Impressionable? Parents, pastors worry that film is inappropriate for young children

'The Golden Compass' has an atheist message, critics say.
Friday, January 11, 2008 | 1:00 p.m. CST; updated 4:12 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Dakota Blue Richards, left, stars as Lyra Belacqua and Ben Walker stars as Roger in Chris Weitz’s “The Golden Compass.” In the month since the release of the film, church leaders have condemned it as a damaging influence on young audiences.

When Signe Cohen took her 9-year-old son to see “The Golden Compass,” she knew she was taking him to a controversial children’s movie.

Cohen, an assistant professor of Asian religious studies at MU, had read the best-selling first novel of atheist Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. She knew the fantasy book was critical of organized religions but didn’t think it was opposed to religion altogether.


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“He thought it was wonderful,” Cohen said of her son’s reaction to the movie.

But some Christians would question her decision to let her son see “The Golden Compass.” In the month since the release of the film, church leaders across the world have condemned it as a damaging influence on young audiences.

The plot follows the mystery of an evil organization called the “Magisterium.” It abducts children in an attempt to suppress a mystical and fictional substance called “Dust,” a metaphor for the transition from childhood to adulthood, namely the phase of puberty.

This movie subtly explores how churches impose their values on adolescents. The term “Magisterium” has replaced all of the book’s direct references to the church. According to Cohen, the term “Magisterium” in reality is associated with the Roman Catholic Church.

“It’s a film that leaves one cold, because it brings with it the coldness and the desperation of rebellion, solitude and individualism,” said an article in L’Osservatore Romano, the newspaper of the Vatican City. It blasted Chris Weitz’s epic adaptation, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, as “the most anti-Christmas film possible.”

The paper described the $180 million production as “the enemy of all religions — traditional and institutional — and of Christianity and Catholicism,” despite the editing out of much of the religious content deemed too controversial for the big screen.

Pullman, a self-described atheist, according to Christianity Today, has rebelled against his Church of England upbringing but denies any attempt to influence young readers through his writing.

“The director makes his or her own choices,” Cohen said. Compared to the novel, she added, in the movie “the religious themes were toned way down so that the film would have more of a chance.”

One of the major ways in which the film differs from the novel is its ending. In the movie, the main character, a young girl named Lyra, escapes unharmed from a great battle and journeys onward, ready to start another adventure. By contrast, the book doesn’t end with the battle but continues further. Lyra discovers more information about “Dust,” with references to Adam and Eve and original sin. The book’s ending is frightening and ambiguous, as gateways between dimensions are opened. Eventually, Lyra’s fate is to be explained in the secondinstallment.

“Somewhat odd to end the film that way,” Cohen said. She added that the ending of the novel had likely been excluded from the final cut because of Pullman’s references to religion. And she was “much more comfortable taking (her) child to see it” with those changes.

A Columbia Catholic priest said he is worried about the movie, which he sees as part of a trend of popular stories attacking Christianity.

“Call them fantasy or not, they are stridingly anti-religious ... knocking belief,” said the Rev. Jeremy Secrist, associate pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes.

Secrist said he sees danger in the “sugar-coating” of the needlessness of God within fantasy stories. He called the release of the film right before Christmas “ironic” and a “very inappropriate” scheme to cause controversy.

Secrist also suggested there is a possible threat that children who see the film would denounce religious values. The book has been banned from some school libraries across the world. According to reports in the Toronto Star, Canada’s Halton’s Catholic District School Board banned “The Golden Compass” and removed the following two installments of the trilogy from every Catholic school library affiliated with their organization as a precaution.

Christian groups have ridiculed Pullman for his glamorization of magic and depiction of non-wicked witches. Ultimately, however, it is the villainous portrayal of the church as a power-hungry authority, kidnapping children that has stirred most of the international criticism of “The Golden Compass.” An article in Catholic Online calls the book “some propaganda piece of atheism” in which “the main enemy is the Church.”

The film rides the wave of popularity of several fantasy stories that base their plots around magic and wizardry.

For example, the difficult time of growing up and how it can undermine religious values is also explored in “The Chronicles of Narnia” but from a different perspective. In the final book of the series, writer and devout Protestant C.S. Lewis describes one of his main characters, Susan Pevensie, as “no longer a friend of Narnia,” a mythical world that often alludes to heaven. This loss results from her choice of “lipstick, nylons and invitations.”

By contrast, her siblings chose to remain in Narnia with Aslan, a noble lion who, according to Beliefnet columnist Ben Witherington III, was Lewis’s choice to represent the character of Jesus Christ in the books.

Both Pullman and J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter fantasy saga, don’t quite agree with the Narnia approach.

