Thursday, January 31, 2008

Monday, January 28, 2008

Gorilla's and religious activity

Check out this post by my friend and chaplain to Flinders University, Geoff Boyce. He suggests a very provocative question at the end of his post that links ’sustained, highly focussed religious endeavour[s]’, pornography, and seeing gorillas! You can read his blog post here.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Announcing: 'A Theology of Inclusivism' by Neal Punt

I’d like to let Thinking Christian readers know of the imminent publication of a highly significant book. To do that, I have reproduced the author’s latest email promoting the book. I have been reading Neal Punt’s work since I first read an article by him in an ancient Christianity Today article. I have read all his books up until now. His perspective on salvation is an absolute must for consideration by all thinking Christians! Although I don’t necessarily agree with everything Neal says, his basic thesis and supporting biblical premises have truly taught me how the gospel is really about grace. I highly recommend Neal’s writings. Make sure you check out the Related Links at the end of the reproduced email. Please note that I have reformatted Neal’s post to be consistent with my blog’s formatting. I hope you don’t mind, Neal!

The new book A Theology of Inclusivism (265 pages) by Neal Punt, with a forward by Dr Richard J Mouw (see it below), President of Fuller Theological Seminary, will soon appear (7 February 2008) ISBN: 978-0-945315-46-9


’This will be one of the most important publications of our time. Not necessarily an easy read, but clear. I absorbed his previous book What’s Good About the Good News? and it changed my entire perspective about salvation-while answering many questions I had never been able to resolve’ (Don Hawley, 18 January 2008) The following endorsements relate to the book What’s Good About the Good News? [also by Neal Punt.] This new book, A Theology of Inclusivism, is based on the same biblical facts: Dr F F Bruce: ’I read your book What’s Good About the Good News? with great interest. Your position is very much my own. Your exposition of the subject is thoroughly in line with the insight: "Admittedly Christ is much more powerful to save than Adam was to ruin."’ ’I wish your work a wide circulation; it will stimulate much fresh thought on this important subject.’ Dr Henry Stob: ’This book is stimulating, instructive, and true to the gospel. Neal Punt is to be commended for opening up the Scriptures in a new and exciting way.’ Dr Lewis Smedes: ’I want to tell you that I admire what you are doing and am thankful for it. You are rescuing us from dogmatic determinism and saving us from presumptuous universalism. Your mission is needed and can only do us much good.’ Dr Lester DeKoster (Former editor of The Banner and life-long student of John Calvin): ’Pastor Neal Punt has skillfully shifted the focus of a long disputed doctrine in his What’s Good About The Good News? He has made what is too often speculative theology into a pastoral admonition applicable to all. Salvation is validated in obedience to the will of God; this is the fruit of election. Disobedience is the deliberate and willful rejection of God’s will. Persistent disobedience finds its ultimate consequence in damnation.’ ’Except for such as persistently defy God’s will, the Bible teaches that Christ’s atoning sacrifice is for all. Thus in Punt’s hands the old election/reprobation tension is resolved into a positive call for the truly Christian life.’ Dr Edward Wm Fudge: ’Are people lost unless saved, or saved unless lost? Neal Punt offers compelling scriptural evidence for the second statement. This simple (but profound) shift in vision magnifies God’s grace, highlights Christ’s atonement, encourages evangelism, helps bridge the gap between Calvinists and Arminians and generates an authentic welcoming spirit toward those who do not yet know Christ. Evangelical Inclusivism is a study that will enrich your heart and mind.’ Dr Neal Plantinga, Jr:What’s Good About the Good News? presents a generous and thoughtful perspective on the gospel. More important, it offers a spacious and impressive portrait of God. My impression is that it has already done some good in provoking fresh thinking about the ways and means of salvation -- and especially about the character of God.’ Dr Alexander C DeJong: ’When one tries to explicate with theological precision the gracious character, the God-glorifying content, the eschatological urgency of gospel preaching, together with the biblical warrant for that preaching, he understakes a demanding task. Punt adds a fresh, important, and attractive dimension to the continuing discussion. We owe it to ourselves to consider seriously this unique contribution of Rev. Punt.’ Pastor Robert J Wieland: ’This Good News premise comes across from Punt’s pages like a fresh wind that almost take one’s breath away. But the Biblical evidence which he marshals is impressive, and strongly suggests that the apostles turned their world upside down with a Gospel that contained considerably better Good News than our version of it convey today.’ ’Here is a book that will challenge keen theologians; but it is so clearly and simply written that it will also warm the hearts of lay readers. That too is very good news.’ Retail Price - $14.95 plus $3.50 S & H, total $18:45.

