Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Golden Compass Books: Propaganda

Propaganda, as defined by Wikipedia:

Propaganda is a concerted set of messages aimed at influencing the opinions or behavior of large numbers of people. Instead of impartially providing information, propaganda in its most basic sense presents information in order to influence its audience. The most effective propaganda is often completely truthful, but some propaganda presents facts selectively (thus lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or gives loaded messages in order to produce an emotional rather than rational response to the information presented. The desired result is a change of the cognitive narrative of the subject in the target audience.

In Book III of the Golden Compass Trilogy, Pullman becomes explicit in blaming and naming Christianity (and most particularly Roman Catholicism) as evil. I want to point out that he could easily have written enjoyable fantasy books about good versus evil without naming Christianity. I think we could all agree that it's evil to rob people of their humanity, to force them into mindless obedience, to use authority to crush reason, to lie, to torture and to murder. I think we also could agree that it's good to find the best in humanity, to sacrifice for others, to pursue truth, to free people to live abundant lives, to give people choices and autonomy, to accept people's flaws, and to allow people to love and to build vibrant communities.

But Pullman crosses the line into propaganda when he explicitly aligns Christianity with evil. He does this in several ways:

1. He distorts reality by showing only one the dark side of the Christian church. Yes, the church has done some terrible things and too often used its power in repressive ways. However, the church has also engaged in stunning works of good. There have been inquisitors and crusaders, but also Francis of Assisi and his followers, George Fox and his followers, Brother Lawrence, Mother Teresa and countless others who devoted their lives to bringing freedom, physical help and hope to many people. Yet none of Christianity's good works are ever mentioned in the books. If the books were your only guide, you would believe Christianity to be wholly about carnal power and wholly evil.

2. All the good characters reject and oppose Christianity. A case in point is the scientist, Mary Malone. She is a wonderful, caring person and a dedicated, ethical scientist but also an ex-nun (actually she was a sister, as she was never cloistered, but the book refers to her as a nun). She leaves the sisterhood when she realizes she doesn't want to sacrifice the part of herself that can love and be loved by a man. The church is posited as a force that is willing to rob her of that part of her humanity in order to use her, with no mention of the idea that the Catholic church might discourage people who are not called to the celibate life from entering orders. Further, the book never acknowledges that some ARE called to this celibate life. Mary is a very sympathetic character and a moral center of the book and when she declares there is no God, we are influenced to believe this is true. When she uses I Ching sticks, we are encouraged to see this as a positive spiritual path.

Further, the witches are depicted as strong, caring, independent beings (they are very positive characters)but also as persecuted by the church. Shamanism is depicted as good (Will's extremely good father is a shaman) and as having true spiritual power. If you identify with any of these characters (which it is difficult not to do) you will be inspired not only to reject evil but to reject Christianity in favor, essentially, of anything else be it Eastern religion, Western atheism, Wiccanism or New Age earth religion. In fact, it's not spirituality that is bad, but Christianity.

3. The Christian characters are uniformly bad and usually one-dimensional caricatures. A case in point is a young priest who enters the peaceful, ecologically balanced planet/universe where Mary Malone has escaped. He brings a gun and relishes how he will frighten everybody into obedience. The church tortures witches, cuts the souls away from children, and ruthlessly pursues killing innocent Lyra to protect its power. There's no room for a John Woolman or any compassionate, peaceful Christian in this book. Characters on the side of "the Authority" are often aged, ugly, weak-willed or sadistic.

4.Pullman rehashes the old "Christianity versus rationalism" argument, playing on an unexamined cultural assumption that Christianity opposes rational inquiry and free thought. The assumption is accepted as fact, when a closer examination would show this dualism to be flawed. Christianity has, more often than not, been on the side of reason.

I could go on, but will leave it at that for now. I can only speculate as to why Pullman didn't simply write books depicting good versus evil. He apparently has an animosity towards Christianity. I find it disturbing that these one-sided books are aimed at an adolescent audience. I also find it disturbing that they have won several awards. If Muslims, gay people, Jews or some group other than Christians had been painted as so wholly evil, I wonder if the literary world would have reacted in the same way. Coming soon: violence and power in the books.


Tatiana said...

i have read this post carefully and i would agree with you on many things that you listed, except that the way that christianity is depicted in HDM is only one way of looking at it.

i took it as it is. it's a one-sided view on Roman Catholic church.
someone had to write a book like this, i suppose. if not Pullman, then you or me or Aunt Sally.

Diane said...

Hi Bez,

Thanks for responding. Could you clarify your first comment: that the way christianity is depicted in HMD is only one way of looking at it?


Friendly Mama said...

I wrote about this series a couple of months ago and my take was very similar but very different from yours. I loved the books and found them to be full of God's love in the purest (non-religious) way. Here's my blog post:
In peace,
Mary Linda

Anonymous said...

Mary Linda,

I also found the books to depict God's love. I objected to them only for naming Christianity/Catholicism as evil. I wish Pullman hadn't done that.


kevin roberts said...

Diane, hello-

Many people with great creativity and literary skill devote their efforts to goals that oppose God. I believe there are reasons why they do that can be related to fundamental Christian theology.

I know little enough of The Golden Compass, but I hope to know even less as the years go by.

In Christ,

Tatiana said...

Hi Diane,

what i basically meant to say is that one can look at religion and the church in a lot of ways. one can believe that the concept of church is worthess, and another may as firmly believe that the church is the one thing on earth that would make sense.

to my mind, pullman belongs to the first. the man just thinks that the idea is stupid and sgares this with us. and here we go clanking our spears and fight over whether he has a reason.