In his Christianity Today interview, Pullman said that he detests “The Chronicles of Narnia” and that the “His Dark Materials” trilogy offers alternative answers to the “big questions” raised in both his and Lewis’s books. Questions, he said, such as “is there a God?” and “what must I do to be good?”

Rowling also believes there is nothing wrong with puberty and the changes it brings.

“There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. ... I have a big problem with that,” Rowling said in an online Time article. In her own books, Rowling said she really wanted her “heroes to grow up” and used this natural change for effective character growth.

In her own rise to success, Rowling has had to deny claims that her novels are tools for manipulating children.

Cohen, who is set to teach a course called “Religion and Magic: An exploration of the Harry Potter books,” said many believe Rowling has hidden Christian and even Wiccan subtexts in her writing. It is these Christian activists that have banned Harry Potter books from many school reading lists around the world, she said.

The books have even been destroyed in burning protests. Secrist said such acts are “extreme” and do “no good either.”

Ultimately, these religious protestors are only “small pockets of people,” said Richard Callahan, assistant professor of religious studies at MU. His area of expertise is religion in America.

“Some of them just have louder voices than others,” Callahan said, adding that media’s coverage of such concerned minorities misleads people to perceive a war between religion and fantasy fans.

As New Age beliefs continue to influence society, it is likely that they will set new values along with already established ones. And history shows that not only charismatic prophets can give birth to a new religion.

The Web site for the Church of Scientology says that this religion was born from the exploration of a 1950s science fiction book, “Dianetics” by L. Ron Hubbard. One can only speculate about what book might be the next one to be embraced as a new religion.

Callahan said fantasy books “probably are influencing people.” But are they dangerous? “No,” he said.

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James Lightfield January 11, 2008 | 1:49 p.m.

Your article contains a remarkably inaccurate statement. Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health is a text book.

It is the book that any two people can read and at once start using these remarkable effective methods to become free of the influence of past traumas.

Dianetics was first announced in two magazines. The first, was the New York Explorer's Club Journal. The Explorer's Club is the world's most respected organization whose membership is comprised of explorers who made signficiant contributions to society. Hubbard was a member.

He twice carried the Explorer's flag (an exeedingly prestigious honor) on two of his expeditions.

The second public announcement of Dianetics was "Dianetics: Evolution of a Science" that detailed his research and development (1930-1949). Now a book, this was originally published in a science-fiction magazine. Anyone who knows the history of science-fiction knows that during SciFi's Golden Age (1930-1950's) the largest group of fans was composed of top scientists, both theoretical and practical. You have to have a good background in science to predict future technologies. That's what science ficiton is: a story that has as an important part a vision of future scientific technologies.

Hubbard was very close with leading scientists, particularly those at MIT and Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL).

Every leading government has a department that reads science-fiction to get ideas for technological advancement.

Hubbard is now the most translated author on earth. His effective methods to resolving problems are now being used by millions of non-Scientologists. See: (RESULTS page) to see and hear social, relgious and political leaders praise Hubbard and Scientology for their contributions to helping society.

(Report Comment)
Jerald Rowlett January 11, 2008 | 4:28 p.m.

You leave out that most doctor's and therpist's say dianetics is a jumk science James. You also left out the very dark and evil history of scientology.

As for the millions of non-scientologist using this silly stuff..... you guys can't keep track of how many members you have much less those outside of scientology who may read a book somewhere.

But you may not know this so why not visit to see the court and public records of the evil scientology has done over the years.

Or better yet visit to see video's of the many news programs and public hearings about scientology. You can even see many of the members of scientology in action.
And best of all you can see the South Parks that drove scientology nuts.

(Report Comment)
James Lightfield January 11, 2008 | 6:30 p.m.

Drug pushing "therapists" oppose Dianetics, which is a non-drug, non-hypnosis proven effective solution that any person of average intelligence can learn and use. Of course psychs opposed Dianetics. It would reduce their cash flow -- 99 percent of their income comes from our taxes and insurance premiums.

The AMA that represents only 33 percent of all medical doctors has ALWAYS opposed alternative wellness therapies -- going so far as trying to get a law passed that would require a person to get a prescription to buy vitamins.

The drug companies have to keep the value of their stock going up by getting more people labled with "chemical imbalance" enabling drug companies to sell more drugs -- ideally for a lifetime for each person diagnosed. Then there's the combination of "meds" and the endless years of "therapy."

Of course drug companies oppose Dianetics and Scientology.

Combined annual revenue of the psychiatric and drug industries now total $2 Trillion.

That immense cashflow translates to media influence and control.

In the US alone, more than $2.7 billion a year is spent by drug companies to promote "chemical imbalance" -- that now has been recongized by leading doctors as not based on any real science. There's no pathology to measure. Just opinion of those who make money labeling people with psychiatric "disorders."

