Is ‘The Golden Compass’ an attack on faith?


The controversy surrounding the recently released film, The Golden Compass, is in part because of the author’s avowed atheism and in part because of the message of the film and its potential effect on children.

This is a “fantasy Western,” complete with Sam Elliot in a cowboy hat. There are good guys and bad guys with a confrontation and battle between the two (good wins). In addition to the human beings, there are also demons and witches and goblins — some good and some bad. Compare The Golden Compass to the first Star Wars film and to the Harry Potter series: in all three there are humans and demons and all manner of non-human and supernatural creatures, the adult world is locked in a battle-to-the-death between the forces of good and the forces of evil, and at the center of the story is a child who saves the world from evil.

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The “bad guy” in The Golden Compass — The Magisterium — is clearly the Catholic Church and its hierarchy. Indeed, I found the parallels between the Magisterium and the Church to be rather heavy-handed. Many of the early scenes take place in cathedral-like structures, complete with stained glass windows. The women of the Magisterium wear caps similar to nun’s caps; many of the men wear high collars resembling a priest’s collar. There is a single supreme leader who rules over a sophisticated hierarchy, mostly intent on increasing its power and on dictating “truth” to the masses. There are classrooms supervised by nun-like instructors. Children may not get the connection, but adults surely do.

In this fantasy world, people have souls (called “demons”) that are outside of their bodies in the form of animals. The conversations between a person and his or her demon are like our own internal dialogues. It is the Magisterium’s goal to strip the soul/demon away from the body, leaving the individual without the ability to reason internally and thus without free will.

The most prized and guarded substance is dust, the film’s metaphor for reason. The forces of good are on a quest for this dust; the forces of evil are doing everything in their power to keep the dust from settling on anyone. The forces of good are trying to bring reason and free will to the world. The Magisterium is using all of its considerable power to keep reason from the people and to replace free will with “indecision.”

Judaism celebrates both human reason and the importance of free will. The Golden Compass takes a strong stand against any institution that seeks to deprive human beings of their free will or to try to diminish the importance of reason in our search for truth. This film unfortunately targets the Catholic Church in particular. But its broader message is an attack on all religious (or political) orthodoxies that purport to dictate truth to their adherents. As a Conservative rabbi, I feel that this is a worthy message for our children.

Rabbi Mark Fasman serves Shaare Zedek Synagogue.