The amoral compass

At the beginning of the year the cartoon strip Shortpacked had this instalment, which has set me musing.

I’m not going to see the film in question, but I’m not going to see it principally because a colleague of mine has assured me that as entertainment it’s not worth spending two hours of your life on it, and I have plenty to do with two hours of evening. (Book to write, for a start…)

But I do find myself niggling about the reaction to it in the Christian media. Do I understand it correctly that the problem is that the film involves the killing of a worn-out ‘god’ by the child protagonists? And that this is being construed as a threat to organised religion? Even though the god that is killed is not the Christian god…

Being a medievalist, I can’t help but wonder how this would have been seen from a medieval perspective. Think of Saint Boniface felling the oak of Eismar, or Charlemagne ordering the destruction of the Saxon Irminsul, both presumably living respresentations of divinity to their worshippers; or else, more subtly, of the monks of Armagh reworking the Celtic legends to gently but inevitably end them with the death of magic and its pagan archetypes, leaving the field free for the true revelation of God. Mind you it’s produced some fabulous spin-offs: how many fantasy authors can you think of who end their cycles with the magical beings leaving the world for men to mess up? Tolkien, Moorcock (dozens of times), the list goes on. And yes, it’s all terribly Celtic I’m sure, but it’s not how the stories originally went, is it, however powerful it is as a motif.

Christianity’s been killing gods for centuries, as far as that’s possible; in fact possibly only Zoroastrianism has been anything like as hostile to rival faiths. And that didn’t use to be a problem (for Christianity) because way back then, the enemy of Christianity was other faiths, but now of course it’s not; now the kinds of Christian who want to make a fuss about things seem to think that the main enemy is disinterest, which they read as atheism. Boniface or the redactors of the Táin would have thought Mr Pullman’s work to be serving their agenda, even if that wasn’t his intention. They wouldn’t have approved of course, but i don’t think they would have found it theologically objectionable, because it’s about a different, ultimately mortal and therefore not truly divine, deity.

But for the modern and protesting (small `p’) Christian, believing in anything is better than not to believe, apparently. So is ‘godless’ now worse than ‘infidel’ to the religious right, or just rarer? Or, perhaps more importantly, closer to home?

(It is necessary to mention the other side of the coin, of course, because in the time this post has been in draft, Matthew Gabriele has reminded us that medieval religion at the blunt end was often as pragmatically tolerant as we might wish for. The danger, again, comes from the theorists :-) They may be locked up in ivory towers with only quill pens as weapons; but apparently when it comes to deicide (no, not Deicide), the pen is mightier than the sword.)

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5 responses to “The amoral compass

  1. I haven’t seen the film, but I read the first of Pullman’s triology (on which the film is based) and decided I didn’t want to read the others. It’s not so much that it’s anti-Christian, it’s that it’s so clunkily anti-Christian. The bit where he introduces a parody version of Genesis is just hopeless. I think Pullman is a more imaginative, more original writer than C.S, Lewis, but you can enjoy most of the Narnia books (maybe not the Last Battle) without getting the religious message rammed down your throats. Pullman is much more blatant. I won’t stop my daughter reading his books when she’s old enough to if she wanted to, but I’m not going to go out of my way to expose her to them.

  2. Thanks for the link. Generally, I agree with your point though — one borne out by recent polling (at least in the US) saying that a vast majority here wouldn’t vote for an atheist for President.

  3. I actually liked both book and movie.

  4. I haven’t seen the film, but LDW says it’s worth it for the Panzerbären. I really enjoyed the Pullman books (actually, I’ve pretty much liked all of his YA novels). They are definitely anti-organized religion, and it’s clear that the deity in question is the one of the Abrahamic religions. It’s just that in Pullman’s version, humans have had the wool pulled over their eyes for ages because the thing that’s been worshiped all this time isn’t actually divine. So really, it seems to me to be a fairly easy thing for someone whose faith is strong to refute.

    But then, I have no idea why people worry about fiction tempting their faith. I mean, if one believes in an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God (I won’t go into the problem of omnibenevolence), and if one believes that all the miracles attributed to that God really happened (including, well … Creation — evolutionary or not), then how on earth could anything else be a threat? Sorry. It’s just incredibly confusing to me.

  5. One of the things on my reading pile at the moment, just because someone left it in my care and I can’t make myself turn down information, is a book about IBM losing its dominance in the early 1990s. This may explain why I wonder if the problem for US Christians worried by such things are sufficiently ingrown in capitalist thinking that they are frightened by what is basically a loss of market impact. Not just people buying from competitors; but people not wanting your product at all! Like IBM having to face up to people really not needing mainframes the same way after the PC.

    And then I realised that Terry Pratchett was so often there first, and probably after others less well-known: “Thou shalt not subject thy god to market forces!”

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