  • Discount if ordered directly from Northland Books: Single copy 20% off retail, $11.96 plus $3.00 S & H total $14.96 if you live in US.
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  • Foreword by Dr. Richard J. Mouw
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 The So-called "Universalistic"Texts
  • Chapter 2 Those Who Will Be Finally Lost
  • Chapter 3 All Are . . . Some Are Not
  • Chapter 4 Objective and Subjective Salvation
  • Chapter 5 Isn’t Faith Necessary?
  • Chapter 6 Back To The Early Church
  • Chapter 7 One Bible For All People
  • Chapter 8 Motivation For Missions Or Why Preach?
  • Chapter 9 The Message Of Missions Chapter 10 Grace Proclaimed Before Confession Is Heard
  • Chapter 11 The Christian Reformed Church’s View Of All
  • Those Who Will Be Lost
  • Chapter 12 Evangelical Inclusivism In The Old Testament
  • Chapter 13 1 Timothy 4:10 Misused
  • Chapter 14 Examining the So-called "Universalistic" Texts
  • Chapter 15 A Segment Of Protestant Inclusivism
  • Chapter 16 John Calvin’s "Unlimited" Atonement
  • Chapter 17 Will Only Covenant Members Be Saved?
  • Chapter 18 It Makes A Difference
  • Chapter 19 Restoring Hell by Dr. Edward Fudge
  • Chapter 20 The Need For Self-Esteem
  • Chapter 21 Tiessen’s "Accessibilism"
  • Chapter 22 Will Only A Few Be Saved?
  • Chapter 23 Responding To Christian Renewal
  • Chapter 24 The 1985 Heresy Trial
  • Chapter 25 Christianity Today Article


Several years ago I heard a lecture by the Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama, in which he observed that we all need to make a basic decision in our approach to theological questions. Either we assume, he said, "a stingy God or a generous God." This was a helpful insight for me. It is not difficult to find passages in both the Bible and the Reformed confessions where it seems like we are being given a picture of a divine stinginess. But there are also many passages where we are provided with wonderful promises of divine generosity. The question for those of us, who take the Scriptures as the infallible Word from God, while also viewing the Reformed confessional documents as reliable guides to the teachings of that Word, is this: how do we square the stingy-sounding passages with the generous-sounding ones? Neal Punt’s writings have been a marvelous gift to those of us in the Calvinistic tradition who take our stand on the side of divine generosity. And, truth be told, his treatment of the texts has also been a gift of sorts to those who disagree with him. One theologian who has been severely critical of those of us whom he sees as going too far in the direction of generosity once confided to me that he has learned much from wrestling with the challenges posed by Neal Punt. "He helps to keep people like me honest," he confessed. In my own case, Neal Punt hasn’t just kept me honest. He has helpfully instructed me in the truth by convincing me that he has the right "take" on the basics of Reformed theology. I have never been able to embrace the kind of universalism that teaches that all human beings will be saved in the end. That sort of theology is simply impossible for me to square with the biblical message. But I do want to leave a lot of theological room for the mysterious ways of a God who has promised that where sin abounds grace much more abounds. Punt has helped me to stay within the bounds of biblical orthodoxy while relying on the promises of an abundant divine generosity. Reverend Punt has never been one who is content to consign the stinginess-generosity dilemma to the area of "tensions" and "paradoxes." While pointing us to the grace-abounding strains in the Scriptures, he has also struggled mightily-some would say indefatigably-with all of those texts that might seem on the face of it to be a problem for his view. I will never forget, for example, the sense of profound relief I experienced when I finished reading for the first time his treatment of the Matthew 7: 13-14 passage about the broad road that leads to the destruction versus the narrow path that only a few will find. Not only did his careful exposition convince me that there is a way of fitting this into an overall generosity perspective, but I actually sensed that he had laid out the most plausible interpretation of that passage in its context. In this important book, Neal Punt puts it all together. He summarizes the work of many decades of formulating his case, and he also gives a fair and careful account of the objections that others have lodged against the perspective that he has developed. As I write this I have just read a report of a public poll taken of the younger generation’s attitudes toward Christianity. The majority of those questioned view Christianity as a narrow-minded, mean-spirited religion. In this book Neal Punt sets forth the perspective that can correct that perception. I hope that his case for a generous God shapes the minds and hearts of many! Richard J. Mouw President and Professor of Christian Philosophy Fuller Theological Seminary Related Links

