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The Golden Compass Controversy

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Should this film be boycotted?

A new 180 million dollar movie based on the first book of Philip Pullman’s best selling trilogy, His Dark Materials, has sparked furious controversy in the Christian world. The fantasy adventure film, The Golden Compass, elicited indignant protest and calls for a world-wide boycott from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

What’s all the fuss about? Should Rabbis and Jewish leaders follow the lead of the Catholic League?

Undeniably, Pullman is an atheist who takes strong issue with any form of organized religion. "When you look at organized religion of whatever sort -- whether it's Christianity in all its variants, or whether it's Islam or some forms of extreme Hinduism -- wherever you see organized religion and priesthoods and power, you see cruelty and tyranny and repression," Pullman said in a 2002 British interview. So his books vilify those who obviously represent the Church and its teachings, rail at authoritarian figures who deny the right to question, and glorify independent thinking and refusal to be intimidated by irrational power.

Throughout the books, which are more popular in Britain than J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels, Pullman refers to the evil Magisterium, the cabal that seeks to control the world for its own nefarious purposes -- a term real-world Catholics use for the teaching authority of the Pope and the bishops of the Church.

New Line Cinema has worked hard to minimize the connection between its villains and Christian counterparts. Any references to the Church have been eliminated. But the idea of unquestioning faith is seriously slandered. What we need to consider seriously, though, is whether the best approach to attacks on faith is the simplistic response that we will deny you the right to be heard.

The power of true faith comes not from avoiding challenges but on confronting doubt and overcoming it.

It wasn’t too long ago that we Jews felt ourselves singled out for negative spotlight by Mel Gibson’s controversial -- and indeed inflammatory -- “The Passion.” Some felt that boycotting the movie to great fanfare would hurt its potential for stirring up anti-Semitism. What we saw instead was a truth Professor Gregory Black has now powerfully documented: “Boycotts generally have driven more people to the box office.”

But it isn’t simply the fact that boycotts are invariably counterproductive that makes this approach so unsound as best defense for attacks against faith. In a world of open ideas, close mindedness cannot survive. True faith, as Maimonides and so many of our greatest thinkers often taught, thrives on questioning; its power comes not from avoiding challenges but on confronting doubt and overcoming it.

When Nobel Prize winner Isaac Rabi was asked to what he attributed his success, he said he always remembered that every day when he came home from school his mother would ask him, “Did you ask any good questions today?” What he imbibed was that we ultimately gain more from questions than answers. Answers bring a subject to a close; questions open us up to ever more profound and deeper understanding. That perhaps more than anything else may explain Jewish genius. From youth we explore the Torah, Talmud and commentaries with inquisitive minds encouraged to ask even when no clear response is in sight. To do otherwise would be to imply that our faith cannot withstand scrutiny, that our commitment to God is so tenuous that it is afraid of critical analysis.

The response to The Golden Compass is a microcosm of a far larger issue that has profound implications for the Jewish world as well. Catholic leaders who make the case for banning the film believe its message is dangerous and therefore must be silenced. But another approach has surfaced in the midst of this brouhaha. The Church of Scotland’s Mission & Discipleship Council declared that the film “provides a golden opportunity to stimulate discussion on a wide range of moral and spiritual issues.” Several prominent Catholics have gone on record as urging believers to see the film so that it serve as spring board for the kind of debate that might bring greater clarity to people’s religious views. Perhaps, some suggest, criticism need not be silenced; far better if it is heard and refuted.

We live in a secular age. Atheists write books trashing religion that have become best sellers. Our culture heaps praises on those who mock spiritual values. Should our response be no more than a fearful refusal to engage them in combat?

Boycotts suggest we know we will lose the battle.

Please understand me well. I don’t make a case for going to see The Golden Compass. I saw the movie in order to address these issues for the article, and frankly I think I could have spent my time far more productively. What I do feel very strongly is that we need to be much more sparing of decreeing unpleasant views off limits. We could accomplish a lot more if we took the time to explain why our faith is so far superior.


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