You don't have to be a kiddie lit maven to have heard about the tempest over Friday's theatrical release of "The Golden Compass."
Those who've debated Philip Pullman's award-winning trilogy since the first book's publication in 1995 will tell you they're all riled up about the author's so-called atheist agenda – and its potentially damaging effects on young, impressionable minds. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, urging a boycott, is even promoting a pamphlet called, "The Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked."
That's wasted ink. Because it's not religion that Mr. Pullman takes aim at, but a society in which children are raised in a spiritual and intellectual torpor. Not only does Pullman want kids to think for themselves, but he also respects their ability to do so. And this has the "authorities" on what children should and shouldn't be thinking terrified.
For those who haven't read the trilogy, here's an overview. The three books follow pre-teen protagonists Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry on an epic journey through multiple worlds, harrowing adventures, and the beginnings of puberty.
Lyra and Will undertake this journey for different reasons, but it's soon apparent that one thing is compelling them both. That thing is Dust. And what Dust is – and what it does – has Pullman's dozens of characters choosing sides and suiting up, waging war not just against one another, but for the salvation of all mankind.
Before this battle of battles is over, the Church is crumbling from within, the new Eve has succumbed to temptation, and the Authority is dead.
Fair game for theological debate? Sure. After all, Pullman, a noted British atheist, once told The Washington Post that he was trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief. And though you wouldn't be alone if you took umbrage at this agenda, be careful.
What Pullman is up to – even in his statements to the press – aren't so obvious. For example, the church in his novels may seem to be a Roman Catholic caricature, but he isn't criticizing the Vatican so much as the concept of stifling orthodoxy. Indeed, the theology that threads together nearly every page is but the mask. The face underneath is authoritarian adulthood – and misguided notions about how best to help children grow up.
Today, the process of ushering a child into adulthood generally involves protecting (and then gradually stripping away) that child's innocence by prescribing the "edgy" or "mature" messages that we adults think these pre-adolescents should encounter. Messages about sex, for example. Or darker topics such as abuse.
On some level, adults find these subjects nonthreatening because they qualify as information. The idea is that they help children mature by exposing them to some of our society's darker realities.
What these topics and messages don't do is spark the kind of rigorous, open-minded questioning that defines truly mature thought. They're group-think in disguise. That is to say, they're still what adults – those arbiters of publishing for children – have, collectively, deemed "appropriate." And sadly, what's "appropriate" often sidesteps that which can't just be conveyed as information – the deep intellectual, ethical, and spiritual issues that require children to be thoughtful participants in a dialogue, not just empty vessels waiting to be filled.
Meanwhile, Pullman compels his young readers to do the edgiest thing of all, which is to think for themselves. It's not that he rejects adulthood. Instead, he recasts his best adult characters as interlocutors. And in his wonderful concept of Dust, Pullman gives the players in his trilogy a whole universe of stories and ideas to explore and to try on and, eventually, to settle into.
What we're really dealing with, then, in the Pullman debate is an orthodoxy of thought that's as stifling in its own way as what Galileo – and countless others – have faced throughout history. It's just more insidious today because it exists under the guise of enlightenment.
Pullman himself resists this orthodoxy by speaking through metaphor, thus allowing his readers to make meaning on their own terms. And what better metaphor for set-in-stone, preapproved ways of thinking than organized religion itself?
Indeed, Pullman's God is not the God of religion, but the didactic, authoritarian voice of adulthood. It's the Authority that pays lip-service to free thought, but then limits free thought within the narrowly defined parameters of what it judges comfortable and acceptable. It is this Authority – and not the God of the Bible – that Pullman silences.
What Pullman encourages is unmediated, critical thinking – the only antidote to the mental stupor that today's culture cultivates in young people. And Pullman does so in multiple ways. For example, by turning the familiar story lines of Genesis, Narnia, and the like, on their heads – thereby prompting the reader to reimagine those stories for him- or herself.
In short, Pullman doesn't tell his readers what to think, but how to think. And to think, period. This, I suspect, is what Pullman's critics really find unnerving.
It's hard to imagine that the big-screen adaptation of "The Golden Compass" will do justice to the nuances and intricacies that make the novel so remarkable. What's not hard to imagine, however, is one contingent's reaction to it: That it's not safe for children and should be boycotted.
And to that I say, go ahead and boycott. Just don't pretend it's in the name of religion.
• Jenny Sawyer is a freelance writer and children's literature critic.