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Movie Review: The Golden Compass

golden-compassWell... I have finally seen The Golden Compass - the movie adaptation of the first in Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials. In my view, it is an excellent adaptation of the book despite the occasional reordering of some events to make the movie move along at a better pace. Lyra Belarcqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is a 12 year old girl who has to travel through parallel universes in order to rescue her best friend and contend with evil. Because I have already reviewed the book on which this film is based, I won’t repeat all that is there. (You can read my review here.) As many have said, The Golden Compass movie has diluted the specifically anti-Christian themes in the first book instead focusing more on the issue of authoritarianism and the way that institutional authority often oppresses thought and truth. In fact, in one of the dialogues in the film, one of the characters says that a war is coming and that the war is over the issue of free will. For Pullman, Christianity, in particular, has oppressed freedom of choice and the pursuit of truth. The explicit references to the biblical story of the Fall and other Christian ideas are missing from the film. I am currently reading the second book of the trilogy and the anti-Christian sentiments become increasingly explicit. (I’ll leave discussion of these for my review of that book in the near future.) In this sense, those who have criticised the movie for cutting out the "soul" of Pullman’s first book are correct, although the film still remains a highly relevant critique of authoritarianism. What will be interesting to see, however, is how this dilution can be maintained in future episodes of the movie sequence given that these themes become increasingly more strident and stronger and Pullman’s agenda is explicitly anti-Christian. The Golden Compass is enjoyable viewing. Dakota Blue Richards is a delight in her role as Lyra and Nicole Kidman is excellent as Mrs Coulter - the agent of the Magisterium - the church-like organisation suppressing the "truth" about Dust (see my book review for explanations of these terms). The special effects are great and those who take their children to see the movie will have a lot to talk about when it is over. We now look forward to the second movie which, according to the director, he wants to be more iconoclastic (Christianity Today Movies). If this is true, then we can look forward to a much more ruthless criticism of Christianity and Pullman’s negative view of its influence in history. My Rating: **** (out of 5) Positive Review ’A darker, deeper fantasy epic than the "Rings" trilogy, "The Chronicles of Narnia" or the "Potter" films. It springs from the same British world of quasi-philosophical magic, but creates more complex villains and poses more intriguing questions. As a visual experience, it is superb. As an escapist fantasy, it is challenging.’ - Roger Ebert/Chicago Sun-Times Negative Review ’The final sad joke is this: Weitz took a wonderful story about the danger of severing a soul from its otherwise empty body and did that very thing to his source.’ - Lawrence Toppman/Charlotte Observer AUS: PG (mild fantasy violence - some scenes may frighten young viewers) USA: PG-13 (sequences of fantasy violence) Related Links

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Tom Cruise compared to Goebbels

A little bit more about Tom Cruise ... ’Respected German historian Guido Knopp has compared a speech by US actor Tom Cruise to the Church of Scientology with a call to war by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.’ (Sydney Morning Herald) Read the rest of the article here.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Tom Cruise on Scientology

