UPDATE: Leithart on the movie.
I’m starting to get the message.
It goes like this: The Golden Compass is a movie that promotes atheism to young people. You need to warn students about this movie.
Don’t let me write another word without saying that I have nothing but respect for those who are concerned about young people. I’ve given my life to ministering to them. I don’t want any of them to become atheists. I don’t want any young Christians to lose their faith.
I recognize that some of those telling me to warn young people actually want me to tell them not to see the movie at all or to ever read the Phillip Pullman novels on which they are based. Sorry, but I can’t endorse that approach.
Others simply don’t want young people to be unaware that the movies may be an extension of Pullman’s stated agenda to use his art to promote atheism in the same way C.S. Lewis used Narnia to promote Christianity. That’s appropriate, or at least should be if, after actually being viewed, the movies prove to be such an extension. If they promote atheism in the same way Star Wars promotes dualism I hope Christians won’t waste too much time picketing out front.
I realize that once Dobson, Behr and Christian radio/television get ahold of the atheism connection in The Golden Compass, there will be the usual dust-up reminiscent of The Last Temptation of Christ and The DaVinci Code. But I have to admit, this episode of “Angry Christians Hate Your Movie!” has the potential to irritate me a lot more. Let me explain why.
Last Temptation and DVC were communicating esoteric, off-center views about Jesus that are popular in certain quarters, and which keep various cable channels percolating with third-rate programing. I never felt any of these things amounted to much of a challenge to Christian belief. In my ministry, I’ve met two young people- two, neither Americans- who had any interest in even talking about these conspiracy theory versions of Jesus. That’s not to say that there isn’t more interest than I gauged. I’m just saying that when all is said and done, you have to be fairly inclined against traditional Christian belief anyway- as these young people were- for these films and their accompanying books to get much traction.
Even the best radical Jesus scholars- like Crossan and Ehrman- don’t buy much of what these films were selling. Once you’ve scratched the surface, you have to be tenacious to stick with this kind of revisionism.
Atheism, on the other hand, is another story. Almost every adolescent who was raised within a church or Christian family knows the temptations of atheism. Strong believers testify to going through intense doubts or long seasons of God’s absence. While the apologists do battle with the atheists, I for one have never heard a good atheistic presentation that didn’t revisit thoughts I’d already had and probably will have again.
Another reason to be concerned is that atheists are having a good year, so to speak. The past half decade has seen a collection of best selling books, the arrival of viable atheist celebrities, an assertive and more confident style of atheist debate and an increasing number of “converts” renouncing Christianity and embracing atheism. Some atheists even have a new name for themselves- “Brights”- that separates them from us regular dim bulbs.
It’s for these very reasons, however, that I want my students to see Golden Compass, read Pullman, hear Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens and generally engage atheism. You aren’t going to hide from atheism in the Christian ghetto. Our children can’t be sheltered. We can’t portray all atheists as kooks and weirdos. The “village atheist” isn’t the freak show of a Madeline Murray O’Hare anymore.
I frequently tell my students that I would much prefer they embrace any position honestly than pretend to believe something they don’t really believe at all. Yes, I’d rather have an atheist than a phony Christian. Any day of the week.
I especially want my students to hear the atheist case laid out. This week, my advanced Bible class has been watching the atheistic opening statements in two debates between Christians and atheists. I want my students to hear Frank Zindler’s juvenile genius level contempt for the Bible as he announces stars can’t fall from the sky. (Lewis said that if you aren’t prepared to read a book for grown ups, perhaps you should avoid it completely.) I want them to hear Edward Tabash boldly use the phrase “immoral” when discussing the God he describes as a monster. I want my students to hear atheists say that it’s time for religion to give way to the intelligence and vision of scientists who are going to lead us into the promised land of peace, progress and harmony on planet earth. And I want them to hear all those orgasms over rationality and scary stories about superstition.
You see, I’m firmly in the camp of Chesteron on this one. The more the atheist talks, the more Christianity makes sense to me. When I listen to atheists describe their noble vision of existence in an absurd and meaningless world where their firm and rational grasp on reality can give meaning to all of us who walk the aisle to becoming “Brights,” I’m so grateful for the doctrine of total depravity I could write an entire musical about it.
Atheists are so optimistic about atheism that, frankly, it makes irresistible viewing. “Is he really going to say that religious belief is a mass delusion and a mind virus? Is he actually going to claim that atheists are rational while religious people are weak-minded advocates of faith? YES!! And not the argument from “evolutionary morality.” No way!! Ugh!!! There’s just too much drama. I can barely stand to watch.” I have to listen to Paula White explain that my $70 offering is going to make me $7000 to top some of this stuff.
Lewis put it deftly: Atheism is too simple. If I abandon Christianity, he said, I’ll embrace Buddhism or an eastern religion. Amen. Several times. If there were no meaning, we wouldn’t know there is no meaning.
Atheism has been around for a long time. It’s going be around for a long time to come. It’s going to make more documentaries. It’s going to have more best-sellers. I’m sure it will have its own reality show on MTV. Your kids are going hear from atheist friends, professors and employers. They are going to be a lot less reluctant to portray Christians as a threat to peace and civil society than they were in the past.
You need to get ready for the “new atheism” to become a factor in every facet of our culture. We won’t get ready for that if we protest The Golden Compass or the twenty atheist-friendly Hollywood products that are coming soon to a theater near you.
No, it’s time to love your enemy. (Atheists aren’t the enemy anyway. It’s time we quit falling for every panic monger who wants to tell us that some group wants to “attack the family” or “take away our rights.” It’s not true most of the time, and when it is, Jesus had plenty to say about the blessings of being persecuted.) It’s time to find ways for the light to shine winsomely. It’s time to be a servant for Jesus’ sake. It’s time to give a reason for the hope that is in us. It’s time to turn and face the atheist challenge and not protest, run away or declare war.
Atheism has a powerful appeal when Christians aren’t well taught, honest and engaged. Its message can be potent when you’ve lived like a rabbit instead of a watchman or a witness. Many of the Christians warning us of “Atheists Ahead!” may be afraid their own faith couldn’t survive reading Sam Harris’s book. Atheists make dozens of challenges to Christianity and Christians that are MUCH NEEDED and LONG OVERDUE for consideration in many Christian circles.
If that is the case, then I say buy the atheist nearest you a good dinner, because he/she is doing us all a favor by challenging that house of cards we’re so afraid might get blown over. Remember this: when the atheist finishes making his presentation to my students, they’ve just learned that it makes no difference what they do. It’s all a matter of chemicals hitting the brain anyway, and it goes no deeper. When I finish my presentation, there’s a reason to go to class, to study, to pass, to graduate, to do something with your life and even to continue on with hope if you fail. The atheist says eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. I say remember your creator in the days of your youth, because he will bring all things into judgment.
My talk sounds a lot better when they’ve heard his/hers. Don’t forget that.