Yes, I took my children to see the movie version of Philip Pullman’s fantastic novel, The Golden Compass. No, I did not fear for their mortal souls. I did not fear the impact of an atheist author’s ideas upon my sons’ young minds. I was a little worried they might be bored as the reviews of the movie, unlike the book, were middling.
The Compass controversy hit home last Sunday when a fellow-parent at our church expressed astonishment at my plan to take my sons to the movie. Unsurprisingly, she had neither read the book nor clearly understood the dispute. I suspect the same is true for many who have decried the film and its author whose atheism, more than his fiction, may be at the heart of many objections. Still, the groups working to kill the movie, and the journalists fueling their fire, seem to be succeeding.
Is this more evidence of a frightening trend (akin to themes of the novel) toward quashing minority ideas? I wanted to ask this mother what she feared from a big, technology-laden, fantasy film. Did she so doubt the faith and intellect of her children that she felt they could be corrupted by a Hollywood-glossed implication of another way of thinking about the soul? Would she also prevent them from reading about Freud, Marx, and others whose ideologies differ from her own? Pretending the likes of Saddam Hussein do not exist does not make such people less real. Even if she were to group the delightful and, I put forth, benign Mr. Pullman in such a category, reading and watching only what one purports to believe results in ignorance and a high risk of repeating history’s great tragedies.
This leads to a deeper question of how we tell children what we believe is the truth in the first place. Take, for example, Santa Claus. Our family spends Christmas in the mountains which results in a number of logistical complications and questions. Recently my first grader asked me to make sure we left enough room in the car so that the gifts he had requested from Santa (and which, presumably, we were not hauling surreptitiously TO the mountains) could comfortably return with home us. His belief…conviction…dare I say faith?...that Santa would bring one particular item confused me. I pointed out that we did not have such an item to bring. Even after realizing that he meant post-Christmas-booty-delivery, I saw a savvy look in his eye which suggested he was well aware that he was communicating directly with Santa Claus.
Had one of his big brothers told him the “truth”? A smile rose to my lips as I imagined the conversation: The younger child’s wondering comment and the older child’s solemn revelation, accompanied by a warning not to let on to Mom and Dad. If my intuition was correct, it seemed my little boy had survived the revelation unscathed. Perhaps this was because he had learned it as he should, through his own curiosity and experience.
Another son endured a much rockier transition to the Santa truth when I, assuming his knowledge from comments he had made, revealed my identity unceremoniously. Tears followed, then a less magical season. I still believe he knew the truth but he did not want to be told it, particularly not by me. Perhaps what is best is a gradual understanding of the true nature of Santa Claus, supported by conversations with other children. Coming to the knowledge of Santa Claus on his own, my first grade son experienced an intellectual awakening, a growing maturity, and a sense of concern for the loving parents who wanted to gift him with this charming falsehood for as long as possible.
And so we return to the Golden Compass with its supposed dangerous message that perhaps organized religion has a few flaws. Who didn’t know this already? Has anyone been watching what’s happening in the Middle East? If we want our children to grow into thoughtful, educated, compassionate human beings, wouldn’t we do well to make an overt effort to expose them to a variety of ideas, both in nonfiction and fiction, art and literature? If a belief in Santa Claus or democracy or religion goes untested, can it be truly held by any child or adult?
Truth, like justice, is a dangerous word. Look at teen sex and drinking statistics to see the success rate of simply telling young people to avoid something you believe to be bad or untrue. Instead, we should model tolerance for the many ways people deal with the great mysteries of our existence on this planet. We should offer great books, and good ones, and watch, a proud smile on our lips, as our children make their own, independent discoveries.
Help a child grow this season. Take them to see The Golden Compass. If not because it’s a great movie (it isn’t, although there are some wonderful CGI characters and impressive voice work), then to protest against those who would keep us away from different, brave ideas in the name of “truth.”