Check out this bizarre Scientology video where Tom Cruise talks about Scientology. This sort of fanaticism combined with such poor thinking is very, very scary indeed. You can see the video at the Gawker site by clicking here. The moment a believer (in anything) arrogantly asserts to exclusive ownership of the truth it is dangerous. This sort of arrogance usually leads to self-righteous imposition of that truth onto others, an unwillingness to listen other points of view, an inability to learn, and an undermining of the freedom of others to think differently. It is something that we all need to ruthlessly avoid. Related Links

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Vatican paper debates good v evil on Harry Potter (Sydney Morning Herald)

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald has a short story reporting on the debate over Harry Potter going on within the Catholic Church. You can read the story here.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Wayne Grudem Comments on the Clear Word [Bible]

A well-known theologian has weighed in on the issue of The Clear Word, a paraphrase of the Bible printed by a Seventh-day Adventist publishing house (Review & Herald) and distributed in Adventist Book Centers. Wayne Grudem is a Protestant theologian who is the respected author of Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine and many other works. He also served on the committee overseeing the translation of the English Standard Version of the Bible. (BTW, none of this means I agree with his theology - a lot of it I don’t!) Grudem has recently written a brief evaluation of The Clear Word. He writes:
"I do not think anyone should trust The Clear Word as a reliable translation of the Bible, or even as a useful paraphrase. It repeatedly distorts the teaching of the Bible. It removes significant content that is in the original Hebrew or Greek, and adds new ideas that are not found in the original texts. Verse after verse has been changed simply to support unusual Seventh-day Adventist doctrines, but these changes are not supported by reliable translations such as the KJV, NKJV, ESV, NASB, RSV, or NIV, or even by dynamic equivalence translations such as the New Living Translation or free paraphrases such as The Message. I was deeply troubled as I read various verses because it was clear that these verses were no longer the words of God only, but the words of God mixed in with many words of man, and ordinary readers of The Clear Word will not be able to tell the difference." (Wayne Grudem, Ph.D., Research Professor of Bible and Theology Phoenix Seminary, Phoenix, AZ
You can read the original document here. Related Links

Monday, January 07, 2008

Book Review: How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth

How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding and Using Bible VersionsThe issue of Bible translations has been a perennially controversial one for many Christians - particularly those on the more conservative end of the believer spectrum. For some, the only legitimate translation is the King James Version (KJV) and there has been a good deal of ink spilled over the alleged distortions of modern versions that depart from the manuscripts on which the KJV was based. Much of this controversy is based on misinformation and distortion of the reality of translation. At last, there is a well-written, easy-to-understand, balanced, informative, practical book on the whole topic. Gordon D Fee (How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth; How to Read the Bible Book by Book) has teamed up with Mark L Strauss (Distorting Scripture?) to bring us How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding and Using Bible Versions. Whatever you have read on this topic before, this book is worthy of your consideration. The authors have divided their discussion up into 5 parts:
  1. The Task of Translation - where the need for and the meaning and task of translation is described and discussed.
  2. Making Words Work - covering the actual process of what translators do when they try to translate words, figurative language into English. They also discuss the problem the Greek genitive. A whole chapter is devoted to this important problem.
  3. Translation and Culture - discusses the implications of trying to understand the original meaning of the text in ancient cultures and making them meaningful and impactful in English.
  4. Other Translation Issues - covering the issue of the "original text" (is it possible to know what it really was?) and questions of how the Bible is presented insofar as style and format are concerned (issues not usually covered but which, it turns out, are pretty important).
  5. The Bible in English - a brief history of the Bible in English and a survey of some of the more well-known contemporary versions available.
The book is rounded off with a helpful glossary of technical terms. At only 170 pages, this is an extremely helpful little book. The essential thesis is that the incredible range of modern Bible translations is a great blessing to the church. Understanding more about biblical translation allows the reader to make use of this gift in a balanced, positive way. Fee and Strauss provide a very useful continuum on which they map the Bible translations. It ranges from what is called formal equivalent translations (e.g. New American Standard Bible, KJV, New Revised Standard Version) which try to find a word-for-word equivalence between the biblical languages and English. At the other end of the spectrum are the functional equivalent translations (e.g. The Message and the New Living Translation). These translations attempt to convey the original meaning of the text, including its emotional impact, in English by rendering the meaning using modern metaphors, words, and grammar. In between these two are what the authors call the mediating translations (e.g. New International Version and the New English Translation) which attempt to strike a balance between the two ends of the continuum. Fee and Strauss recommend that readers should choose a selection of translations from each category on the continuum depending on their purpose for reading or studying. The authors, in their book, provide all the information and guidelines one needs to make the best choices. They are not prescriptive believing that it is up to each person to make these choices for themselves. They do, however, let the reader know of their own personal recommendations. How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth is one of the best (if not the best) book I have read on this subject. D A Carson, who has written on this topic himself) has said, ’Yet another book on translation? Yes, and this is the one I shall now recommend.’ I agree. Whatever you might already think about the issue of Bible translations, get this book and read it! It will enrich your appreciation of the unprecedented tapestry of Bible translations we have available to us. Purchase How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding and Using Bible Versions Related Links

