Below is a copy of an email I sent out to our church regarding the controversy surrounding The Golden Compass. I'm posting it here so that folks can have a reference point for further discussion, but also for a wider audience.
Over the past several weeks, I've received a number of emails regarding the release this weekend of The Golden Compass, a movie that is generating some controversy within the Christian community and that promises to be a topic of discussion in churches throughout North America in the weeks ahead (or at least once we get through Christmas!).
I'm reminded of the controversy that's surrounded so many films in the days that I've been on this planet: Jesus Christ, Superstar; The Last Temptation of Christ; and, more recently, The DaVinci Code and the Harry Potter series.
Generally speaking, I don't get involved in telling people what they should and shouldn't see, or read for that matter. I'm a firm believer that ideas, whether we agree with them or not, should get a fair and unbiased hearing in the public square prior to making a decision about whether or not they're worth hearing. And, while I don't agree with author Philip Pullman's ideas on everything, he and I are one in that we are firm believers in the "democracy of reading."
Having said that, let me make a couple of quick observations that may be helpful as the movie releases this weekend. Please understand that these are only my observations. I'm not speaking on behalf of the United Methodist Church or even our church. I'm speaking as a pastor to people with questions, so consider this a generalized response to such controversies and how we might best deal with them. I'm not inclined to discuss the content, particularly since I know so little about it. I haven't read the books and, when I see the movie, I may completely change my mind and pay a return visit to the whole thing.
First off, the controversy that often surrounds movies like The Golden Compass is not based on first-hand experience, but rather internet rumors, emails, and the like. While some of them may be based in fact, quite often it isn't the content of such items that's in question; it's the spirit behind them. From my angle, this kind of rumor-mongering almost always has the taint of censorship behind it and, at least where ideas are concerned, I don't think censorship has any real value in a free and open society that values the exchange of ideas. Even when they're ideas with which I disagree, I still believe that we all hope to live in a culture where everyone is free to express their ideas without fear of retribution or boycott.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we are free to let people have their ideas and opinions and to engage them in a loving and non-threatening manner. Just on a personal note, I think more damage is done to the cause of God's kingdom by well-meaning Christians who take it upon themselves to be the moral and/or philosophical filter for the rest of the world, particularly when they act out of ignorance or a blatant attempt to simply squelch opposing voices.
Secondly, I'm a firm believer in the power of families to make intelligent choices about matters like this. If you, as a parent, are concerned about whether or not your children should see this movie, then first see it yourself. After that, have a family discussion about whether this is an appropriate film for your children. Chances are, given its PG-13 rating based on sequences of fantasy violence, that it's probably not the best bet to take your younger children to see it. And, if you take your older ones, you should probably see it with them so you can discuss the ideas after the film. I would encourage all of us to be thoughtful and personally engaged about what our children see and read, rather than simply deciding based on a reactionary email campaign.
Thirdly, the major beef with this movie has to do with an atheistic/agnostic worldview, at least according to what I've seen coming through my inbox and on the discussion boards of which I'm a part. There's little question that Pullman's own worldview would differ greatly with the majority opinion here at Sachse First UMC and with Christians around the world. He's a self-described atheist and agnostic, although I'm not sure how both of those quite fit. Knowing this may make some of us want to stay away from the books and the film. For others it may simply be an opportunity to engage a good story. And, for still others, it may very well be a doorway into discussion and deeper interaction with our children around the ideas in the film.
I don't have children, but if I did I know I'd want to protect them. I see your children every Sunday and I love all of them. I'm also aware that the world can be a very dangerous place for children. And I'm very aware that ideas matter: the wrong idea at the wrong time can be hurtful, particularly when it becomes an ideologically controlling worldview allowing no challenges to its exclusivity. And, it needs to be said that this can be as true for matters of faith as it is for secular and non-religious ideologies. One need look no further than recent advances in militant religious views (Muslim, Christian, and otherwise) for evidence that ideas can become destructive tools of violence in the wrong hands.
But, at an age-appropriate time in life, ideas need consideration, even when they may go against the grain of our own worldviews. Each of us needs the intellectual vigor and the spiritual courage to step out of isolation and take an honest look at our faith and let it engage with the world around us. Sooner or later, your children will be exposed to atheism and/or agnosticism. There may be no better time for you to discuss with your children the questions raised around these issues than after a rousing movie that captures their attention.
Ultimately, as I said above, these are matters best left to families to decide. Each family has its own way of doing things and I trust yours to make a good decision based on what works for you. If your children are younger and really haven't yet developed the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality, then it's probably a good idea to follow the advice of the movie ratings experts and use "parental guidance" for those under the age of 13. If they're older and are buzzing about it like everyone else is, then this may be a perfect opportunity to sharpen their faith and your family by engaging in a lively discussion after seeing the movie.
I have yet to meet anyone whose faith was seriously damaged by watching a movie, reading a book, or vigorously engaging a different idea. I have met many whose faith was challenged, changed, and sharpened by those same elements. I hope and pray that, whatever your decision regarding The Golden Compass is, that you will walk without fear, knowing that "he who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6).