The Golden Compass – My rant on engaging movies

(Warning: long post – sorry to all who consider brief blog entries a cyber-virtue)

Considering that I have not seen the film, I won’t pretend to offer any sort of review or recommendation for The Golden Compass. If you ask me, anyone offering a review on a piece of art, whatever the medium, should probably take a look before offering a decisive opinion. I would like to comment, however, on the issue of watching movies, particularly in how we engage them.

With the arrival of The Golden Compass, the issue of watching movies, particularly for Christians, is often approached as a polarized issue of worldly-denying versus worldly-embracing. I am using the term ‘worldly’ in the most basic sense of the reality of a culture (‘the world’) separate from organized Christianity, a line likely not as clear as some may perceive, but that’s for another time.

Regarding The Golden Compass, the worldly-deniers can be heard sounding the warning bells. For example, one commentator (I hasten to refer to this as a review) states, “There's so much fantasy stuff out there. Don't be deceived. Don't be swept into the marketing hype. There are serious worldview and theological problems with Pullman's story.” It’s the last phrase that really gets me, as the assumption is that somehow we can close our eyes to everything that’s wrong with our world. Come on people, life’s little more complicated then that. Last time I checked, the world, including Christianity, is prone to possess messed-up views of reality. From a Christian perspective, that’s part of living in a broken, fallen world. Therefore, instead of ignoring faulty worldviews around us, perhaps we can recognize them (and repent if necessary!) and represent a valid alternative…

The problem is that the worldly-embracers are no better off. These are the folks who unabashedly herald anything coming out of Hollywood as acceptable, even more so if those narrow-minded worldly-deniers known as ‘Christians’ are calling foul (a movie must be really good if Christians are opposed to it!). A religion professor, for instance, makes the comment that The Golden Compass is a “theological masterpiece… a treatise on Christian belief,” and goes on to claim the movie makes explicit connections to the Holy Spirit. Hmm, not sure the atheist author of the books would agree with this assessment (To the professor’s credit, she at least gets the point about abuse of power being a major theme).

In a sense, then, both extremes fail to really engage with the movie, with one side ignoring through complete avoidance, and the other ignoring with blind acceptance. Considering all this, I think the hysteria surrounding The Golden Compass is an excellent opportunity for people to engage a movie for once.

What does this engagement look like? Well, for starters, read a few reviews from folks trained in the art of reviewing (preferably not Christian websites). Second, watch and engage the movie (sure it’s entertaining, but what is it saying?). Third, talk about the movie with other people, discussing how it challenges the way you see the world (not just what you didn’t like or thought was heretical). While these three steps are far from exhausting the art of movie-engagement, they are a step in the right direction.

I think the challenge for parents regarding The Golden Compass is that it is hard to imagine children engaging movies this way on their own. My pet-peeve, recognizing that I don’t have kids and it is often far more complicated than this, is this very fact of leaving kids alone to wade through the complex messages that culture, especially through movies, is sending. Very rarely, it seems, do parents intentionally train their children to engage culture. I mean, how many parents enter into dialogue with their children after watching a movie? Now, obviously creativity will be required, as sitting your 8-year-old down for discussion on atheism is no easy task. However, even if it is hard, I think it’s a necessity, as this complex world requires thoughtful engagement more than ever, no matter what the age.

Well, enough said; go engage a movie!

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