Friday, February 15, 2008

The Golden Compass Debates

If you've been following movie news, you have probably heard that The Golden Compass is opening this weekend. I'm usually not up on movies because we never get an opportunity to go see them, but this one has received a good deal of press. The movie is based on the first of a trilogy of young adult fantasy novels written by Philip Pullman. The brouhaha surrounding it stems from the author's supposed agenda of deriding Christianity. Several conservative religious groups, including The Catholic League, have urged their members to boycott the movie.

What really bothers me about this particular situation is that the Catholic League has called for this boycott not based on the content of the movie, but because they are afraid that children who see the movie will then want to read the books and therefore be exposed to anti-Christian sentiment.

I have a real problem with this. I think it is irresponsible for anyone, let alone an authoritative organization, to discourage reading. According to a new study released by the National Endowment for the Arts, less than 1/3 of American 13 year olds are daily readers. That is a sad and scary statistic. As a teacher, I know how difficult it can be to get kids to read, particularly the age group for which this book is written and particularly boys, who often like this type of fantasy. I think we need to do all we can to encourage kids to read, even if we don't necessarily love what they're reading, within reason of course.

Several years ago, I taught a young man who just really did not enjoy reading books. He did, however, like to read car magazines. One of my standing assignments for my reading classes was an outside reading project. They were to read at least one book of their choosing each six weeks and complete an assigned project on that book. Now this young man was just not going to read a book, so I met him halfway and allowed him to read a selection of car magazines and prepare a report which advised me on what car I should purchase (my husband and I were planning on buying a new car that spring). The student came back to me with a very detailed and well-researched report that was actually useful in my decision. Now of course I would have preferred he read a book, but all that really mattered to me was that he was reading something. I could use with that and gradually work him in to books he might really like. My point is that a lot of kids don't like to read and we do a disservice to them when we don't allow them access to materials they might really like and which might spur them to read more.

I also think perhaps people are giving 13 year olds a little too much credit. I have read The Golden Compass and I guess I wasn't paying much attention, but I never picked up on the supposed anti-Christian message. Having now read articles on the controversy, I have learned that the overall theme of the books is metaphorical and characters and events are symbolic of religious institutions. If you can find a 13 year old that reads this book and understands all that, I'll give you a million bucks.

More important of course is the concern that we should all have when institutions try to limit knowledge. That should be a bright red flag for anyone. People, including children, need to be exposed to things they may not agree with. Exposure to new beliefs broadens our world-view and helps us understand and respect that people are all different. Our world is no longer limited to our homogeneous suburban neighborhood. Children need to grow up with a deeply ingrained tolerance for all types of people and all types of beliefs because they will have to interact with these people on a daily basis.

This tolerance is especially important concerning religious beliefs. It scares me when religious groups seek to limit exposure to conflicting views. The most violent and tragic conflicts in the world right now are over religious differences and intolerance. The Christian groups advocating this ban are only a step away from the fundamentalist Islamic groups which ban Bibles or Christian education in their territories. I am sure the Christian groups would disagree with this, but I fail to see much difference.

Children also need exposure to different views because it helps them examine and understand their own views. Questioning this is not bad; it leads to a deeper and more thorough knowledge of yourself. This movie and the book offer the perfect teachable moment for Christian parents to explore with their child their specific beliefs and the reasons behind them. If parents would read and the discuss the books with their child, they could help the child become more secure in his faith. I wish the Catholic League had suggested this instead of an all out boycott.

Finally, I think that Hollywood is irresponsible and greedy when it chooses to market movies like this one to children. I have not seen this movie yet, but the novels are aimed at young adults, meaning teens 13-18. The story line will be above most young children and some of the characters may be very frightening to them.

We've seen a lot of "children's" movies lately that include foul language, adult humour and violence. Shrek is a perfect example of this. In an effort to make as much money as they can, the producers try to appeal to both adults and children. The animation and children's storyline gets families in the theater, and the adult humour and language entertains the parents. The producers can then cash in on all the tie-in products lining the shelves of the nearest toy store.
Parents must be super-vigilent today. PG and G ratings no longer mean movies are automatically safe.

You can read another blogger's opinions and reader commentary here Get In The Car!: The Golden Compass Debates: This Christian Woman Can't Wait to Go .

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