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Atheist

An atheist was walking through the woods. ’What majestic trees’! ’What powerful rivers’! ’What beautiful animals’! He said to himself. As he was walking alongside the river, he heard a rustling in the bushes behind him. He turned to look. He saw a 7-foot grizzly bear charge towards him. He ran as fast as he could up the path. He looked over his shoulder & saw that the bear was closing in on him. He looked over his shoulder again, & the bear was even closer. He tripped & fell on the ground. He rolled over to pick himself up but saw that the bear was right on top of him, reaching for him with his left paw & raising his right paw to strike him. At that instant the Atheist cried out, ’Oh my God!’ Time Stopped. The bear froze. The forest was silent. As a bright light shone upon the man, a voice came out of the sky. ’You deny my existence for all these years, teach others I don’t exist and even credit creation to cosmic accident.’ ’Do you expect me to help you out of this predicament? Am I to count you as a believer’? The atheist looked directly into the light, ’It would be hypocritical of me to suddenly ask you to treat me as a Christian now, but perhaps you could make the BEAR a Christian?’ ’Very Well,’ said the voice. The light went out. The sounds of the forest resumed. And the bear dropped his right paw, brought both paws together, bowed his head & spoke: ’Lord bless this food, which I am about to receive from thy bounty through Christ our Lord, Amen.’

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Steve's Book Roundup - 2007

Check out my personal book roundup for 2007. You will find all the books I read in 2007 listed from best to worst. You can find the list here.

My movie roundup - 2007

Check out my personal movie roundup for 2007. You will find all the movies I saw in 2007 (all 163!) listed from best to worst, their genre, my rating (out of 10), and at least one link to more information about each one. You can find the list here.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Book Review: The Golden Compass/Northern Lights

