Phillip Pullman’s Useful Idiots

Bill Donohue of the Catholic League may be a bit loud and misinformed at times. But you have to admire his forthrightness in pointing out something so bleedin’ obvious that only a functionary for the USCCB film review office or a highly trained theologian could miss it. He writes:

In the current Newsweek, Pullman lashes out at me saying, ‘To regard it [his storytelling] as this Donohue man has said—that I’m a militant atheist, and my intention is to convert people—how the hell does he know that?’ That’s easy—I just quote him: ‘I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.’

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[Golden Compass director Chris] Weitz recently said it is ‘wrongheaded’ to say Pullman wants to ‘kill God.’ Yet Pullman has admitted that ‘My books are about killing God.’

However, in proof of the old saying, “Build an idiot-proof argument and they’ll build a better idiot”, we find that some deep thinkers, like Donna Freitas, (Professor of Religion at Boston University and author of such profound works as Becoming a Goddess of Inner Poise: Spirituality for the Bridget Jones in All of Us) are undeterred. Freitas is the insightful theologian who informed us that Madonna Dares to Image the Feminine Divine in her recent “Ecce Ho” antics. With a theological imagination like that, it’s not surprising that she should be appointed Corporate Court Prophet to a man whose open hatred and contempt for Christianity is repeatedly documented in interview after interview. Her basic thesis in a recent piece for the Boston Globe: Pullman is killing an “imposter god” not the real one, so it’s all good. God isn’t really a tyrant, so Pullman is simply smashing idols, not attacking the Christian faith, whatever he may say.

This is much the same thinking as the recent review of the Golden Compass film by USCCB reviewers Harry Forbes and John Mulderig (now consigned to oblivion by the embarrassed bishops who got played for suckers by New Line Cinema, but still visible here for all punishment gluttons). At every turn, Forbes and Mulderig made excuses for Pullman. Calling the villains “the Magisterium”? Hey! It’s “a bit unfortunate... Yet the film's only clue that the Magisterium is a religious body comes in the form of the icons which decorate one of their local headquarters.” And besides the anti-Catholicism is not “the blatant real-world anti-Catholicism of, say, the recent ‘Elizabeth: The Golden Age’ or ‘The Da Vinci Code’." Oh. Well then. As long as the anti-Catholicism is not blatant but is merely cleverly disguised I guess it’s okay to feed to kids.

But the crowning stupidity was this:

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.

There is, admittedly, a spirit of rebellion and stark individualism pervading the story. Lyra is continually drawn to characters who reject authority in favor of doing as they please. Equally, only by defying the powers that be, can a scientist like Lord Asriel achieve progress. Pullman is perhaps drawing parallels to the Catholic Church's restrictive stance towards the early alchemists and, later, Galileo.

Uh huh. And if I declare that Mr. Forbes’ mother is a whore on the front page of the newspaper, I doubt he'd say, "Since my mother is obviously not a whore, it is plain that Mr. Shea cannot be speaking of my mother. I celebrate Shea’s warm and tender acclamation of my mother and I thank him for his deeply affirming, nay, inspiring words of love and devotion." If that is his idea of filial devotion, I would love to be present at the Christmas festivities in his home.

A Catholic can (and should) point out what critic Jeffrey Overstreet calls the “inescapability of the gospel”: the principle illustrated by Caiaphas (who, in his malice against Christ, unwittingly spoke the truth that it was better for one man to die than for the whole nation to perish). Such a principle is also at work with Phillip Pullman (who tries to kill God and winds up killing only a senile tyrant of his own imagining and portraying self-sacrificial love as a Very Good Thing). The inescapability of the gospel means that any storyteller, even the most blasphemous, will sooner or later have to speak the truth and so end up paying tribute to Christ since "every knee shall bow" to him.

But to say that Pullman therefore “means well” and is "really" trying to write a “deeply Christian” story “entirely in harmony with Catholic teaching” is exactly like saying that Caiaphas was a great disciple of Jesus because his malice toward and condemnation of Jesus led to the Resurrection. Any Catholic reviewer worth has salt would have said as much. Instead, our tithe monies went to pay for the Freitasian imbecilities of Forbes and Mulderig when we were supposed to be getting Catholic insights. And that’s ultimately the issue here:

Overstreet, a very good film critic for Christianity Today, writes:

I’ve been reading the USCCB’s reviews for a decade now, more out of curiosity than anything, wondering if there will ever be a day where I am actually impressed or enlightened by one of them. I’m still waiting. I find wiser Christian-perspective interpretations and more challenging artistic analysis on fanboy chat rooms than I do in the reviews published by the Catholic News Service. And I don’t know that I’ve ever come away from one of [Steven] Greydanus’ reviews unimpressed.

That's the thing. This is a job for the laity, not the bishop's office. The task of the bishop is to teach, govern, and sanctify, not review movies. There are lay Catholic film critics out there, doing this work, none better than Steven Greydanus. So why not leave it to them? Since the job of the bishop is to equip the saints, not do their work for them, it seems to me the bishops would be far better employed helping somebody like Greydanus get syndicated in their diocesan papers across the country than by butting into this essentially lay function with their own third-rate office of film reviews.

Not that bishops don't have a right to an opinion about the film. Here, for instance, is Abp. Chaput's astute review of The Golden Compass. But what we don't need is a whole office, funded by us and run by chancery rats who are either clueless about or actively hostile to the Church’s teaching, where reviews as embarrassing and harmful as the ones for The Golden Compass and Brokeback Mountain are fed to thousands of unsuspecting soccer moms looking for something to do with their kids on Saturday afternoon. Close the office, devote the funding to something useful like helping the poor, and encourage diocesan papers to pick up Greydanus or some other good reviewer.

Copyright 2007 - Mark P. Shea