Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Golden Compass -- truth, heresy and authority

The Golden Compass

Director: Chris Weitz, 2007.

Weitz himself adapted Philip Pullman's book for the big screen. The book was the first in "His Dark Materials" fantasy trilogy and provided a good read. But this adaptation is surprisingly dull and pedestrian, quite disappointing. The fight between two armor-clad bears, both cgi creatures, is cool but the other set piece at the climax is cut short too quickly. And the conclusion is open-ended, in contrast to the book, leaving it weak and ambiguous. If a sequel is made, it will pick up the story at that point no doubt.

Pullman's trilogy is a barely hidden attack on religion in general and the Church in particular. But Weitz and the production companies decided to remove any mention of God or religion. However, these themes are evident if a little veiled. Indeed, there are a number of themes which interplay with religion and Christianity, including the soul, truth, heresy, and authority.

As the film starts the witch Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green, the Bond babe in Casino Royale) tells Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig, Bond in Casino Royale): "There are many universes and many Earths parallel to each other. Worlds like yours, where people's souls live inside their bodies, and worlds like mine, where they walk beside us, as animal spirits we call daemons." This introduces the concept of people having souls which are visible to others, living outside of their bodies in the shapes of animals. In children, these daemons can change shape but they become fixed when adulthood is attained.

Certainly there is an aspect of humanity that is immaterial. Biblically, men and women are multi-dimensional in composition (1 Thess. 5:23, Heb. 4:12), but there is disagreement as to the numberof the components. At its broadest level, all Christians agree that we are made up of a material aspect (body) and an immaterial aspect (soul or spirit). Some see a difference between the soul and spirit. Dallas Willard, a philosophy professor at USC, has a model of the human constitution with 5 elements: spirit, mind, body, social context, and soul ("Renovation of the Heart"). In his model, the soul is the core dimension that interrelates all the other dimensions of a person to integrate into one holistic life.

But in our reality, the soul is invisible. We can only see a person's body, not his or her soul/spirit. We cannot exist in this world without the immaterial aspect. It is critical to our present existence. It drives our being. In The Golden Compass, the souls are embodied but remain close to the person they belong to. Interestingly, when the soul is harmed the person hurts, and vice versa. This is a good illustration of the biblical truth that some things damage us inwardly by damaging our souls, though it may not be clear from the outside. These can be emotional wounds, pscyhological scars, sinful thoughts and desires, etc.

Compass also raises a curious question of whether a person can live without a soul. In the movie, some are separated from their souls and they remain alive but clearly damaged. In reality, we cannot live apart from our soul. In the time between times, when we have died but not been resurrected, we will exist as disembodied souls (2 Cor. 5:1-5) awaiting the moment when our souls are given resurrected bodies (1 Thess. 4:15-17). But that is the only time we have a soul apart from a body. This is a body-less soul rather than the Compass' soul-less body.

The protagonist of the film is Lyra Belacqua, a young orphan and niece of Asriel being raised by the tutors of Jordan College, Oxford. Dakota Blue Richards gives a strong debut performance and is in almost every scene. Indeed, she carries the movie even when working with the veteran actors like Kidman and Craig. When she overhears her uncle talking about a magic dust only found in the arctic north which opens doorways between parallel universes, she wants to join him in his expedition, but is denied the privilege. Yet, when the mysterious and icy cold Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman) offers to take her on a similar journey she jumps at the chance. Before she leaves, the Master of the College gives her the golden compass. When she asks what it is, he replies, "It's an alethiometer. It tells the truth." This is central to this movie.

Lyra's use of the alethiometer to see the truth (from the Greek, aletheia [αλήθεια], meaning truth) is symbolic of reality. Truth is present, but not all can see it. In Compass, Lyra uses this magical instrument to get at truth, formulating questions for it to answer. In our world, truth is fully embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. He declared, "I am the way and the truth and the life" (Jn. 14:6). Those who look for truth and find Christ find truth. And apart from an alethiometer, we can offer prayers to God seeking wisdom and truth.

When her friend Roger is kidnapped by the "Gobblers," Lyra's quest becomes Roger's salvation. Along the way, her adventures include meeting and rescuing a huge armored bear, Iorek Byrnison (Ian McKellan's voice), and hooking up with an aeronaut Lee Scoresby (a perfectly cast Sam Elliott) as well as a group of Gyptians on her quest.

Her quest is not without opposition, though. The ruling Magisterium pursues Lyra with its own evil agenda. It has succeeded in destroying all but this one compass. It is a threat, as it can reveal truth to the initiated holder. And Asriel is a threat, too, as one of its emissaries comments: "If he succeeds in proving the existence of these other worlds, it will contradict centuries of teaching. There will always be free thinkers and heretics, unless we deal with the root of the problem." The Magisterium does not want truth; it wants to retain control. It sees its authority jeopardized.

The Magisterium clearly represent a caricature of the Church. (The Church is actually the body of Christ and his spotless bride, being prepared for his second coming. It is not perfect but it is God's chosen vessel of grace to a fallen world.) In the Dark Ages the Church used the inquisition to suppress heresy. Free thinkers that contradicted catholic teaching experienced torture and death. Earlier still, during the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were the ruling Jewish party and they retained their power and authority through selective oppression. When Jesus spoke out truth in contrast to their legalistic teaching (Lk. 12:1), they determined he should die. He threatened their authority with his free thinking (Mk. 1:27). His truth was a mirror that they dared not look into. Finally the High Priest declared, "it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish" (Jn. 11:50). Oppressive authoritarian regimes usually resort to intimidation and execution to silence their opponents, regardless of truth. This happened to Jesus. It happens today.

So,whose authority do we place ourselves under? Are we open to truth? Are we seeking truth? If we are, we will find it in Jesus as we place ourselves under his lordship.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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