I’ve just finished reading Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (published outside of North America as Northern Lights) and what a fantastic read it is! In reviewing The Golden Compass, here’s what I plan to cover: 1) the basic narrative arc to give you an idea of the basic plot; 2) a brief discussion of the main concepts (theological/philosophical) that the author includes in the narrative; and 3) a response to the controversy the book has raised within some Christian circles. The basic narrative The Golden Compass is the first of a trilogy by Philip Pullman entitled His Dark Materials. This first volume has recently been released as a movie called The Golden Compass. I have only read the first volume so far and I haven’t yet seen the movie. So my comments will primarily be related to the book I have read. I plan to read the rest of the trilogy and see the movie so will comment on those later. The story revolves around Lyra Belacqua, an orphaned 12-year old girl who lives at Jordan College. She secretly enters the Retiring Room and sees the attempted poisoning of Lyra’s uncle, Lord Asriel, by the Master of Jordan College. After avoiding the poisoning, Lyra’s uncle shows photographs he has taken of elementary particles he has been investigating called Dust. Her uncle then returns to the North where he is engaged in experiments related to Dust. Shortly afterwards, Lyra’s friend, Roger, is abducted by the Gobblers who are part of children’s mythology. Lyra decides she is going to rescue Roger - and so begins her adventures. Before Lyra leaves the College, she is entrusted with an alethiometer - a sort of cross between a lie detector and a crystal ball. As she travels on her journey, she inductively learns how to read it and makes use of it in her journey. During the story, Lyra learns about a church organisation called the "General Oblation Board" which turns out to be the reality behind the Gobblers myth. The General Oblation Board are terrified of the implications of Dust which seems to be particularly attracted to adults. So, in their attempts to control Dust, they begin experimenting on abducted children to prevent them from becoming aware of Dust as they grow up. This they try to accomplish be separating children from their daemons. Daemons are physical manifestation of a person’s soul/personality and take various physical forms and reveal the inner life of a person. The General Oblation Board are trying to work out ways of separating the daemon from the person so that they will be able to control the growing awareness of humans to Dust. Lyra discovers this and more as she seeks to rescue Roger. There is, of course, much more to the story and I have been deliberately minimalist so that I don’t spoil the plot surprises for readers. The Golden Compass is profoundly rich in ideas - theological, philosophical, religious. This has led to considerable controversy which I will discuss below after surveying the major concepts in the novel. The major concepts in The Golden Compass Integral to the story of The Golden Compass are a number of concepts that raise profound questions about the nature of reality, human nature, theology, science, the organised Christian church, and much more. These concepts are explained as part of the experience of discovery that Lyra undergoes on her adventure. But when discussing the book, it is important to know what they are. Here are just a few to give readers a sense of their significance.
  • Daemons (pronounced the same as "demons") In Pullman’s novels, daemons are a physical manifestation of a person’s soul. It takes the form of an animal and, when a person is a child, can take on many forms. As a person grows older, the daemon gradually settles into one form. As this settling takes place, it leads the person to greater awareness, wisdom, and knowledge. Although a person’s daemon is a distinct entity, they are inseparably connected and form one identity - two bodies, one person. In the story, these daemons have characteristics drawn from many cultures and religions. For example, daemons usually are of the opposite sex to their human counterpart - obviously an allusion to the Jungian concepts of anima and animus.
  • Dust Dust is a fictional form of "dark matter". It is an elementary particle that is invisible to the human eye and has its own consciousness. Because Dust is attracted to people and the objects made by people, the Church is particularly interested in it which believes that it is a manifestation of original sin. As the trilogy progresses, we will learn that Dust brings consciousness, knowledge, and wisdom. The Church wishes to control Dust for obvious reasons. The concept of Dust is explicitly linked to the story of the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis which is quoted as part of a conversation Lyra’s uncle has with her. Dust also has allusions to the Buddhist concept of "dust" where the term refers to sensation, knowledge, and entanglement in worldy things which prevents enlightenment.
  • Intercision Intercision is a fictional operation that separates a daemon from their human. Because the Church believes that daemons "settle" into one form at puberty and, thus, brings awareness of Dust (original sin), it believes that separating the daemon from the human will prevent contamination by original sin and, therefore, prevent sinful thoughts such as sex, homosexuality, etc. In the first novel, the Church has developed two approaches to separating the daemon from the human - the second, more effective and less traumatic way, is called intercision. (I will leave readers to discover how it is done by reading the novel!) Significantly, intercision is discovered to have some useful side effects, one being the production of huge amounts of energy that enable travel between parallel universes.
  • Parallel universes Central to the novels is the existence of parallel universes. Parallel universes are "replicas" of our own world where all the possible alternatives are played out as a result of free will, natural events and consequences. Lyra travels between these worlds throughout the trilogy. These are just three of the concepts described in the novel and, as you can see, there is an incredible potential to raise profound questions about human nature, religion, epistemology, ontology, and so on. These concepts are superbly integrated into the narrative and, despite their apparent complexity, are not at all difficult to understand as they are explained or experienced by characters in the story. But you can probably see, by now, why the trilogy has generated considerable controversy - to which I now turn.
