The Golden Compass

OrthodoxyToday.org | Paul Lundberg | Dec. 4, 2007

The Golden Compass is $180 million movie that opens this weekend. Based on the first novel in a series written by an avowed atheist, it contains unmistakable criticism of the Church, which serves as an antagonist in the story. That it is made for children as well as adults has only added to the intensity with which some groups have denounced it as “sugar-coated atheism” and the author’s “deliberate attempt to foist his viciously anti-God beliefs upon his audience.”

Such movies should come as no surprise to us. We live in a pluralistic society — a society in which exists a multitude of value systems, faiths, and philosophies concerning truth, happiness, and what is right. Many of these philosophies are indeed unchristian and are as pervasive as the air we breathe; we don’t really notice them unless we take a step back and focus our attention. Other times, we encounter something specific — like The Golden Compass — that is unmistakably hostile.

In the book, the golden compass is actually called “the alethiometer”. As any student of Greek would expect, this instrument has to do with alethia — the truth. In the fourth chapter of the book, the Master of Jordan College tells Lyra, the protagonist of the story, that the alethiometer “tells you the truth. As for how to read it, you’ll have to learn by yourself.”

Is that what we believe about the truth? — that it is primarily something we can measure with a machine — rather than someone, Christ Himself? Do we believe that we “learn by ourselves” how to understand Truth? Certainly not.

These are the sorts of challenges in the movie, and such are the challenges we encounter in our culture. How should we respond to these ideas? How shall we find our way in the wilderness of pluralism?

Our situation today bears resembles that of the early Church. The apostles had to contend with external ideologies and philosophies that threatened to compromise the integrity of the faith. In Corinth and Colosse, for example, the local Churches were subject to the influence of Gnosticism, which taught that salvation was dependent on specialized spiritual knowledge rather than faith. Doesn’t that sound a lot like what Lyra is told in the novel? — that to know the truth, she has to learn how to read the alethiometer?

But how are we to know the Truth?

Think about the trial of Jesus. When Pilate asked our Lord if he were indeed a king, He replied, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth” (John 19:37). As we approach the feast of the His Nativity, let us remember that Christ came to show us and tell us the truth. Christ is our compass. He is the way by which we must find our path in the wilderness of pluralism that surrounds us.

He was the way for the great martyr Katherine, whose feast we celebrated just over a week ago. When the Emperor Maxentius ordered her to defend her faith in an open debate with the most famous pagan orators of that day, she was not lost in their arguments. Rather, she applied her superb learning to the defense of the faith and routed her opponents. Should it be any different for us when we meet opposition?

The pluralism of our culture is an opportunity to understand and to share our faith. Our Christian faith, after all, was clarified in part by responding to the heresies that the Church encountered during the first centuries of her life. We must remember that Christ came to be a compass for this world — to save it and those living in it, many of whom are lost, without a sense of purpose or direction in their lives.

But what of the children? We do need to protect them and we need to teach them. If The Golden Compass is the only spiritual instruction they receive, we are in trouble. But if they receive instruction in the faith from their parents, their priest or bishop, and the members of their community, they’ll be able to deal with movies like this, together with those who share their faith.

If our high school group really wants to see the movie, would it be better to tell them not to go see it, or to go with them and discuss it with them afterward, helping them come to a better knowledge of our faith and how we understand the criticisms hurled against it — teaching them to look at Christ as our compass.

Paul Lundberg is a third-year seminarian at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox seminary.

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