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The ‘Golden’ rule

Laura Miller is a staff writer for Salon.com and the editor of "The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors."

EARLIER this fall, many Catholics began to receive e-mail messages warning of the “agenda” behind a “new Children’s movie out in December called ‘The Golden Compass.’ ” The film, these e-mails claimed, was intended to serve as bait for the novel on which it is based, the first in a fantasy trilogy collectively titled “His Dark Materials.” Kids intrigued by the film, the e-mails went on, would be tempted to read the trilogy and might thereby fall into the ideological clutches of its author, Philip Pullman, who seeks nothing less than “to bash Christianity and promote atheism.”

The messages had the breathless, marginally literate quality of rumors about spider eggs in bubble gum. Perhaps that’s why the controversy promptly earned itself a page at www.snopes.com, that venerable Internet clearing house for urban legends. Snopes lists this particular rumor as “true,” presumably because the e-mails use a few genuine, if cherry-picked, quotations from Pullman’s writings and press interviews. But that doesn’t keep the whole thing from being fundamentally ridiculous.

Most preposterous, of course, is the idea that anyone would make a $180-million movie with the purpose of tricking children into reading a seditious book. What self-respecting kid ever needed that much encouragement to ferret out whatever the adults are trying to hide?

Also -- whoops! -- no one’s been hiding “His Dark Materials.” To date, 15 million copies of Pullman’s books have been sold worldwide. “The Golden Compass” won not only the 1995 Carnegie Medal, a prize awarded by British children’s librarians, but also the “Carnegie of Carnegies,” as the public’s favorite book in the prize’s 70-year history. The final novel in the trilogy, “The Amber Spyglass,” won the Whitbread Book of the Year award in 2001, the first children’s book ever to do so. It’s safe to say that copies of the trilogy reside in every decent children’s library in the nation. If there is indeed a “deceitful stealth campaign” afoot to lure children to Pullman’s books -- as William Donohue, spokesman for the Catholic League, insists -- it’s remarkably short on stealth.

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What’s really astonishing, and telling, is how long it’s taken America’s religious fear-mongers to notice Pullman. He’s never hidden his skepticism about God or his rejection of organized religion. A quick Internet search turns up a 2004 essay he wrote deploring “theocracies” for a newspaper in his native Britain, and his own Web site states that he thinks it “perfectly possible to explain how the universe came about without bringing God into it.” “His Dark Materials” features a sympathetic character, an ex-nun, who describes Christianity as “a very powerful and convincing mistake,” while “The Amber Spyglass” concludes with the two child heroes participating in the dissolution of “the Authority,” a senile, pretender God who has falsely passed himself off as the creator of the universe.

Only with a movie attached, however, does an outfit like Focus on the Family deem the “blasphemous and heretical” content of Pullman’s fiction worthy of their attention. The Catholic League is calling for a boycott of the film and books; evangelical Protestant organizations have settled for simply urging their constituencies to approach both with extreme caution. Whether the controversy will harm the film or wrap it in the glamour of the forbidden remains to be seen. As for the books, well, you have to wonder how much actual reading goes on in the sort of household that welcomes e-mails like the ones denouncing “The Golden Compass,” anyway.

Yes, it’s true, as the e-mails virtually shriek, that Pullman once told an interviewer “His Dark Materials” is about “killing God,” and that he wrote an op-ed piece describing C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” as “ugly and poisonous.” It’s also true that these statements have been taken out of context -- not just out of the context of a particular interview or newspaper editorial, but out of the context of an entire culture, a culture of conversation, debate and consideration, rather than paranoia, alarmism and extremism.

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I first met Pullman in England, at an annual lecture sponsored by a trust dedicated to the furthering of religious education. I buttonholed Simon Pettitt, an Anglican priest and the trust’s chairman, to marvel at this; his counterparts in the United States, I said, would never have invited a figure like Pullman to speak at a flagship public event. And yet, Pettitt is no renegade. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, has enthused about “His Dark Materials” and participated in an onstage discussion with Pullman when a stage version of “His Dark Materials” was produced by the National Theatre in London.

“In America,” I told Pettitt, “religious groups gain political advantage and rally their followers by presenting themselves as embattled. Actually listening to the other side is tantamount to admitting you’re not really being persecuted.” With a look of mild pity, he replied, “In order to come to views, you don’t just listen to people you agree with. Education is a good thing, and, therefore, so is openness to different views.”

Although Pullman has some vehement detractors among Britain’s Christians, the liberal clergy there have more often valued his books for tackling the great questions of existence: life, death, morality and humanity’s role in the universe. They regard his fiction as a springboard for discussion, the kind of discussion that does sometimes lead people to embrace God. They recognize him not as an enemy but as an ally in a society increasingly colonized by the vapid preoccupations of consumer culture.

Pullman also turned out to be no dogmatist. His practice of tossing out provocative statements struck me as a habit acquired during his years as a middle-school teacher, intended not to shut out opposing ideas but to flush them from the underbrush of adolescent inertia. He too is interested in what the other side has to say. This curiosity is in keeping with an ideal he calls “the democracy of reading,” in which “to-and-fro between reader and text” leaves each “free to engage honestly with the other.”

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It’s also -- let’s face it -- the only sensible attitude for a writer of fiction to adopt. Stories are wayward and so are readers, as the millions of kids who have loved Lewis’ Narnia books without succumbing to their Christian symbolism can testify. Donna Freitas, a liberal American Catholic theologian and coauthor (with Jason King) of a book about Pullman’s trilogy, “Killing the Impostor God,” hails “His Dark Materials” as a “religious classic,” in which the old patriarchal model of God is “killed” to make way for a new divinity, “fit for our age.” She calls Pullman a “reluctant theologian,” and the author has praised her book as among the best yet written about his work.

Pullman’s response to Freitas, and Freitas’ response to Pullman, are fundamentally literary, rooted in the understanding that to read a great story -- at any age -- is not to passively absorb a doctrine, but to begin an imaginative collaboration. It is that freedom, a reader’s freedom, that the boycott promoters find so frightening. As Pullman himself has written, “Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.”


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