The controversy Pullman’s trilogy has generated significant controversy. For many Christians, the books are a dangerous polemic against Christianity and promote an atheistic point of view. According to David Yonke:
Mr. Pullman has described himself at various times as either an atheist or an agnostic, but in a recent interview with Donna Freitas for he called himself "a religious man" because he is "preoccupied by the questions religion is preoccupied with," including "Who created the universe?" "What are we here for?" and "What happens when we die?" Mr. Pullman has made it clear that he is not happy with the way religious institutions have answered those questions. He told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2003, for example, that "my books are about killing God," and that he was amused that American Christians have been more critical of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books than His Dark Materials. "I’ve been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything old Harry has said," Mr. Pullman said. He has stated a number of times that he wrote His Dark Materials in part to counter the Christian themes and values woven into C.S. Lewis’ literary children’s classic, The Chronicles of Narnia. That series was the basis for the 2005 blockbuster film, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, grossing more than $740 million worldwide, and a sequel, Prince Caspian, due for release in May. "Pullman’s been pretty upfront that part of his intention is to write sort of the ’anti-Narnia’ story," said Bruce Edwards, a Lewis scholar and professor of English at Bowling Green State University. "I hate the Narnia books, and I hate them with a deep and bitter passion," Mr. Pullman told one interviewer, according to Christian movie guide Plugged-in Online.
Well... that’s all pretty clear. And it is easy to see from the first volume that there are anti-institutionalised Christianity themes. The book’s themes are highly spiritual and it is easy to see how, as the trilogy progresses, the themes may become stronger and more critical of Christianity. But so what? If Christians can produce literature that promotes Christianity, either explicitly or more subtly, then why can’t atheists? What is it about some Christians that think that culture and literature should only reflect what they believe to be legitimate? As Pullman has said, he is interested in the same questions as Christians are -- he just doesn’t like the answers they have come up with and wants to promote rethinking them. And that, as far as I am concerned, is fantastic. As I read The Golden Compass I became quite excited that a piece of literature could be so well written and raise a host of important questions about things that are taken for granted by many people. In my view, there is nothing to fear from this sort of literature. It should make us think, re-evaluate, reformulate, and refine our own understandings. Dialoguing with this literature and any other well-written literature, whatever perspective it comes from, can only serve to help us learn more. David Yonke goes on to report that:
Mr. Donohue [president of the Catholic League] is urging parents to read a booklet published by the Catholic League titled "The Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked," saying that its readers "will be armed with all the ammo they need to convince friends and family members that there is nothing innocent about Pullman’s agenda."
Of course there is nothing innocent about Pullman’s agenda -- just as there is nothing "innocent" about the thousands of children’s books published by Christian publishing houses that promote Christianity and implicitly criticise other perspectives. People like Richard Dawkins are highly critical of Christians "brainwashing" their children from birth to uncritically accept a Christian worldview. Given all this Christian children’s literature, why shouldn’t an atheist produce a children’s story promoting his own views? The Christian has C S Lewis; the atheist has Philip Pullman. David Yonke’s report continues:
Mr. Pullman, in his online interview with Ms. Freitas, said parents "should read the book and trust the book and trust your children. If you brought them up decent, open-minded, wise, and clear-sighted, you don’t need to worry about them turning into little monsters or little atheists or anything."
Now here’s the rub. How many Christian children are, in fact, brought up open-minded, wise, and clear-sighted. Mr Donohue promotes reading a book against the Golden Compass so that they can ’convince friends and family members that there is nothing innocent about Pullman’s agenda.’ But why not encourage them to read the books for themselves and think critically about the ideas and themes therein? That way, they can come to their own conclusions. Unless, of course, they haven’t been taught to think for themselves about their faith. A number of people, after reading the whole trilogy, are arguing that Pullman, far from being anti-religious, is really anti-control of thought (see, for example, the report in the School Library Journal). And, indeed, when we go to Philip Pullman’s own website, we see this distinction explicitly stated by him. He writes:
Some of the articles and talks I’ve written are to do with the subject of religion, which I think is a very interesting one. The religious impulse – which includes the sense of awe and mystery we feel when we look at the universe, the urge to find a meaning and a purpose in our lives, our sense of moral kinship with other human beings – is part of being human, and I value it. I’d be a damn fool not to. But organised religion is quite another thing. The trouble is that all too often in human history, churches and priesthoods have set themselves up to rule people’s lives in the name of some invisible god (and they’re all invisible, because they don’t exist) – and done terrible damage. In the name of their god, they have burned, hanged, tortured, maimed, robbed, violated, and enslaved millions of their fellow-creatures, and done so with the happy conviction that they were doing the will of God, and they would go to Heaven for it. That is the religion I hate, and I’m happy to be known as its enemy. (Philip Pullman)

