moral courage. For example, the bishops deserve at least some credit for Hollywood’s Golden Age, which was the result of creative genius tempered by morality. The Catholic moral pressure applied to Hollywood then forced Hollywood to eschew sex and graphic violence, and instead use good stories to attract audiences. The Hollywood moguls of those days knew that if they produced moral filth, Catholics would not patronize it and the film would fail. Alas, Hollywood has no such inhibitions today, in part because the American bishops as a group are no longer willing to confront Hollywood, and in part because the bishops have ceded authority to USCCB bureaucrats all too likely to produce absurd pronouncements such as the Forbes review of The Golden Compass.
Fortunately, there is a somewhat happy ending to this story. The Golden Compass opened to a disappointing box office, no doubt in part because many lay Catholics and other Christians have been spreading the word among parents that Philip Pullman is no C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien, but rather a “Pied Piper of Atheism,” in the words of Sandra Miesel and Peter Vere. Some Catholic bishops, including the bishops of La Crosse, Wisconsin and Austin, Texas, have begun warning their flocks about Pullman. And, after I began writing this article, the USCCB even pulled the Forbes review from its website. Which is all to the good. But until the American bishops as a whole begin emulating their forebears, it is likely that our culture will be shaped less and less by Christianity and more and more by those who, like Pullman, despise Christianity and the civilization it created.