Dianetics and Scientology provide workable solutions. Everyting else is smoke and mirrors by vested interests creating negative PR.

The number of non-Scientologists using Hubbard's solutions is accelerating. One example: Every prison in Israel now uses L Ron Hubbard's criminal rehabilitation program because of its superb results. More info:

(Report Comment)
Jerald Rowlett January 11, 2008 | 9:10 p.m.

Everything else is smoke and mirrors James? First off just who are those leading doctor's you are writeing about?
As for negative PR, maybe you can tell the readers here about scientology Black PR. Or better yet they can see for themselves if they use their search bar...

scientology and crimes
scientology and the internet
scientology and snow white
scientology and harrasement

And please try to use links that are not from scientology. They have a long history of not being truthfull in their websites. Such as when they claimed the VT shooter was on meds before ANYONE even knew the young mans name. Or the fact that the VM's claimed to have been asked for help from the school and the Red Cross when both say they did no such thing.

In fact why not google scientology and 9/11 to see how this group acted during that time.

Negative PR James? No its the truth about the evil scientology does around the world. Funny how you had nothing to say about the court and public records at the site or the video's on the site. But then its kinda hard to spin the facts when they are in your face.

Again please tell us the names of these leading doctors that feel todays treatments are not real. This is the best treatment based on the best science of this day and age. And scientology treatments just don't work. But scientology knows this and thats why they won't open it up to public and peer review. Far better to charge thousands of dollars.

And tell us James. What insurance pays for scientology treatments? Not just mental health, but also the drug treatment program that scientology claims has a 80 % or better success rate. Yet another scientology treatment program not open for peer or public review that cost thousands of dollars.

(Report Comment)
James Lightfield January 12, 2008 | 6:44 a.m.

L Ron Hubbard Sauna Detox

Apparently, detractors of the Hubbard detox method do not know that independent, peer-reviewed, mainstream scientific evidence supporting this method does indeed exist, and continues to gain momentum in respected scientific circles. A sampling of independent research (not connected to Scientology or Scientologists) which references and supports the Hubbard sauna detox method includes the following:

RESEARCH PAPERS (available at the medical research website):

Altern Ther Health Med. 2007 Mar-Apr;13(2):S154-6. Components of practical clinical detox programs--sauna as a therapeutic tool. Crinnion W.
Environmental Medicine Center of Excellence, Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Arizona, USA. J Altern Complement Med. 1998 Spring;4(1):77-86.
Chemical sensitivity after intoxication at work with solvents: response to sauna therapy. Krop J. St. Joseph's Health Centre, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

"Sauna Therapy" (Lawrence Wilson, MD); "Detoxify or Die" (Sherry A. Rogers, MD); "Sauna Detoxification Therapy" (Marilyn G. McVicker).

MOST IMPORTANT: The results experienced by those who have become free of the adverse affects of toxins. Read some of their experiences:

Philadelphia Inquirer

Utah Pays for Meth Police Treatment,2933,3123...

(Report Comment)
James Lightfield January 12, 2008 | 7:07 a.m.

Depression: The myth of "Chemical Imbalance"

With another 250+ psychs found guilty of crimes -- including insurance fraud, rape and child molestation just in in the past year -- thanks to the worldwide efforts of CCHR ( -- founded by the Church of Scientology to expose psych human rights abuses ), even the president of the American Psychiatric Association has to do damage control.

The old story: Exposed, the head psych says, "Oh, we're going to clean up our act."

(Report Comment)
Christopher Blackwell January 12, 2008 | 10:08 a.m.

Well I see the religious people are all in a panic. Keep it up and you will make this movie at least as popular as the Harry Potter series which I also learned about because of the uproar by some religious people.

I, like so many people, would have never heard of the trilogy but for the uproar of the religious people and as a result will look forward to seeing the movie version of Golden Compass.

I am sure the author is grateful for the religious people keeping his books and movies in the news and will laugh all the way to the bank as a result of their help in getting the word out. Free advertisement is priceless.

(Report Comment)
Richard Callahan January 12, 2008 | 3:19 p.m.

While it may be true that "church leaders across the world have condemned it as a damaging influence on young audiences," other church leaders have not condemned the film. And what church are we talking about? Some specificity on this matter is important, I think, otherwise the statement can't help but be an overgeneralization.

Here's one Catholic educated religion professor who feels that the film, and the books on which it is based, are not only religious (as against to the claim that they oppose religion), but in fact they are quite Christian:

Some Christians will surely object to this view, but others will surely agree with it. And that simple fact means that the controversy is not simply about the film being anti-religion, but about debates within Christianity concerning the boundaries of orthodoxy.

(Report Comment)

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