We can clearly see from this that, like many atheists, Pullman is deeply disturbed by the darker side of organised religion. And aren’t we all? In the FAQ section of Pullman’s website, he responds to the question: ’His Dark Materials seems to be against organised religion. Do you believe in God?’ His answer:

I don’t know whether there’s a God or not. Nobody does, no matter what they say. I think it’s perfectly possible to explain how the universe came about without bringing God into it, but I don’t know everything, and there may well be a God somewhere, hiding away. Actually, if he is keeping out of sight, it’s because he’s ashamed of his followers and all the cruelty and ignorance they’re responsible for promoting in his name. If I were him, I’d want nothing to do with them.

Now that is a revealing comment. Pullman is essentially an agnostic who is struggling to answer the deep questions that we all ask. But the second paragraph should make us Christians ashamed. It is a for a similar reason that people like John Shelby Spong say that God is not a Christian -- meaning God would not want much that is done in the name of God to be identified with God. So many writers have expressed similar thoughts derived from what they see as a very negative portrayal of God by the Church. For example, Nietzsche has written that ’After coming into contact with a religious man I always feel I must wash my hands.’ So, maybe ... just maybe, Pullman has something important for us Christians to hear. Although I haven’t yet seen the film, apparently the religious themes have been quite diluted in comparison to the book. This, too, has caused concern for some Christians who are arguing that, because the movie is relatively innocuous, people might rush out and buy the books for their kids not realising how "dangerous" the books actually are. Ironically, some atheists have also criticised the movie because they believe the movies have diluted the real message of the books so much that they have lost their heart. What disturbs me so much is the element of fear that seems to drive so much Christian criticism of literature like this. We had the same sort of issues expressed about the Harry Potter books. Fear is a dangerous motivation because it so often ends up with calls to boycott movies, censure literature, or control people by trying to "persuade" them that it is evil and should be avoided in order to prevent contamination of one’s spiritual life. Ironically, this is the very thing that Pullman seems to be criticising about organised Christianity! Instead of fearing literature like this, Christians need to read it, think critically about it, and enter into dialogue with others on the themes it raises. Doing this intelligently is much more likely to bring understanding about spiritual themes than running around in a panic trying to tell everyone to avoid reading or watching it. I thoroughly enjoyed the story and challenges of The Golden Compass/Northern Lights and can’t wait to see the movie and read the rest of the series. Then I want to enter into in-depth discussion about all the ideas that Pullman raises with the hope of learning something about myself, Christianity, atheism, and how to better live my life. Bertrand Russell once said that ’[c]ollective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.’ I hope that we Christians can avoid the collective fear mentality when it comes to important literature and thus avoid the herd ferocity towards atheists. After all, as a German proverb says, ’Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is.’ There is nothing dangerous about The Golden Compass except as we refuse to read, watch, think, discuss, and evaluate the ideas. Pullman is one person who has provided the world with a deeply creative story on themes of great importance. Let’s use his story gratefully as a springboard for thinking and, thus, make our Christianity less likely to be something for which God would be ashamed. We need a robust Christianity that is actually more like the robust Christ we claim to follow. Maybe The Golden Compass can help us to grow into that sort of Christianity. NOTE 1: Much of my knowledge about some of the concepts in the trilogy has come from information generated by NOTE 2: I have heard/read that Books 2 and 3 of the series become much more strident in their "attacks" on Christianity and the Christian understanding of God - to the point where the characters kill God. I cannot comment on this until I have read the books myself. But, readers may find value in perusing some of the material I have linked to below. Related Links