Can fiction be a danger to faith? This is the implication of the growing furor over Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Material” trilogy and the film adaptation of the “The Golden Compass,” the first volume of that trilogy.
Most liberals scoff at this notion: If one’s faith can be shattered or even wounded by a novel then it was a pretty flimsy faith to begin with. True enough, but it misses a much more interesting point: One person’s fiction IS another person’s faith.
I am watching the You-Tube Republican debates on CNN and cannot help but think of Governor Mitt Romney’s faith in what the vast majority of his fellow Americans consider the fiction that is the Book of Mormon. Or of Governor Mike Huckabee’s faith in what most of the world’s peoples believe to be another great piece of fiction, the Gospels. And then there are the great narratives of the Hebrew Bible and the Bhagavad Gita.
So, please don’t scoff at faith when it feels threatened by fiction. Fiction is one of the most powerful tools humans have to explore and explicate the perennial concerns that haunt us: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? And Why? Fiction, far more than any other form of discourse, has the power to change minds.
Look at Sartre, Camus, Kafka, and Ayn Rand to name but four. Their stories carry their truths in ways no other vehicle can. Look at Jesus: Why did he tell stories instead of delivering theological lectures? Parables, story, myth are the timeless teaching tools of humanity. Whether these are spoken, printed, or enacted on stage, screen, or radio—is secondary; it is the story itself that matters.
So do Christians have a point when they worry about the power of “The Golden Compass” to make their children think outside the box of their religious tradition? Yes, they do. They know the power of story to transform lives, and they themselves are devoted to promoting their story over and against the stories of others in order to do just that. Of course they insist their fiction is fact and all other so-called facts are only fictions, but that is just the politics of piety. The truth is that story matters.
I celebrate the power of fiction to help us think. I am not afraid of fiction because I am not afraid of thinking. I want people to be free to entertain any idea they wish. I just want them educated in such a way as to empower them to do so rationally.
The best response to “The Golden Compass” isn’t to hide from it as so many Christian leaders are urging; this only says that their fiction is weaker than its fiction. Rather we all should use the film as a catalyst for deep conversations about the issues it raises. You don’t respond to story by blocking your ears, but by telling more powerful stories.